Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the 1776 Declaration of Independence that, "All men ... are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." But he supported capital punishment, the taking of life by the state, as a last resort. While there are some popular attempts to make sense of this dilemma ("a murderer has 'forfeited' their right to life") and you could read the statement in the Declaration as mere hyperbole or his capitulation to capital punishment as a compromise, each of these explanations seems problematic. Appeals to common sense will not be sufficient to answer the question.

The question is, what did Jefferson mean by "unalienable" in light of the fact that he supported denying certain people the same right?

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    Did he support capital punishment outside of murder conviction? If not, there seems to be no big contradiction - you merely protect other people's (namely, future victims) right to life.
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 12:59
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    I notice the word after Lide is Liberty... why not focus on Jail instead of Capital Punishment?
    – NPSF3000
    Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 18:32
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    @user4012 But by doing so you terminate the murderer's life. That's not "merely" protecting the other people... is it? If so, some kind of philosophical defense (something consonant with Jefferson's thinking, perhaps Locke) of that notion would do as an answer. Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 5:57
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    @NPSF3000 Well I had to pick one and I picked life. But also, I understand the document to be referring to certain types of liberty, which Madison later explicates (in a limited form) in the Bill of Rights. In jail, liberties are restricted but not terminated (except in cases of cruel and unusual punishment). In capital punishment, life is terminated, not merely restricted. Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 5:59
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    "But by doing so you terminate the murderer's life. That's not 'merely' protecting the other people... is it?" - that's a very modern take on it. The answer may simply be "as forward-thinking and liberal as they were for their time, they were still a product of their time." I mean, he included "Liberty" and had slaves, right? There were some universally accepted views back then that are not universally accepted now. Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 16:45

6 Answers 6


The confusion here is the use of the word alienable, which means non-transferable, not unrestrictable. For Jefferson, as with most of the Founding Fathers, rights were grounded in Natural Law, hence the wording "We hold these truths to be self-evident...." In other words, human rights were a function of "humanness," and not transferred to them, or bestowed upon them by sovereign. They derived this conception of rights from people like Locke, Kant and Rousseau, and stood in opposition to other thinkers like Hobbes.

Interestingly, you focused only on the right to life, but also Jefferson spoke of the right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The "pursuit of happiness" is a direct substitution from Locke, who argued for the rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of property" and in many modern and historical contexts, Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness" is taken as a right to property, too.

In all three cases, Jefferson allowed for the individual abridgability but inalienability of the rights. He believed in capital punishment, imprisonment and taxation, which are all limitations on those rights. What he and the U.S. Constitution—which he did not participate in writing—held was that those rights should only be abridged by due process, which included legislation through elected representatives, and appeal to the courts, before enforcement by the executive. It was the absence of those mechanisms, especially of representative government, that the Declaration of Independence decried, and not the presence of taxation (for example) per se. What the government could not do is "delete" those rights from "man," or state that humanity itself no longer had a right to those things. It was, to him, as much part of human-ness as a heart or a brain.

Another way of saying this is that Jefferson was not an anarchist. Anarchism in most of its varieties rejects any limitations of the rights of individuals, regardless of the mechanism. Jefferson, in contrast, was completely open to limitations on individual liberties—and in this he was thoroughly consistent with Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu by whom he was inspired, who argued in favor of government which could impose limitations on individual rights, but which was itself limited through various mechanisms. Interestingly, not all varieties of anarchism grounds their conception of rights in natural law, such as anarcho-syndicalism which usually makes social structure and production based arguments, and anarcho-capitalism which frequently relies upon utilitarian derived arguments.

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    This answer would be improved by referencing Jefferson's own words, or an expert's summary of his beliefs. Currently the only backing-up is to a dictionary. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 16:32
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    @indigochild, I think that the acknowledgement of government's authority to kill is right there in the next sentence of the Declaration of Independence ( archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript ): "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..." ...making no mention of the death penalty in the list of grievances against England, but instead demanding trials by jury... these are not the words of a "never death penalty" believer. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 22:25
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    @indigochild Yes, the grievances do include the King's defending his army against retribution when they commit murder, but the use of the word "murder" has always meant "killing a person unlawfully", not just "killing somebody". Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 22:30
  • That's an excellent answer (+1), but anarcho-capitalism is not a variety of anarchism. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 15:09

Jefferson also believed that the state could remove rights, but through due process of the law. We do have this today... you have a right to be secure in your property, but if there is evidence to show you might have knowledge of a crime, the state can remove that right. If you are convicted of a federal crime (and some misdemenors) you have your 2nd Amendment Rights removed. You also have your right to vote temporarily suspended and your right to freedom of movement... your right to be secure from search in prison, ect.

The "due process of the law" clause holds that these restrictions on rights by the state are just if and only if the law is applied to show the need to restrict an specific individual's right because they have taken a criminal action... otherwise, the state must uphold the rights.


An inalienable right is one that all are born/endowed with. That doesn't mean that one can't forfeit those rights. It means that, lacking just cause, one can't morally or ethically be deprived of those rights.

"Right to liberty" would seem to preclude any kind of confinement or incarceration, ever. However, if you commit crimes against society, then you've given just cause to have your liberty taken away, and have forfeited that right.

The same would apply to a death sentence, theoretically.

Inalienable rights create non-delegable duties. God was under no duty to confer any rights, but once he acted men can claim their rights as a matter of law. ... A person may, by choice (i.e., unlawful conduct), forfeit an inalienable right to which he would otherwise be entitled.

Individual Government: Inalienable Rights - LONANG Institute

  • This answer would be improved by referencing Jefferson's own words, or an expert's summary of his beliefs. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 16:32

John Locke said:

and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another. (Second Treatise)

Capital Punishment is doing justice to an offender. Natural law allows killing, not murder, in self-defense. According to the Declaration, the role of just government is to secure our unalienable rights. They do this by doing justice to offenders. Government is not intended to have any more power. Jefferson said:

but rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’; because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual. (Personal letter)

  • Welcome to the site! We have some block-quote formatting, which I applied to your answer. This may make it more easily readable to some people. Also, I added links to the sources of those quotes. Generally, adding links which back-up your answer is desirable. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 16:37

This has some of the arguments mentioned in the question, but I touch on something else as well. Read on… There are two reasoning's behind it, the simple one boils down to this: every person has an "unalienable" right to life, that us until such a point when another person decides to take someone else's life (without having just cause to do so, i.e. during wartime, or while in defense of oneself or one's family from peril of death or egregious bodily harm). Such a person would have demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the sanctity of life & by their willingness to kill another man & acting upon that willingness, they are deemed to have forfeited their own right to live... Such a person would be looked upon as having no respect for their own life or anyone else's therefore; they should not be allowed to live.

At this point I think Mr. Jefferson, as well as the majority of those around him, would likely view the perpetrator as having lost a good bit of their humanity, and would likely be viewed as no longer being "a person" but closer in nature to a wild beast: uncivilized, unpredictable & surely dangerous, maybe even possessed (earlier times=backwards beliefs) & that the only appropriate response for such a situation would be capital punishment. An Eye for an Eye begets a Life For A Life and all that. It makes a certain amount of sense.

Now, the second, more complicated reason... Understand also, that a precedent needed be set, because should consequences not be appropriately meted out, there stood (in the view of the Founders, I believe) a very real danger that things could slip into Anarchy & the brand new burgeoning Republic being built could go tits up in short order. There had to be a rule of law, and Mr. Jefferson was actually being prudent, because he understood that while far away from England, the building of a Nation was underway, something bold & radical & beautiful, and very well thought out; however, not everyone could have remained rock-solid in their conviction that things would work out if they persevered. Especially when the Founders (out of necessity) took the time to lay out the groundwork & get the foundation laid. They knew it wouldn't be perfect & there would be the need to evolve with times, but it was imperative to get it as close as it could possibly get to perfect, which took time & nobody wants the drafts, they want the final manuscript/writing. There had to be disharmony & uncertainty, it's human nature especially when constructing the archetype of a nation. I know, without doubt, that it had to weigh heavy on the Founding Fathers So providing the stability & reassurance of justice would go a long way towards assuaging doubt among the weary & demonstrating to those who were less scrupulous that while they escaped Tyranny they also escaped Injustice & while some ideals were reshaped basic tenements prevail, with among them being a Fair Judicial System for those who would oppress the freedom & liberty of others.

I couldn't tell you specifically, with any one source of Emperical data anyway, how I came to this. It's a combination of what I've read & learned about Thomas Jefferson, the sense we have through history lessons about the mindset in that time, understanding of human motivations, & the willingness & ability to step back from a situation, objectively examine it from more than just a single perspective & put myself in another person's mindset. That's what I did here, and the above is the condensed, pared down to the bare bones version, cause it's been a long couple days & I'm tired; but I certainly hope it helped. Thanks for the cognitive calisthenics, OP, it was fun & enlightening!

  • Can you cite your claim that Jefferson thought criminals were no longer persons but instead wild beasts? Commented Jun 16, 2021 at 15:02

Jefferson didn't think like that. It's like that Animals song:

but baby
It's my life
and I'll do what I want
It's my mind
and I'll think what I want

This inalienable right to life includes the right live it, to be wrong, to go against (or appear to) orthodoxy, custom, the world, and the laws of nature, God, and physics. Jefferson read Milton, who appreciated contraries:

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness. Which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain. Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.

The price of that right is that citizens accept one another's responsibility and authorship for the individual consequences of our own actions. An accompanying courtesy is to honor citizens who acted in good faith, for their integrity even when they err unto doom.

Note that a right as written in law is more of a universal consensus, not so much a guarantee of any thing, but rather a guiding principle the state vows to follow when possible. Otherwise a right to life would imply the state be obliged to make its citizens immortal, which would be both impossible and absurd; and if it were possible, perhaps evil.

For citizens it doesn't strictly matter if the state recognizes an inalienable right or not, since any inalienable right would innately exist even if the state denied it. If a state could expunge it, it wouldn't be inalienable.

  • This answer would be improved by referencing Jefferson's own words, or an expert's summary of his beliefs. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 16:33
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    @indigochild, Agreed.
    – agc
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 20:55

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