20 May 2011

Wasting the labor of Jefferson?

Cal Thomas if fulminating against debt and dependence again this weekend, and in his latest column he drags Thomas Jefferson into the debate. Claiming that Jefferson, who died notoriously insolvent, offered Americans "the most profound remonstrance concerning debt," Thomas throws this quote at his readers.

I place economy among the first and most important virtues, and public debt as the greatest of dangers to be feared. To preserve our independence, we must not let our leaders load us with perpetual debt. If we run into such debts, we must be taxed in our meat and drink, in our necessities and in our comforts, in our labor and in our amusements. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labor of the people, under the pretense of caring for them, they will be happy.

While this didn't necessarily sound unlike Jefferson overall, something didn't quite seem right about the quote. The last sentence sounded a little too much like a swipe at a welfare state ("the pretense of caring for them") that Jefferson probably couldn't have even imagined in his lifetime. I googled the suspicious phrase and found many links to websites and blogs sporting the same quote, but none of them provided a date or context for the quote. I finally went to official Jefferson online resources in search of clarification. As it happens, the sentence of which I was most suspicious is authentic -- but it doesn't come attached to the rest of the quote.

President Jefferson wrote a letter to Thomas Cooper on November 29, 1802. About half of the letter consists of European political gossip concerning the new Tsar of Russia and the dimming prospects for liberty in Napoleonic France. Jefferson then turns to domestic politics, boasting of "the good effects of our late financial arrangements." He claims that "our citizens are fast returning, from the panic into which they were artfully thrown to the dictates of their own reason," presumably referring to some aspect of alleged Federalist misgovernment during the John Adams administration. We now come to the quote in question; its context is revealed in the text that follows.

If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy. Their finances are now under such a course of application as nothing could derange but war or federalism. The gripe of the latter has shown itself as deadly as the jaws of the former. Our adversaries say we are indebted to their providence for the means of paying the public debt. We never charged them with the want of foresight in providing money, but with the misapplication of it after they had levied it. We say they raised not only enough, but too much; and that after giving back the surplus we do more with a part than they did with the whole.

None of the text quoted by Cal Thomas before "If we can prevent...." comes from the letter to Cooper. It may have been and probably was written by Jefferson, but the source from which the columnist took his quote sloppily threw two or more texts together to arrive at this popular paragraph. Notice, also, that Jefferson isn't indicting deficit spending by Federalists. The issue apparently isn't a debt but a surplus. Jefferson is accusing Federalists of spending more money than the country needed, not more than it actually had, while his antagonists were apparently boasting of being the party of fiscal responsibility themselves. Cal Thomas seems to have been bamboozled by a compiler who blended Jefferson's remark about "wasting the labor of the people" with a separate (but presumably Jeffersonian) rant against debt, most likely in order to make Jefferson appear as a prophet against deficit spending on the modern welfare state. The anonymous compiler has Jefferson warning against governments going into "perpetual debt ... under the pretense of caring," and while that may be a plausible extrapolation of Jefferson's thought, it's still a somewhat shady manipulation of the historical record. If Republicans or Libertarians want to make use of the actual letter to Cooper, it could come in handy for arguments against exorbitant or unnecessary spending, but on the subject of debt, on which Jefferson was no expert, they should look for Founding arguments elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

But Jefferson was an expert on debt. At least insofar as accruing debt and not paying it off. . .

d.eris said...

hah. Nice catch!