If the Tea Party section of the Republican Party wish to cling onto ‘small government’ advocates from the Founding days of the Republic, then perhaps Virginian Congressman and later, Minister to Russia, John Randolph of Roanoke would be a better candidate for their hero worship. Randolph lead the House of Representative fight against Jefferson, despite being of the same Party; later leaving the Democratic-Republican base that he shared with Jefferson, because he perceived Jefferson’s Presidency as overstepping Constitutional power several times over.
Randolph saw Jefferson’s Presidential first term as vastly exceeding Constitutional power, especially when it came to purchasing the Louisiana territory. Randolph, again, notes his disapproval, when Jefferson attempted to buy Florida from Napoleon. In fact, practically everything President Jefferson did, was opposed by the extreme small government, States-Rights advocate, John Randolph. With regard the Presidency of John Quincy Adams, Randolph refers to him as a traitor, and insists – like the drama queens of the Tea Party movement’s references to President Obama today – that the Government had been overtaken and he wished to ‘take it back’. Any form of economic equality, he opposed. It is Randolph that the Tea Party Republicans of today should call their own. But if you’re in Florida, or the Louisiana territory…. your very existence as an American citizen, was opposed by those small government advocates. Thomas Jefferson can most certainly not be held up as a hero of the Tea Party.
It is apparently without parody nor any sort of critical thought process, that often we hear the Tea Party sect of the Republicans refer to their party as “The Party of Jefferson!”. Tea Party fanatics hold up placards demanding a return to the principles of long lost ‘Republican Party’ icons. They insist that government has become too tyrannical! Alex Jones insisted on Jefferson’s libertarian credentials a couple of times. These are big claims. Most notably, they don’t appear to appeal to Jefferson’s thoughts nor actions, except in a very limited sense of what the man said and achieved.
The simplistic tendency to hold Jefferson up as a model of small government. The rewriting of history to attempt to appeal to a modern narrative – as when those still insistent on flying the Confederate flag tell us it’s a flag that represents State’s Rights – should be taken for the pitifully weak interpretation that it is. The dogmatism of free market liberalism, and anti-government interference in any way, is a relatively new phenomena.
Thomas Jefferson can very thinly be linked to the 21st Century Tea Party Republican Party ideals, if we play loose with history and just claim a common link between the Third President, and the Tea Party in regard ‘small government’. Or we could accept that the Republican Party’s Tea Party incarnation as it exists today is not in any way to be reconciled with any incarnation of the Republican Party of the 18th Century; that the Tea Party would most certainly reject Jefferson if he were alive today, and that whisking Jefferson away from the context of his time, and understanding of America, achieves nothing.
The opening line of the Republican Party’s website states:
“We believe in the power and opportunity of America’s free-market economy.”
– We should then measure Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on Capitalism alongside this unwavering dogmatic commitment of the 21st Century Republicans to free market Capitalism.
We know that Jefferson romantically wished for a Republic based primarily on agriculture. He was a product of 18th Century Virginia. A Southern Plantation owner, who mistrusted commerce and industry in the North. He worried that the growth of industry would eventually take over; an industrial Capitalist class would emerge, and people would be reliant on low wages, unable to pursue other means of self fulfilment which would inevitably be the intrigue of a wealthy few; a new Aristocracy. According to Clay Jenkinson, in his book, “Becoming Jefferson’s People” Jefferson supported:
“a graduated income tax that would serve as a disincentive to vast accumulations of wealth and would make funds available for some sort of benign redistribution downward.”
– Jefferson’s worry about an agrarian American being over taken by wage labour within an industrialised and commercial context goes further. He worried that commerce would lead to an economy based on want (which, is what we have):
“And with the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of their employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman, or the slave?”
In the wake of moneyed interests beginning to take hold in the new Nation at the beginning of the 19th Century, Jefferson seems just as skeptical of their power to engage politically, as he does of Monarchical power:
“I hope we shall crush… in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
I wonder then, if Jefferson would ever have identified himself with an apparent ‘grass roots’ political movement funded largely by the Koch empire and perpetuated by the Murdoch News Empire. How would he have reacted, to a right winged Judiciary, who, in 2010 declared that it was unconstitutional to limit the amount a Corporate entity can spend endorsing a candidate for office, claiming that to limit it, would be to undermine the Corporations 1st Amendment right to free expression; essentially making a citizen out of a corporation. I will accept that premise, the moment a law enforcement body imprisons Exxon for shipping oil to the Nazis after Pearl Harbour and happily funding Himmler’s personal bank account.
American Petroleum Institute, whose members include Exxon, financed mainly Republican candidates in the 2010 mid-terms. Martin Durbin, API’s executive vice president for government affairs quite openly said:
“At the end of the day, our mission is trying to influence the policy debate.”
Koch Industries Inc (those wonderful funders of the Tea Party – giving power back to the people!), gave $1.79mn to candidates. 90% of those candidates were Republicans. This of course comes as President Obama proposed ending subsidies for Gas and Electric companies by 2012. Apparently those companies aren’t happy that their Welfare cheque is about to be scrapped. A Welfare cheque that adds up to over $45bn. I wonder how Jefferson might have reacted to that little gem.
Jefferson is somewhat of an enigma for those of us who claim his opening line of the 2nd paragraph of the Declaration, that he penned at such a young age, to be the very definition of Enlightenment thinking applied politically:
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
– This sentence, whilst beautifully crafted, and the first port of call for those of us who happily claim liberal secular democracy to be the most superior framework of governance thus conceived by man, is not wholly Jefferson’s making. He is paraphrasing Locke. In his second treatise, Locke writes:
“man hath by nature a power …. to preserve his property – that is, his life, liberty, and estate – against the injuries and attempts of other men.”
– Jefferson omits property, and estate from his own rewriting of the quote. Locke is convinced that property, is a natural right. Jefferson is not. The very first measure of Capitalism; the right to private property, Jefferson does not see fit to protect. In his private writings, he expands:
“It is agreed by those who have seriously considered the subject, that no individual has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land. By an universal law, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men equally and in common.”
His views on property extends to his views on taxation. We all know that the Republicans of 2013 are quite adverse to raising any sort of tax on the wealthiest few, insisting as they do, that those. I have written previously on the Myth of the Wealth Creators. Jefferson however, most certainly takes a bit of a different view to modern Republicans. Writing to the great Polish and American General, Thaddeus Kosciusko in 1811, Jefferson says:
“The rich alone use imported articles, and on these alone the whole taxes of the General Government are levied… Our revenues liberated by the discharge of the public debt, and its surplus applied to canals, roads, schools, the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone – without his being called on to spend a cent from his earnings.”
– Jefferson’s views on tax, are similar to his views on Government. That, less is better, but it is necessary, it must be progressive, and it can be used for government funded projects (including healthcare, as we shall see later in this article). He certainly was no Libertarian as Alex Jones suggests. Likewise, he was no fan of economic inequality, nor did he base Republican philosophy on a refusal to tax the wealthy, nor did he accept Corporate power as legitimate in the political sphere, nor did he believe that wealth is individually created, free from a government funded framework; he believed much the opposite, that the wealthy must bare the heaviest tax burden, and that the government can and should provide for the general well being of the public, especially against, as we have already noted, the growth of commerce and industry.
He is no friend of the wealthy either:
E”xperience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind; for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.”
– He has as much contempt for the prey of the wealthy on the poor, as he does for the Monarchs of Europe. Though we must point out the inconsistency in this quote, given that Jefferson was a rather wealthy man, who used slave labour to build, and rebuild, and maintain his place at Monticello. If that isn’t preying on the poor, I’m not sure what is.
The claim that Jefferson was a strict Constitutionalist is, much like every other claim on Jefferson’s character and actions; both true and untrue depending on the situation. At one point, he rejects the idea of funding a National Museum, claiming it to be beyond the power for government set out in the Constitution. He also argued against a National Bank put fourth by Alexander Hamilton, noting that the Constitution did not give that specific power. And yet, he’s quite happy to double the size of the Nation with the purchase of the Louisiana territory, using money not appropriated by Congress; this is a hugely unconstitutional show of executive central power. Let us also not forget the quote posted at the top of this article. Jefferson was not a strict constitutionalist. He was a pragmatist and an advocate for well reasoned public policy.
The right winged writers such as Thomas DiLorenzo; famed for positioning Lincoln as an awful tyrant, whom claim Jefferson stood against government funded infrastructure projects, standing opposite the big bad centralised Government proposals of the Hamiltonians. This is of course, untrue. During Jefferson’s administration, as Dumas Malone’s most wonderful six volume biography (of which, I am still making my way through) of Jefferson points out,
“The congressional session was nearing its end when the President transmitted to the Senate (April 6, 1808) a report on roads and canals, drafted by the Secretary of the Treasury, which comprised the most comprehensive and constructive domestic program that emanated from this administration.”
– He notes that the programme was not put into affect, because the threat of being drawn into the conflict in Europe at the time, loomed heavy. Whilst Jefferson stood against debt-financing of any sort, including government debt-financed programmes (though, as most things in his life, his principles and his private life seem to contradict each other), he most certainly wasn’t against State intervention for infrastructure spending. Speaking of government spending on roads, railways, canals, and public education He says:
“By these operations, new channels of communication will be opened between the States; the lines of separation will disappear, their interests will be identified, and their union cemented by new and indissoluble ties.”
He was however, in theory (less so in practice) dedicated first to the Constitution. He made his worries known that the Constitution may not give adequate power for great government funded improvement projects, and may require an amendment further down the line, to make those powers possible. And yet, Jefferson then authorises the biggest nationalised road building project, with the Cumberland Road, with an extension of the road granted under the Presidency of Republican James Monroe in 1820.
He also notes that publicly funded education, is as important to the defence of a free people, as any other (guns etc):
“The tax which will be paid for education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up if we leave the people to ignorance.”
Further, it wasn’t just the Federalists of John Adam’s Presidency that supported government run healthcare. The Congress of 1798 passed “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seaman”. This meant that the government ran a series of hospitals that were paid for by labour merchant marine sailors via a tax. Whilst we may expect this from the Adam’s administration, we wouldn’t expect it from the hero of the Tea Party movement, Thomas Jefferson. Government run healthcare, according to these people, is the worst of the worst. You must be a socialist if you support it! Well, according to Adam Rothman, a Georgetown University history professor:
“…Jefferson (Hamilton’s strict constructionist nemesis) also supported federal marine hospitals, and along with his own Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, took steps to improve them during his presidency. So I guess you could say it had bipartisan support.”
We should also note the vast difference in Republican rhetoric on the use of religion in the public sphere. Jefferson did not believe that religion could be used to define an American citizen. In his own words:
“But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
– For this, and other such quotes, he angered the Christian Right of the day, many during the 1796 election campaign insisting that he was an Atheist, unworthy of public office. Pamphlets and newspapers denounced him as a heretic, whilst Church sermons were conducted insisting that if elected, Jefferson would work to destroy Christianity. Even as late as 1830, the Philadelphia public library refused to shelve any works by Jefferson, for being anti-religious. New York minister John Mitchell Mason’s “Voice of Warning to Christians,” states openly, before going on to explain why Jefferson is an ‘infidel’:
I dread the election of Mr. Jefferson, because I believe him to be a confirmed infidel: you desire it, because, while he is politically acceptable, you either doubt this fact, or do not consider it essential. Let us, like brethren, reason this matter.
– In essence, if he were alive today, the Christian Right – the Tea Party Republicans – would undoubtedly be comparing Jefferson to Hitler at some point.
Republicans today have no such problem, because they have spent the past fifty years slowly eroding secular rights, in favour of theocratic Christian ‘morality’. Reagan was the ideal candidate to play on this anti-Constitutional religious dogmatic approach to politics. He was quite willing to break down the wall that was so brilliantly erected between Church and State some 200 years previous.
In 1988 Reagan completely destroyed any trace of Enlightenment thinking within the Republican Party, that brought around the creation of the secular United States of America with his State of the Union address, in which he states:
Well now, we come to a family issue that we must have the courage to confront. Tonight, I call America — a good nation, a moral people — to charitable but realistic consideration of the terrible cost of abortion on demand. To those who say this violates a woman’s right to control of her own body — can they deny that now medical evidence confirms the unborn child is a living human being entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Let us unite as a nation and protect the unborn with legislation that would stop all federal funding for abortion — and with a human life amendment making, of course, an exception where the unborn child threatens the life of the mother. Our Judeo-Christian tradition recognizes the right of taking a life in self-defense.”
– By linking “good and moral people” to “Judeo-Christian tradition” and ensuring that public policy be not only influenced, but entirely informed by “Judeo-Christian tradition”, Reagan severs the link between the Republican Party of today, and the so-called Republican Party of Jefferson. This continues to the present day. Jefferson is insistent that belief in ‘God’ is not a requirement to be bound together as Americans. The new hope of the Republican Party, Marco Rubio seemingly doesn’t agree:
“We’re bound together by common values. That family is the most important institution in society. That almighty God is the source of all we have.”
– Jefferson therefore, is not bound to the common values that Rubio insists make up the collective “we”. Jefferson, for Rubio, is unAmerican.
The ideological hero of the Tea Party Right disagrees with their principles in most ways.
We cannot claim that Jefferson was a free market Capitalist, nor that he was pro-government spending. We cannot claim he was an Atheist, nor that he was religious. He seems to transcend rivalry between many two opposite ideals, and instead chooses a course of pragmatism. A great commitment to the absolutely necessity of secularism for the sake of human rights. Modern day Republicans are still at war with the Soviet Union, claiming Socialism and ‘War on Christianity’ at every turn.
He was a pragmatist. He was neither on the Tea Party Right, nor the Democrat Centre-Left of today’s political spectrum.
Jefferson was a man who believed that small government was the best government; and yet he doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase. He was a man who wrote that all men are created equal; and yet he owned over 200 slaves. He was a man who was deeply committed to Republican values of equality; And yet, when asked to promote women to Federal offices insisted that the Republic wasn’t ready for such an “innovation”. He was a man who often retreated back to Monticello claiming to be done with public life, only to find his way back soon after. He was a man of many contradictions, but many brilliances. He was supremely gifted at the art of the written word, but lacking in putting into practice many of the principles he so eloquently professed. His contribution to posterity is timeless, and brilliant.
He must be remembered in the context of his time, and for aiding in the creation of a spectacular new way of running governments; based on reason, the right for people to govern themselves, and equality. He wasn’t perfect, he didn’t take his Republican principles to their rightful conclusions with regard slavery and women’s rights. But he understood that eventually, slaves would be emancipated, that rights would be extended beyond white, male land owners and that government would have a future role to play in providing for improvements, and general well being, and that the founding documents that frame the new Nation provide for such updates when the people demand it to be so. This is where Jefferson and his undeniable genius can be placed; not within a curiously narrow framework of revised history by a 21st Century Christian Right Winged funded-by-billionaires incoherent Tea Party movement that reshapes history to suit its ends.