Thomas Jefferson’s Timeless Message to America and the World
The Ethan Allen Institute’s 18th annual Jefferson Day program, presented by
EAI Founder John McClaughry, April 28, 2011, Rutland, Vermont
When John Mitchell, Anne Webb and I founded the Ethan Allen Institute in 1993, we defined and set forth a mission that we have faithfully followed these eighteen years.
- The Mission is to influence public policy in Vermont by helping its people to better understand and put into practice the fundamentals of a free society: individual liberty, private property, competitive free enterprise, limited and frugal government, strong local communities, personal responsibility, and expanded opportunity for human endeavor.
Anyone with a grasp of American history and political philosophy will recognize this at once as the Jeffersonian prescription.
We decided early on that each year, in Thomas Jefferson’s birth month of April, we would seek to invigorate the minds of Vermonters by presenting a program in honor of his life and principles. To that end, over the past 17 years, the Institute has presented a parade of Jefferson scholars, public figures, and reenactors to illuminate one or another aspect of Jefferson’s career and thought. Among the most notable of these events have been two presentations by Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall, of Burlington, and one by a leading Jefferson scholar, the late Prof. Lance Banning of the University of Kentucky.
Twice we brought to Vermont “Thomas Jefferson” himself, in the person of Bill Barker of Colonial Williamsburg, and once in the person of noted actor and scholar Clay Jenkinson. At one event we heard from my personal Jefferson expert, who is here tonight, Chip Stokes of the Jefferson Legacy Foundation, which has unfailingly cosponsored these programs for many years.
So after hearing seventeen years of presentations on one or another aspect of Jefferson’s thought, I believe I am now well prepared to offer some thoughts on “Mr. Jefferson’s Timeless Message to America and the World.”
Before venturing in that direction, I need to offer the caveat frequently made by Clay Jenkinson in his stage portrayal of Jefferson as an historical figure. “Jefferson,” he has said, “has been dead for two hundred years, and some parts of his vision and his outlook are no longer useful to us. We need to clarify and preserve…. those parts of his core vision that are still vital to the success of the American experiment… and not miscarry on the rock of literalism.”
Thomas Jefferson left behind an astonishing written record over a period of more than sixty years. It is possible to snip from this vast outpouring a few phrases, shorn of their context, to support a wide range of today’s political arguments. I want to assure you that in selecting ten key points of Jefferson’s thought tonight, I am doing justice to him and to the historical record, and taking care not to warp his thought into the service of any current ideology.
That said, let me select and briefly illustrate my “top ten” from Jefferson’s life and works, as a guide to the statesmen and citizens of today and tomorrow.
Number One: The importance of character, decency, integrity and honor to the preservation of a free republic.
In 1785 Jefferson, then ambassador to France, wrote a letter to his young nephew Peter Carr. It glows in the dark yet today for its wisdom and sense of honor. It said, in part, “if you ever find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations. Though you cannot see, when you fetch one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible…Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition, that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties tenfold; and those who pursue these methods get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed.”
Number Two: Faith in the Common Man:
Looking back two years before his death, Jefferson summarized his lifelong view when he wrote “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties. First, those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. Secondly, those who identify themselves with the people, having confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, though not the most wise, depository of the public interests”.
As an intellectual heir of the 17th century British Whig Country Party tradition, Jefferson obviously identified with this second group. He had a revulsion against the Hamiltonian ideal of government by the rich, well born and well connected – although he himself largely fit that description, dwelling in some elegance at his mountaintop estate of Monticello. But a key distinction was that the Virginia planters derived their prominence from making the land productive – albeit with the help of a large class of slaves. By contrast, the rising class of Federalist leaders waxed rich and powerful from commerce, finance, and trade of things of value, rather than creating them. The Hamiltonian leaders were often eager to manipulate government favors to produce their riches, rather than do honest work for them, and celebrated the increase of public debt as a way of attaching more firmly the financial class to the fortunes of the government..
That thought leads to Number Three: The Threat of Corruption.
Today we think of corruption as embezzling town funds or selling one’s vote for money. That has always been true, but in Jefferson’s day the term had a far broader meaning. To political theorists dating back to Polybius, corruption meant the deterioration of a desirable government into a far worse one. The 17th century English theorists viewed this trend as inevitable – unless it could be consciously prevented by wise design of institutions. That was the point of James Harrington’s Oceana, published in 1656. It proposed a means of maintaining a healthy balance among interests, leading to an “immortal republic” of liberty. I’ll return to that later on.
Jefferson and his close friend James Madison were at pains to counter the new republic’s slide toward corruption. They feared the unchecked power of the state – the tax gatherer – the place men – the standing army- torrents of paper money backed only by government promises – grants of special privilege – the flatters and interest seekers of the court – an arrogant aristocracy – an established church - the dead hand of the past strangling the hopes of the future. Their motto was “equal rights for all, special privilege for none.”
As time passed, Jefferson grew increasingly despondent about the growing corruption of American institutions. A few months before he died, he wrote his friend William Giles, denouncing those who “now look to a single and splendid Government of an aristocracy founded on banking institutions and moneyed corporations, under the guise and cloak of their favorite branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.”
By this he meant not a criticism of enterprise per se. He had long since come to grips with the need to place manufacturing, commerce and navigation alongside his beloved agriculture as essential to the young nation’s economy. These were, he wrote, “the four pillars of our prosperity, and the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.”
But he was appalled at the scheming of many leaders of those interests to enrich themselves through government benefits, protection, and subsidies. One can only imagine how Jefferson would have thundered against the business and financial bailouts of the past three years.
Number Four: Private Property Ownership.
From the first beginnings of his political thought and his law practice, Jefferson affirmed and set out to implement Harrington’s prescription for an immortal republic. Like everyone else among the Founders, Jefferson firmly believed in private property. But, as with Harrington, there was more.
Private property not only needed to be secure against confiscation and invasion, but it must also be widely distributed among the people. Independent, self-reliant proprietors, constituting both the electorate and the militia, would act always to preserve their rights and liberties against the usurpations of a corrupt central power.
Thus his early law practice focused on challenging colonial land grants to the King’s cronies, to open up those western lands to actual settlers. One of his greatest legislative achievements was the Virginia law, coauthored with Madison, to terminate primogeniture and entail in property law. That meant that estates would pass to all the heirs, not just the eldest male, and the property could be exchanged outside of the family, creating opportunities for the industrious.
Viewing the wretched rural poverty of France side by side with its opulent estates, Jefferson wrote Madison in 1785 to remark that “legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind.”
Number Five: Limited and Frugal Government.
Jefferson well understood the need for effective government to repel marauding and invasion, apply the common law, and maintain order. But any government that went very far beyond these basics increased his suspicion of impending corruption. Writing Elbridge Gerry in 1799, just before becoming President, Jefferson said “I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt.”
Nor was his concern for limiting government limited to the national government. He was an avid believer in keeping as many civic functions as possible at the local level. He remarked to John Adams in 1813, that his bill for the diffusion of learning had the further “object to impart to these wards those portions of self government for which they are best qualified, by confiding to them the care of their poor, their roads, police, elections, the nomination of jurors, administration of justice in small cases, elementary exercises of militia; in short, to have made them little republics, with a warden at the head of each, for all those concerns which, being under their eye, they would be better managed than the larger republics of the county or state.”
Indeed, Jefferson looked with admiration on the New England towns, even when they vocally rejected his embargo against trade with the British.
Number Six: Retirement of Debt.
Jefferson hated public debt. Not only was government borrowing imprudent, but it offered a fertile field for corruption. He proposed a constitutional amendment prohibiting the Federal government from issuing debt. Alas, it wasn’t seriously considered.
He was so determined to extinguish the national debt that in his first budget he devoted seventy percent of the Federal government’s revenues to that end. Thanks to his strict fiscal discipline, and despite the costs of the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, the national debt was in fact extinguished in 1835.
Number 7: Respect the Constitution.
Jefferson passionately believed that, after the Declaration, the Constitution of 1787, augmented by the Bill of Rights, was America’s great charter of liberty. The Constitution contained the rules of government, and in particular specified what powers the national government would have – and no more.
As John Marshall’s Supreme Court expanded the power and scope of the Federal government, Jefferson was outraged. That outrage is evident in this letter of 1823:
“It has long been my opinion, and I have never shrunk from its expression...that the germ of dissolution of our federal government is in the constitution of the federal Judiciary; ...working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped. ... The judiciary of the United States is the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric. They are construing our Constitution from a coordination of a general and special government to a general and supreme one alone."
Jefferson’s assessment of the recent work of the Vermont Supreme Court can well be imagined.
Number Eight: The Value of Learning:
Throughout his long life Jefferson strongly held the belief that humanity, if not actually perfectible, could vastly improve its lot through education and learning. That required freedom of thought and respect for the scientific process. He famously said “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility to any form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Education brought not only understanding of the past and of the great questions of natural law and ethical behavior, but the opening of new opportunities for the arts of agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, and the like.
In his early years, Jefferson advocated free public education for all up to what we could call third grade, to establish literacy and basic knowledge. After that, he saw a progressive weeding out of the less capable, as boys advanced to, eventually, higher education. The great work of his life after the presidency, of course, was the founding the University of Virginia. It would, he believed, create an aristocracy of virtue and talent to preserve the Founders’ handiwork of a free republic.
Number Nine: The Advancement of Liberty.
Infused throughout Jefferson’s thinking was the preeminent value, the goal of all sound public policy, the preservation and advancement of individual liberty. Property promoted liberty and free institutions, therefore it was essential that the great bulk of the electorate had property. Education meant little without the liberty of thought and inquiry. The accumulation of government debt stole the liberty of future generations to make their own decisions. Taxation, beyond some minimal level, took away the liberty of the taxpayer to best apply his just earnings to his own benefit. To every question of public policy, the first response must be: will it advance and expand the liberty of the individual – or undermine and restrict it?
Number Ten: America as an Example for the World.
In his day, Jefferson shared George Washington’s aversion to foreign entanglements. Over his lifetime, he saw much happen that ran against his deeply held principles, and threatened the liberty of the people.
But Jefferson never abandoned his optimism. Until his dying day – on the fiftieth anniversary of the Fourth of July – he gloried in the prospect of the grand American experiment, brought forth by enlightened statesmen on a new continent with boundless prospects.
“Should ever the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and libraries of Europe,” he wrote, “this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them… The flames kindled on the Fourth of July 1776 have not spread over half the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume those engines and all who work them.”
In the final letter of his life, he concluded with the memorable – and optimistic - lines, “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
These great principles of the Jeffersonian faith – character, liberty, property, fiscal responsibility, limited and decentralized self-government, universal education, freedom of enterprise, sound money, constitutional fidelity, and America as a moral example to the world - have well endured throughout the two centuries of our national life. Indeed, many of today's problems can be readily be traced to our unfortunate habit of abandoning the path he charted for us over two centuries ago.
Today we who share the incandescent faith of Thomas Jefferson must lead the celebration of this great man's life by giving new vigor to the principles he so eloquently advanced. And we can in our hearts echo the brilliant testimonial offered years ago to the Sage of Monticello, by Senator John W. Daniel of Virginia: "There is not a heart that loves humanity, and thrills with noble rage for right and truth and justice, there is not a people on earth who are weary and heavy laden under the burden of oppression, there is not a chancellor who loves equity, there is not a devotee who bows his head in free worship to his maker, there is not an ingenuous student by the midnight lamp, there is not a toiler by land or sea, yea, there is not an astronomer who reads the stars, nor a humble farmer in his cabin, nor a freeman anywhere who treads the earth with the spirit of the free, who does not bless God that Thomas Jefferson lived, and that his life goes marching on ... "
"Dying without a penny, his very books, his land, his home were sold away from his inheritors, and fighting successfully in every battle but his own, he crowned the people as victor in every battle that he won ... If it is right that a man sues for, and if he does not believe that one man is born bridled
and saddled, and the other booted and spurred, let him pluck a flower from this good man's life, and wear it in his soul forever."