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Being Jeffersonian, Part II

February10

For background, please see “Being Jeffersonian, Part I”, by brian-patrick cork, dated 02/09/2007.

In politics, Jefferson was by no means an anarchist, as his enemies alleged. But, far more than his Federalist political opponents (and many modern conservatives), he had confidence in the ability of individuals to govern themselves. The “essence of a republic,” he wrote, is a system in which individuals “reserve to themselves personally the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent,” delegating other powers to their “representatives, chosen immediately, and removable by themselves.” Shortly after becoming president, he wrote Joseph Priestley that he envisioned Americans as acting “under the unrestrained and unperverted operation of their own understandings,” thus proving to the world “the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members.”

Because government is, as Jefferson stated in the Declaration, “instituted among men” for the express purpose of “securing” natural rights, it was a fundamental principle of Jefferson’s political philosophy that no government could legitimately transgress those rights. For law to be binding, it must not only proceed from the will of properly authorized legislators but also be “reasonable, that is, not violative of first principles, natural rights, and the dictates of the sense of justice.”

In an 1816 letter, Jefferson observed: “No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him; and, no man having a natural right to be the judge between himself and another, it is his natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third.” He added, “when the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions, and the idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right.” Two years later, in a report he prepared as chairman of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, Jefferson included in his syllabus of the basic principles of government, “a sound spirit of legislation, which, banishing all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another.”

Equally fundamental to Jefferson’s political philosophy was his constitutionalism. Realizing that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” Jefferson stressed the importance of written constitutions, scrupulously adhered to, as well as popular participation and vigilance over government to keep its power from being abused. To do so peaceably, without recourse to revolution, it was vital to maintain what Jefferson called the “chains of the Constitution”—such devices as federalism, the separation of powers, bills of rights, and provisions for amendment—”to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.”

In political economy, Jefferson’s thought began with the right to property, which he understood to be part of the natural right to pursue happiness. As he put it in 1816, the right to property is founded “in our natural wants, in the means by which we are endowed to satisfy those wants, and the right to what we acquire by those means without violating the equal rights” of others. He argued that extra taxation of the wealthy would transgress natural right: “To take from one, because it is thought that his industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry or skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it.” Jefferson’s views on political economy are especially interesting, for they changed over time in a way that rebuts the conservative charge: that a Jeffersonian, believing in reason and nature, would naturally drift toward coercion and collectivism. In fact, Jefferson moved toward an ever more consistent philosophy of liberty. Abandoning his early, classical agrarianism (the naive belief that farmers are the only productive and “virtuous” members of society), he came to support market capitalism as a derivative of his theory of rights.

Specifically, he embraced the fairly thoroughgoing free-market ideas found in the Treatise on Political Economy, written by the French anti-mercantilist philosopher Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy. De Tracy made clear that the productive value of the trader or manufacturer is equal to that of the farmer. He also defended the right of industrious persons to seek profits as “rewards for their talents,” and viewed commerce generally as the “fabric” of society. Jefferson was so enthusiastic about this treatise that he undertook the task of translating it into English, so that it could be used as the basic economics text in American universities.

Jefferson’s Legacy

In many areas of his thought other than politics, Jefferson could be quite unsystematic. In ethics, for example, he believed in an innate “moral sense” that guided persons to be benevolent—a naive and idealistic assumption about human nature that may, in part, explain Jefferson’s trust in the capacity of individuals to govern themselves. But in his political philosophy, in his advocacy of limited government and eternal vigilance to keep its power safely in check, Jefferson was remarkably consistent throughout his public life—from the time of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the time of his death on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years later. Significantly, in his last letter he wrote of the document’s importance: “May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”

brian patrick cork

3 Comments to

“Being Jeffersonian, Part II”

  1. Avatar April 21st, 2009 at 6:24 pm Setting the Stage « The Unsinkable brian cork Says:

    […] (see my prior posts: The Jeffersonian Model, Being Jeffersonian, Part I, and (the epic /2) Being Jeffersonian, Part II ) would likely frown over this because it falls outside the Democratic […]


  2. Avatar October 22nd, 2009 at 3:39 pm euandus Says:

    Remember what Jefferson said about a national bank (relative to a standing army)?
    On Federalism and industry: I suspect that the latest compromise regarding state banking regulation points to the influence of large corporations on the Congress as a culprit in the on-going eclipse of federalism. I have just posted on this, in case you are interested.


  3. Avatar October 23rd, 2009 at 11:55 am Brian Patrick Cork Says:

    It’s good to hear from you euandus.

    Your points are relevant and timely. The corollary can’t be ignored.

    Readers of this Blog (and you are many and legion) can read the referred to posting here: http://skipworden.wordpress.com/2009/10/22/why-federalism-is-going-down-big-business/

    Meanwhile… I’ll add that were members of the House and Senate’s views (and needs) more in-line with those of their constituents, there might be improved equity. The average Congressman is paid 322% more than their average constituent. And, Congress has access to White House-level executive healthcare when 31% of their constituents have none.

    euandus and I wil likely agree that a key breakdown is poor, non-existent representation is afoot.

    Cork


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