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Jefferson’s Legacy of Liberty



Liberty and knowledge, not political power, were Thomas Jefferson’s highest values. Although he served as third President of the United States, Vice-President of the United States, Secretary of State, U. S. Ambassador to France, Member of Congress, and Governor of Virginia, Jefferson asked to be remembered in his epitaph for three other accomplishments: author of the Declaration of Independence, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.

It is fitting—today, especially, when so many Americans have lost sight of our nation’s founding principles—to try to understand Jefferson’s legacy of liberty and knowledge. Possessed of a variety of interests and highly controversial in his own time, happily for us, Jefferson’s life is well chronicled in a number of excellent biographies.

The best one-volume studies of Jefferson’s life are Noble Cunningham’s In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson and Merrill Peterson’s Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation. Cunningham’s insightful book focuses on Jefferson’s life; Peterson’s book devotes equal attention to Jefferson’s time, putting the man into the broader context of the early history of the new American nation he helped bring into being. An outstanding addition to this category is Willard Sterne Randall’s highly readable Thomas Jefferson: A Life, which deals particularly well with Jefferson’s lifelong antipathy to slavery. A historical journalist, Mr. Randall traces controversies back to their sources and sheds new light on Jefferson’s early legal career, thoughts on slavery, various Revolutionary and diplomatic intrigues, as well as matters of the heart.

Albert Jay Nock’s Mr. Jefferson, in contrast, is much less balanced. Nock, author of the libertarian classic, Our Enemy, the State, champions Jefferson and “the producing class” over Alexander Hamilton and “the exploiting class,” which Nock argues Hamilton and the Federalist party represented. Nock’s portrait of Jefferson shows us only his flattering side. Despite these limitations, however, both the Nock book offers fascinating glimpses into particular aspects of Jefferson’s life and thought that are not generally shown in other Jefferson studies.

Perhaps the best way to learn about Jefferson and his ideas is to read his own writings. Three excellent books edited by Merrill Peterson are The Portable Thomas Jefferson, a convenient paperback, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, a somewhat more comprehensive hardcover collection, and Jefferson: Public and Private Papers. Jefferson, one must remember, authored many of the most important documents in early American history. In addition to his best-known works—the Declaration of Independence and his two presidential inaugural addresses—there are other, less-known works such as his “Summary View of the Rights of British America,” which presented the cause for independence two years before its declaration; his 1791 opinion on the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States, which remains a model of strict constitutional interpretation; and his anonymously-drafted Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 eloquently defended civil liberties, protesting against the outrageous Alien and Sedition Acts. It is also well worth reading the only major book that Jefferson authored, his Notes on the State of Virginia (included in the first two volumes), an encyclopedic survey of the largest and the oldest of the original thirteen American states, as it was at the end of the Revolutionary war.

Jefferson’s private papers are excellent reading, and a handy collection of them is found in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Adrienne Koch and William Peden. This book also contains an autobiography, including Jefferson’s account of the American Revolution, as well as “Anas,” his political memoirs that continue the autobiography through the stormy years of the 1790s, when he was intimately involved in the struggles between the Federalist and Republican parties over such matters as Alexander Hamilton’s financial programs.

Jefferson himself observed that “the only full and genuine journal” of his life would be found in his letters, of which some 18,000 have been preserved. These private letters show Jefferson to have been a polymath, corresponding candidly—and often on major controversies—to a “Who’s Who” of his time.

Paine was one of Jefferson’s most frequent correspondents. In Paine and Jefferson on Liberty, edited by Lloyd S. Kramer, their mutual concerns come to the fore, with Jefferson sharing many of the views Paine expressed in his “Rights of Man” essay: that “formal government makes but a small part of civilized life”; that it is to society—to the contracts made by voluntary agreement among free individuals—“infinitely more than to anything which even the best instituted government can perform, that the safety and prosperity of the individual and of the whole depends”; and that, furthermore, “the more perfect civilization is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself.” Echoes of these ideas are found in the famous passage in Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, where he declared one of his administration’s goals to be “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, [but] which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” This is the idea of the minimal state that may also be found in such modern books of classical liberal theory as Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

John Adams, another frequent correspondent of Jefferson’s during his later years, was, at various times in Jefferson’s life, his friend and colleague (as when they served together in the Continental Congress that declared American Independence), as well as his enemy and rival (as when they headed the two major political parties of the 1790s and opposed one another for the presidency in the elections of both 1796 and 1800). In Adams & Jefferson: A Revolutionary Dialogue, Merrill Peterson explores the turbulent fifty-year relationship of the two men and their continuing dialogue over the meaning of the American Revolution. Fittingly, both men died within a few hours of each other on July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Another frequent correspondent of Jefferson’s was his close friend and collaborator, James Madison. One of their most important collaborations was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: Its Evolution and Consequences in American History, which was drafted by Jefferson and then championed in the Virginia legislature by Madison. James Madison on Religious Liberty, edited by Robert S. Alley, is a splendid collection of Madison’s own writings as well as essays by a distinguished assortment of scholars and political leaders who examine Madison’s legacy. Madison shared Jefferson’s conviction that religion was a matter of conscience, a private matter that ought not concern government. For that reason, he joined Jefferson in calling for both a wide latitude for the free exercise of religious beliefs and a strict avoidance of government “establishment” of religion.

Jefferson was a remarkably consistent and zealous defender of religious freedom. Even Leonard Levy, the critic who has labored hard to portray Jefferson’s “dark side” (Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side) concedes that his record on religious liberty was really “quite exceptional” for its consistent adherence to “profoundly libertarian” values. Indeed, in one respect at least, Jefferson went even further than Madison. As president, he abandoned the practice followed by his predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, of issuing proclamations for public days of prayer and thanksgiving, for he determined that the practice was prohibited by the First Amendment, coining the famous metaphor that the Establishment Clause erects “a wall of separation between church and state.”

Jefferson’s two terms as president are ably chronicled by both Cunningham and Peterson. For a more critical study that nevertheless credits Jefferson for his strong leadership, there is Forrest McDonald’s The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Today, when liberals and conservatives alike profess concern over the size of the federal budget deficit, it is instructive to contrast Jefferson’s administrations, which drastically reduced the size of the federal payroll while simultaneously repealing all taxes—and abolishing the internal revenue service. According to Jefferson, the federal government should be reduced to “a few plain duties performed by a few servants.”

Believing it wrong to saddle future generations with debt, President Jefferson also sought to establish the principle of “pay-as-you-go” in the federal budget. In eight years in office—and despite the unanticipated expenditure of millions of dollars for the Louisiana Purchase—his administration managed actually to reduce the national debt by about one third. After his retirement from the presidency, Jefferson urged continued effort to pay off the debt by reducing federal expenditures, noting that increased public debt would bring increased taxation “and in its train wretchedness and oppression.”

But perhaps Jefferson’s most important legacy as president was his respect for the limits imposed by the Constitution. “Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence,” he wrote; “it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.” Jefferson took very seriously the “chains of the Constitution” that bound the federal government and the presidency—particularly, the principles of federalism and separation of powers. Although he recommended that Congress appropriate money for such projects as roads, canals, river and harbor improvements, and a national university, Jefferson also recognized that a constitutional amendment was necessary for Congress to do so because such purposes were not among the enumerated powers of the federal government. “Our peculiar security is in possession of a written Constitution,” Jefferson noted. “Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.” Indeed, Jefferson’s strict interpretation of the Constitution almost jeopardized the Louisiana Purchase: he gave up his efforts on behalf of a constitutional amendment permitting the purchase only after his closest advisors urged that it would cause the French government to reconsider the deal.

With regard to foreign policy, Jefferson in his 1801 inaugural address stated his goal to be “peace, commerce, friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.” As president, he was also reluctant to interfere with the prerogatives of Congress. Unlike modern presidents, who have little or no constitutional scruples about committing U.S. troops abroad, when U. S. Navy ships fought against pirates in the Mediterranean, Jefferson—recognizing that the Constitution gave Congress alone the power to declare war—ordered the Navy to engage in defensive actions only until Congress authorized offensive measures.

Instead of empty symbolism such as his pre-Inaugural bus ride from Monticello to Washington, President William Jefferson Clinton would do well to consider truly following the path of Thomas Jefferson. Like all other modern presidents, he has a long way to go. To do so, however, he must first realize, as Jefferson did, that government always threatens liberty and—in the words of Thomas Paine—“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst...an intolerable one.”


David N. Mayer is Professor Emeritus of Law and History at Capital University Law School.






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