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Commentary

Remembering Jefferson


     
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Third president of the United States, vice-president, secretary of state, ambassador to France, member of Congress, governor of Virginia.

Despite these titles, Thomas Jefferson asked to be remembered as father of the University of Virginia, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and author of the Declaration of Independence.

Liberty and knowledge, Jefferson's epitaph indicates, were his highest values. But, of course, Jefferson like other founding fathers had limitations, most noticeably in regard to slavery, which he eventually gave up trying to abolish in Virginia although he regarded it as a "great political and moral evil."

Nevertheless, with today, April 13, marking the 250th anniversary of his birth, it is fitting -- when so many Americans have lost sight of our founding principles -- to commemorate Jefferson's writings and legacy.

Indeed, Jefferson may have authored the most important document in American history, but he has also left behind many lesser-known works of great importance:

His "Summary View of the Rights of British America" presented the cause for independence two years before its declaration; his 1791 opinion on the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States became a model of strict constitutional interpretation; and his anonymously-drafted Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 eloquently protested the outrageous Alien and Sedition Acts.

Jefferson's views on limited government are equally worth celebrating.

One of his most frequent correspondents was radical patriot and political theorist Thomas Paine, whose libertarian influence is found in Jefferson's first inaugural address, in which the new president proposed "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."

Jefferson was likewise a consistent defender of religious freedom. As president, he abandoned the practice of his predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, of issuing proclamations for public days of prayer and thanksgiving.

Jefferson determined doing so was prohibited by the First Amendment, giving rise to the famous metaphor, that the Establishment Clause erects "a wall of separation between church and state."

And today, when liberals and conservatives alike voice 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 domestic taxes -- and abolishing the internal revenue service.

Believing it was wrong to saddle future generations with debt, Jefferson also sought to establish a "pay-as-you-go" budget system. And despite the unanticipated expenditure of millions for the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson managed to reduce the national debt by about one third while president.

In retirement, he continued to urge that government reduce federal expenditures, noting that public debt brings increased taxation "and in its train wretchedness and oppression."

But perhaps Jefferson's most important legacy was his respect for the constitutional limitations on the presidency, the "chains of the Constitution": federalism and separation of powers.

For instance, although he recommended that Congress appropriate money for such projects as roads, canals, and a national university, Jefferson also recognized that a constitutional amendment was necessary to enumerate such undertakings for 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."

And with regard to foreign policy, Jefferson in his 1801 inaugural address stated his goals were "peace, commerce, friendship with all nations -- entangling alliances with none."

Unlike modern presidents, who have had few scruples about committing U.S. forces abroad, Jefferson, when U.S. Navy ships fought against pirates in the Mediterranean, ordered defensive actions only until Congress authorized offensive engagements.

Instead of empty symbolism -- such as the pre-inaugural bus ride from Monticello to Washington, D.C. -- President Clinton ought to truly emulate Jefferson in respecting the limits of government. He should realize that government always threatens liberty, and that, as Jefferson warned, "the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground," and that the purpose of constitutions is "to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power."






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