12 December 2011

Jefferson, Chomsky and corporations: a history lesson

Defending the right of corporate entities to political speech in a letter to the Albany Times Union, Malcolm Sherman disputes a previous writer's citation of Thomas Jefferson's warning against the rise of "moneyed corporations." Jefferson was quoted writing that the U.S. should "crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations." Sherman claims that Jefferson never wrote this. These "violent sentiments," he claims, are a distorted paraphrase of Jefferson by Noam Chomsky.

In the past I've explored the historic record to prove that famous people had not said the words attributed to them, in most cases, by right wing bloggers and letter-writers. Some right-wingers have a hard time keeping the record straight; on this occasion, Sherman denies an actual statement of Thomas Jefferson. It can be found online on the website of the Liberty Fund, a libertarian publishing house unlikely to sympathize with Noam Chomsky's worldview. Jefferson wrote the letter to George Logan in November 1816. Here's the key section with introductory context:

England exhibits the most remarkable phaenomenon in the universe in the contrast between the profligacy of it’s government and the probity of it’s citizens. And accordingly it is now exhibiting an example of the truth of the maxim that virtue & interest are inseparable. It ends, as might have been expected, in the ruin of it’s people, but this ruin will fall heaviest, as it ought to fall on that hereditary aristocracy which has for generations been preparing the catastrophe. I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in it’s birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

 Jefferson's opinion, of course, doesn't refute the Citizens United decision, but it was his opinion. Where does Chomsky come into it? Sherman seems to have confused a questionable attribution to Jefferson by Chomsky with the Logan letter. In a 1994 book of interviews, Chomsky apparently amplified an authentic Jefferson letter from 1825, and subsequent writers have sometimes mixed Chomsky's words with Jefferson's. The details can be found here, and Jefferson's own sentiments are not irrelevant.

In the last year of his life, Jefferson warned of a decadent younger generation of ambitious men who, "having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of '76, now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and monied incorporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry." Those are Jefferson's words, not Chomsky's. If Malcolm Sherman would like to characterize the author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States as a "far-leftist" like Chomsky -- well, it's a free country.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You should send this to the Times Union in refutation of Mr. Sherman's letter.