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.

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Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm  Comments Off on Jefferson and the will of the moment  
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