13 April 2008


Thomas Jefferson was born on this day in 1743. For many years, Democrats held "Jefferson Day" celebrations to mark the occasion, but the man the party once credited as its founder is probably too problematic for the modern mosaic it now claims to be. It's questionable whether Jefferson would even sit down with "his" party's two presidential contenders. While noting few exceptions he questioned blacks' capacity in general for intellectual accomplishment, and his dealings with a politically-minded First Lady, Abigail Adams, were often unhappy.

Still, people of diverse and contradictory political views often cite Jefferson as an authority or guide for present thinking. Our local paper last week printed an op-ed that's been circulating through the press from a libertarian writer who quoted Jefferson thusly: To take from one because it is thought his own industry ... has acquired too much, in order to spare others who have not exercised equal industry and skill is to violate the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.

Jefferson wrote this in the margin of a book on Political Economy, but the author didn't quote the note in full. In 1816, the ex-president wrote of "his own industry and that of his father's" compared to "others, who, or whose fathers have note exercised equal industry." That's an interesting omission: doesn't the op-ed writer endorse the idea of inheritance, or did she think bringing that up would obfuscate her point, which was to line up Jefferson on the side of "free enterprise" and against taxing the rich?

As Crhymethinc pointed out to me, and wrote himself to the paper, this is fine talk however you slice it from a man who lived off the labor of slaves. But you don't need to refer to Jefferson's deeds to find him contradicting himself; he did so in writing as well, or at least it seems so. We found another Jefferson quotation in a recent issue of The Nation. In this one, which I traced to the same year, 1816, this time in a letter to a man named George Logan, Jefferson wrote: I hope we shall ... crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

But from the libertarian viewpoint, doesn't the letter contradict the marginalia. Isn't the corporate bigwig as much entitled to the fruits of his or his father's industry as anyone else? Or did Jefferson make a distinction that the libertarian refuses to acknowledge, between those who work with their hands, farmers and craftsmen, and those engaged in commerce or capitalism, which he distrusted. The University of Virginia, which he founded, provides lists of quotes from Jefferson on various topics; alongside the last bit about crushing aristocracy, we find him writing in 1809: The selfish spirit of commerce ... knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain. And from 1814: Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.

The same issue of The Nation ran a review of another book that appears to portray Jefferson as the original faux-populist, a la Senator Clinton this weekend. That is, he and his faction attempted to divert criticism away from big landholders and slaveholders like themselves by portraying merchants and speculators as the real elitists who threatened our national virtue. Some people say you can trace a straight line from Jefferson to today's demagogues who claim that the true elitist isn't the billionaire who disposes of thousands of jobs like so much clutter, but that pointy-headed intellectual who supposedly looks down his nose at the customs of a "bitter" populace.

Jefferson still has his rabid defenders, professors and politicians both, who don't want their hero judged by "presentist" standards. They argue that his hypocritical espousal of democracy was still preferable to the policies of his rivals, who allegedly despised democracy altogether. There's some sense to this defense. After all, it'd make no sense to say that: 1. Jefferson preached democracy; but 2. He proved himself a hypocrite by owning slaves; so 3. We ought to live under dictatorship. But we shouldn't forget that he was a hypocrite, if only because our standards have changed, and therefore he can't be a perfect or absolute guide to modern politics.

Thomas Jefferson understood that himself. In last week's New Yorker I came across yet another quote from the man. Having outlived many of his fellow Founders, he was already being asked what his colleagues would do or say if they could come back from the dead. He answered: This they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. ... Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.

1 comment:

crhymethinc said...

And the one thing that always sticks in my mind when people begin quoting...just because someone we admire said it, doesn't make it true.