Rewriting Jefferson

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine sent me a link to David Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. It’s almost like my friend, knowing my academic interest in Thomas Jefferson, cast some bait in my direction. And two months later, I took it.

I can honestly say that I went into it with an open mind. Even if Barton misinterpreted Jefferson, maybe he would do so in at least a semi-convincing way. After all, it’s possible for individuals to have high opinions of Thomas Jefferson without being historical hacks. I have tremendous respect for David Mayer, for example, and his opinion of Jefferson is completely different than mine.

Sadly, my low expectations were met. (more…)

Published in: on June 25, 2012 at 10:10 pm  Comments Off  

The Democrats’ Sea Change

A while back I discussed Michael Holt’s history of the Whig Party.  In reading up on the Whigs one naturally also learns a great deal about their opponents, the Democrats.  As I mentioned in that blog post, the Whigs were, comparatively, the party of big government.  That is a bit of an exaggeration, but they did advocate for a stronger centralized government, promoted federal support for internal improvements, backed a national bank, and favored a high protective tariff.  In contrast, the Democrats were almost purely libertarian.  They advocated minimalist government intervention in the economy, opposed federal funding for internal improvements, generally opposed the National Bank (though not all did), and were the party of “states’ rights.”

This description of the Democrats sounds a lot different than the way one describe the current incarnation of the party.  While some would say that Republicans and Democrats have, in a sense, switched places, I would tend to disagree.  This is a point I’ve made before, but Federalists-Whigs-Republicans have carried on in the Hamiltonian tradition.  While Hamilton desired an energetic government, he wanted the government to be energetic in the few defined areas over which it had constitutional jurisdiction.  He was not an advocate for the sort of leviathan state that has sprung up in modern times.  So in a sense the Republicans have not changed that drastically from its earliest incarnation.  All that has happened is that the Democrats have moved from one extreme to the other.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the intellectual forefather of the Democratic party is Thomas Jefferson.  It was called something different in his day – in fact the name of the party that he belonged to was the Republican party.*  The party morphed over time, especially as the Federalist party died and old Federalists started joining the Republican party.  The election of 1824 saw the party split into at least two factions, the one led by President John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, the other led by Andrew Jackson.  The National Republicans – those led by Adams – would be vanquished by Jackson in 1828, and soon the party led by Jackson would come to be known – then and forever – as the Democrats.  (Yes, I am guilty of over-simplification, but this a blog post.)

If one looks at the general outlook of the Democratic party in the age of Jackson, it hues pretty closely to the Jeffersonian philosophy.  Certainly Jefferson was no fan of centralized government.  He was suspicious of the National Bank.  Like Jackson, he played the part of the “man of the people.”  Philosophically the so-called National Republicans were really a new incarnation of the Federalists, and the Whigs in turn were the heirs of this tradition.

So the Democrats were the more libertarian of the two parties, though perhaps even more decidedly so than modern libertarians.  Even the most passionate of libertarians of today would concede that there is some role for government in national economic affairs.  To put it more crudely, one can almost describe the Democrats of the pre-Civil War period as libertarians on steroids.

As well know, things are much different today.  This being a blog dedicated to history, I might save some of the discussion regarding the ramifications of this change for another venue.  But what intrigues me is the question of how and why the party changed so dramatically.  Donald discussed in the comments section of my Whig post how southern Whigs did end up in the Democratic party in southern states, but I don’t think it was the influence of this group that so radically altered the philosophic outlook of the Democratic party.  Did the Civil War so alter the political landscape that the old libertarian of the Democratic party was no longer tenable?  Was it Progressive and Populist infiltration?  If so, why were the Democrats the ones that moved so far in one direction?

I will suggest an explanation: the change that occurred within the Democratic party was simply the logical outgrowth of the Jeffersonian philosophy.

How can the libertarian philosophy of Jefferson have led to the big government Democrats of today?  In part it comes down to the core part of the Jeffersonian creed.  At heart he was a populist, and the 19th century populism of Jefferson was one that opposed the government.  20th century populism, on the other hand, embraced government intervention in the economy.  So the party didn’t really change fundamentally, it’s just that the populism that lay at the heart of the Democratic party led it down different policy paths at various times.

Again, I will expand on this a bit in another venue.  For now, I’ll just present this as some food for thought.

*NOTE: Please do not call it the Democratic-Republican party.  The term democratic-republican was rarely ever used to describe the party of Jefferson and Madison.  Historians use it today, I think, to distinguish it from the modern Republican party as well as to signify the link between the Democrats and the Jeffersonians.  Sorry, but this is a bit of a pet peeve of mind.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 10:55 pm  Comments Off  

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings

In an otherwise excellent book about the birth of the US Navy titled Six Frigates, Ian Toll made a parenthetical comment about DNA testing definitively proving that Thomas Jefferson sired children by Sally Hemmings.  This is the sort of comment that is a real pet peeve of mine.  Though DNA testing shows that a male on the Jefferson line was the father of Hemmings’s children, it is impossible to ascertain with 100% confidence who the father is.  Speculative evidence certainly suggests that Jefferson very likely could have been the father, and that is more or less the conclusion of this Thomas Jefferson Foundation report, though that was subsequently rebutted by other sources.

Anyone remotely familiar with my writing knows that I am no fan of Thomas Jefferson.  It is quite possible that Jefferson indeed was the father of Sally Hemmings’s children.  It is not, however, something we can definitively know one way or the other.  Short of exhuming the corpse of Thomas Jefferson, we can never know.  So when writers who should know better make these sort of sweeping assertions it drives me insane.

Published in: on November 16, 2010 at 4:15 pm  Comments Off  

Jefferson: Science, Progress and Permanent Revolution

This will be the final post in my series on the political thought of Thomas Jefferson.  We have explored some of the key tenets of his political philosophy, and now we will see how they all fit together to mold what was a very radical vision of society.

In a letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, dated March 3, 1818, Jefferson wrote:

When I contemplate the immense advances in sciences and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life, I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were, and they than the burners of witches.[1] (more…)

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 9:39 pm  Comments Off  
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To be changed every 20 years

This is the third in my series on Jefferson’s political thought.  In the last post, I examined how Jefferson tended to disparage traditionalism while instead focusing on the “will of the moment.”  In this post we will see how that philosophy shaped Jefferson’s constitutional thought and inspired his belief that constitutions ought to be changed frequently to keep up with the will of the moment. (more…)

Jefferson and the will of the moment

Continuing my look at the political thought of Thomas Jefferson (part one can be found here), we will now examine what I’d call Jefferson’s “presentism.”  Perhaps a better way to describe it is a disdain or disregard for the “permanent things.” Jefferson does not seem to have an abiding veneration for tradition; rather, Jefferson’s political philosophy is one that is highly sensitive to the will of the moment.  This is not to say that Jefferson completely rejects tradition, but nonetheless his political theory is one that does not bind generations to the past or the future.  Each generation, Jefferson holds, is independent of every other and thus no generation can bind the next, or be bound by the previous.

Such thinking is in line with that of Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Rousseau.  Voltaire writes that the codes of law in every country are poor because they were made “in accordance with time, place and needs,” and became stagnant.  He adds, “when needs changed, the laws which remained became ridiculous laws.  Thus the laws which forbade the eating of pork and the drinking of wine was quite reasonable in Arabia where pork and wine were harmful.  It is ridiculous in Constantinople.”[1] Laws must adapt to the times.

Thomas Paine argues vociferously against Edmund Burke in The Rights of Man, his response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  His is a thorough refutation of Burke’s writings on tradition and permanency.  Contrary to Burke, Paine does not believe a government or a parliament could bind men for all times.  “Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generation which preceded it.  The vanity and presumptions of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.”[2] Paine goes on to – incorrectly – accuse Burke of denying the living the power to repeal any ancient laws.[3] This is an exaggeration of the Burkean philosophy.  Burke does not hold that all laws must forever be respected, but he does insist that we should respect ancient customs and adapt, but slowly.

The essential idea, however, is very important and would be echoed by Jefferson.  The idea that the dead have no right to govern beyond the grave is clearly reflected in a letter to Madison:

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind one another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water.  Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government . . . I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”[4]

Such a philosophy indicates that man is not much beholden to his ancestors, and an examination of Jefferson’s speeches and writing verifies this conclusion.  In his Second Inaugural address, Jefferson discusses the problems in dealing with the Native Americans and their obstinate refusal to part with ancient customs.  “These persons,” he says, “inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatsoever they did, must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel, in their physical, moral, or political condition, is perilous innovation; that their duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety, and knowledge full of danger.”[5] Though speaking of Native Americans, he may very well be speaking about his fellow Americans, as this calls to mind his words about “sanctimonious reverence” for the laws.

Jefferson is hostile to that which inhibits the freedom of the human mind or spirit, be they perpetual constitutions or strict laws.  This belief reveals itself in Jefferson’s opposition to patent and copyright laws, which he believes prevent the spread of ideas.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.  Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.[6]

His thoughts on patent laws demonstrate his sense that it is a dangerous idea to permanently affix any law or custom on society.  Ideas must flow freely in the interest of progress; similarly constitutions must be alterable in order for society to progress.

This reflects Jefferson’s fundamentally democratic outlook.  Much as he puts abundant stock in the reason of man, and therefore in the governing ability of man, he then allows the democratic majority to determine the outlines of the nation’s constitution.  As I will show in a future post, Jefferson’s faith in the democratic will, combined with his unfavorable view of tradition and custom, inspires a constitutional philosophy that can be summed up as one of rigid adherence to a frequently altered constitution.

In the next post I will look at the consequences of his antagonism to perpetual constitutions.  He advocates frequent revisions in the Constitution, and this underlines his belief that the will of the past generation should have little or no bearing on the present.  It is a philosophy that eschews the traditionalism of Burke and, for the most part, the Framers.


[1] Voltaire, “Pocket Philosophic Dictionary,” in Political Writings, ed. and trans. David Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 19.

[2] Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, ed. Gregory Claeys (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), 63.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, 6 September, 1789, in Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc, 1984), 959.

[5] Jefferson, “Second Inaugural Address,” 4 March, 1805, in Jefferson Writings, 520.

[6] Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, Monticello, 13 August, 1813, in Jefferson Writings, 1291.

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm  Comments Off  

Jefferson and Rousseau – On Democracy

Those who have followed me for any amount of time are aware that one of my academic interests is the comparison between Thomas Jefferson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  It was one of the themes of my dissertation, and I maintain that it’s an important point to consider.  Jefferson is often paired with Locke, especially by the likes of Louis Hartz, whose The Liberal Tradition in America has had a great influence on the way we view Jefferson and the founding era.  Others have noted the similarity between Jefferson and the Scottish Enlightenment writers.  But few have really seen the connection to Rousseau, a connection that I deem to be very important, because this Jefferson-Rousseau strand of thought is one that continues to be a dominant influence on America. Over the next few posts I plan on taking a closer look at this connection, as well as a broader examination of Thomas Jefferson’s political thought in general.  Considering my series of posts on the Federalists Papers, I believe it is useful to compare Jefferson’s thought to that of the Framers of the Constitution.

The first point of commonality between Jefferson and Rousseau is their views on democracy.  Both men are proponents of mass democracy to a far greater extent than a majority of the Founding Fathers.  This is based in large part by a shared positive appraisal of human nature.  Jefferson in particular had a very high opinion of man’s ability to reason well and positively shape society. (more…)

Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 2:59 pm  Comments (7)  
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