29 January 2013

Thomas Jefferson as ventriloquist's dummy

Bernie Desroches of Latham invokes Thomas Jefferson in his warning to a local newspaper against gun control. "Thomas Jefferson said 'A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.'" Desroches writes. If you know the drill by now, you won't be surprised to learn that, according to the Monticello website, the online keepers of the great man's heritage, Jefferson said no such thing. The quote comes in several forms, differing in choice of adjectives, but the word "big" gives away this spurious anachronism. Jefferson would not have written or spoken of "big government." That's a category invented as a parallel to "big business" in more modern times. Jefferson might have described an "extensive" or "consolidated" government, but "big" would have been beneath his eloquence. Monticello cites the research of one Barry Popik, who claims the phrase was first written in the 1950s, most likely by the radio talker Paul Harvey. The quote is also rather closely identified with Gerald Ford, who reportedly said it while a young congressman in the 1950s and repeated it at least once while President. Neither Harvey nor Ford attributed their words to Jefferson. Not until 2005, according to Monticello, did anyone (specifically the author of a "Quote Manual") think to put the words into the dead man's mouth.

The fact that Jefferson didn't say what Desroches attributes to him doesn't mean that Jefferson didn't believe in limited government. He did, however inconsistently, and as Monticello notes, he was a kind of classical fatalist about democratic republicanism, believing that "the natural process of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground." Why put these particular words in his mouth? While Desroches doesn't use it this way, I suspect that the quote appeals to many modern Republicans because it serves them as a warning to "dependents," those who supposedly want big government mainly so it can give them everything they want. But if their point is that whoever gives you something can take it away, doesn't it apply to any entity that has the power to give someone something. The most obvious example is the employer who can give you a job, and obviously has the power to take it away. Does that make the employing class as great a danger as a big government? Few who claim to speak for Jefferson today would say so. For them the fault really lies not with the power that gives and takes, but with those they accuse of choosing dependence upon capricious power. Jefferson himself might argue that anyone who works for wages chooses just as fragile a dependence; that's why he would have mistrusted "big business" as well as "big government." But today's self-styled Jeffersonians assume that anyone skeptical as he was toward "big government" must share their attitudes in general about religion, entrepreneurship, etc., despite the evidence. When you think you know what someone really meant, it's easy to make up things he "really" said, especially if your audience, unlike Jefferson, takes it all on faith.


Anonymous said...

It wasn't big government that took everything away from those children in Newtown. It was an individual with a gun.

Had the government taken away guns, those 23 children, the 50-some odd at Virginia Tech, the children in Columbine, etc. would still be alive.

Besides which, just because Thomas Jefferson said [or didn't say]doesn't make it true, after all, Mr. Jefferson was also a slave owner, an officer in his state militia who constantly found excuses not to actually take arms, and a debtor who lived well beyond his means.

Samuel Wilson said...

Some people like to invoke Jefferson and other Founders, correctly or not, because they like to appeal to authority -- while Jefferson himself preferred not to -- despite their pretense of freedom of thought.

As for your other point, reactionaries often seem more concerned about the potential power government might have to "take everything you have" than with the more immediate power of unregulated militant individuals to take away the one thing that makes everything else irrelevant. In short, and as usual, they're more concerned for property than life.

northierthanthou said...

I think it's quite telling to see how often people respond defensively to the discovery that one of their favorite founder quotes without skipping a beat. I am often told that they only offered the quote as a paraphrase or that it's true anyway. It's as if the author and his actual words are suddenly irrelevant to them, as of course they were all along.