What You Should Think About Thomas Jefferson

“The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred. . .”

–Thomas Jefferson

Before our country was a sovereign nation, it was a series of ideas.  Some among the ancient Greeks wrote about and lived by the belief that specific populations were well-suited to self-government in the form of direct democracy.  Both the ancient Romans and the people of 18th century England had experience with rule by elected representatives.  Yet the Greek concept of popular governance was thought unsuitable for most people born outside specific city-states, and the British Parliament formed as an outgrowth of compromises designed to maintain order in a society where monarchs presided by a claim of divine right.

The notion of intrinsic and universal human rights was not widely accepted in the 1770s.  Even among the most progressive societies today, the struggle continues to recognize and address increasingly subtle ramifications of commitments to liberty and equality.  In the time America struggled for independence, many British loyalists remained skeptical of the idea that life without an official aristocracy would be an improvement over the status quo.  Before soldiers and arms could be rallied to the cause of freedom, voices and printing presses had to make the case that freedom was a cause worth fighting for.

Abusive policies and a fundamental lack of fairness in the dealings between England and its colonies created the unrest needed to drive rebellion.  Yet fear and anger never accomplish anything productive when they are given free reign to shape the course of human events.  It took rational men, acting with benefit of calm reflection, to reshape this unrest into a constructive force.  Most of the Founding Fathers were men of ideas, reasonable and thoughtful by nature.  When it came to declaring their intention to rebel, they turned to the foremost intellect in their midst — Thomas Jefferson.

Like so many other architects of the revolution, Jefferson was an educated lawyer.  However, no single discipline could monopolize his mind.  He took an active interest in farming, both as a landowner and a believer in agricultural productivity as the foundation of any prosperous economy.  He studied architecture, pouring much of his own time and money into neoclassical buildings like his beloved Monticello.  His personal library was among the largest in the New World.  When British troops burned the original Library of Congress, it would rise from the ashes through the acquisition of Jefferson’s personal book collection.  He was also a prolific inventor, perhaps second only to Benjamin Franklin in terms of his contributions to early American technology.

Yet Jefferson’s greatest invention was the argument that the fight for independence was both just and necessary.  He did not fall back on the worldly concerns of rising taxation, unfair trade, or coercive garrisons.  He claimed that rule by unelected authorities, even the most enlightened of despots, was an intolerable abridgement of “certain unalienable Rights.”  He gave voice to the will of the people in his time by insisting that the will of the people in all times and all places must determine under what laws and institutions those people would live.  He could have chosen the path of the incendiary bombast, ridiculing royalty while stoking the fires of hatred.  Instead he embraced the way of the philosopher, invoking reason and principle to shape the world’s grandest experiment in the history of civics.

Thomas Jefferson embodied so many of the best qualities of our nation.  He lived much of his life in debt not for lack of accomplishment, but because he thought his greatest inventions were too important to be constrained by the doctrine of intellectual property.  Enriching the nation and the world were much more important pursuits to him than personal enrichment.  He always hungered for knowledge, yet he was also not shy about thirsting for wine.  Though he lived much of his adult life as a debtor, he was the first U.S. President to push for an end to the federal debt.  His reluctance to tax made that pursuit one of his few great failures, but it was the start of a tradition that has produced balanced budgets as recently as the Clinton administration.

Keenly aware of the importance of land, it was Thomas Jefferson who made the Louisiana Purchase, nearly doubling the size of the United States and paving the way for the modern scope of our nation.  He also dispatched Lewis & Clark to explore the lands west of the Mississippi.  Were it not for his vision, the U.S.A. might still find France in control of the entire western bank of that river and lands beyond.  West Point and the Army Corps of Engineers were also achievements of his Presidency.  Though he did not favor costly standing armed forces, he understood the value of professional officers and other military specialists constantly prepared in ways only possible through a career of service.  His lofty ideals did not blind him to the need for actions of practical advantage to our young nation.

Such were the dividends of rational and brilliant leadership.  Like all nations, America never thrives and grows quite so well as when it embraces thoughtful guidance and elevates those persons most intent on advancing the general welfare.  This makes it all the more unfortunate that we have lost our taste for pursuit of the public good in modern times.  In military matters, the euphemisms of “defense” and “security” disguise belligerent posturing that builds at least once per generation into a misadventure of epic proportions (and epic losses.)  At the same time, “liberalism” and “socialism” have become epithets that malign one of the central purposes of all governments.

The Constitution expressly limits acts of war to those authorized by Congress. It also repeatedly articulates a national duty to provide for the general welfare of the citizenry.  Alas, legislative reflection is long lost as a prerequisite to war, and even the most reasonable efforts to improve the American way of life are attacked as a betrayal of the very traditions and documents that dictate such efforts should be undertaken!  The perversions of this modern “ownership society” make it seem downright un-American for a corporation to balance any other concerns against stockholder gains or for an individual to forfeit a fortune in the name of making new technology available more quickly and cheaply.  In this nation conceived so that people might peacefully enjoy the fruits of worthwhile labors free from the imposition of aristocrats, we instead concentrate rewards on a new aristocracy of do-nothing heirs and downright harmful wheeler-dealer types.

Thomas Jefferson lived in bizarre times fraught with suffering and injustice.  His boldest actions served to make this land a better place for inhabitants both present and future.  The suffering and injustice we see in America today is so much less severe than the hardships faced by colonists in the 18th century.  Yet to some degree it is also more intractable.  Because we are the architects of our own misfortunes, we must look inward for remedy.  Wisely, the Founding Fathers gave us a system capable of supporting perpetual revolution.  Through voting alone, it is possible to replace leaders and even amend our Constitution.

Yet to get those votes — to make those changes and build a better tomorrow — we need great ideas and wonderful language with which to popularize those ideas.  The voices of fear and anger are upraised in ever newer and more powerful ways.  A booming choir of willful ignorance constantly threatens to dominate the process by which we practice self-government.  There is no need for this to continue.  There is no reason for this to continue.

Progress requires turning the greatest minds of our times away from the crafting of ever more arcane financial instruments or ever more trivial enhancements to common medications.  Progress requires turning that brilliance toward the invention of new systems of economic organization and new technologies of real benefit to humanity.  This would improve the quality of life for rich and poor alike in ways we can scarcely begin to imagine.  Once this land was a haven for the greatest of ideas.  We can and should choose to make it so again.

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