St. Robert Bellarmine and Thomas Jefferson

This is a fascinating article on how a refutation of St. Robert Bellarmine’s political philosophy actually helped write the Declaration of Independence:

In most American colleges and High Schools, the development of Constitutional law is traced along lines that begin in ancient Greece and Rome lead to the philosophies of Algernon Sydney (who was executed for treason in 1683) and John Locke. It is undeniable that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and George Mason, author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, were intimately familiar with the classical and contemporary scholars from Aristotle onward. And it is not unreasonable to conclude they were familiar with writers who opposed popular sovereignty and defended the absolute power of kings.

One such book found in Jefferson’s personal library (now in the Library of Congress) was Patriarcha, by Protestant theologian Robert Filmer, who was the court theologian to King James I. It is a treatise in defense of the Divine Right of Kings, which Jefferson obviously read because the book’s margins are full of his notes. (The full title of the book is actually Patriarcha: The Naturall Power of Kinges Defended Against the Unnatural Liberty of the People, By Arguments, Theological, Rational, Historical and Legall

. All references are to the 1991 Cambridge Press edition.)

The most interesting aspect of Patriarcha from a Catholic perspective is that the first pages discredit and attack the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine, who was one of the most eloquent and prolific defenders of freedom the Catholic Church has ever produced. It was customary that writers dealing with political and religious controversies begin their books by presenting their nemesis as an anti-thesis, which in Filmer’s case was Bellarmine’s position that political authority is vested in the people and that kings do not rule by divine right, but through the consent of the governed. This was a radical idea in the early 1600’s, though it is widely accepted today.

Maurer argues that both George Mason (author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights) and Thomas Jefferson would have been intimately familar with Robert Fullmer’s Patriarcha which set out to refute Bellarmine’s argument for a just commonwealth in favor of the Divine Right of Kings — a notably Protestant concept that ran counter to the Catholic ideal of government at the time.

Well worth reading.

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