Saturday, July 5, 2008

Where Have You Gone, Thomas Jefferson?

I cannot think of a more fitting time for a posting that I have been playing around with for some little while. (You would be amazed if I told you how many times some of these were edited or rewritten.) So just one day after the 4th of July, the anniversary of both the death John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1826 (our 2nd and 3rd Presidents respectively) , I offer the following.
In 1967, Simon & Garfunkel wrote, "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you." This line in the song "Mrs. Robinson" from the movie "The Graduate" speaks to a confused culture, crying out for a simpler time when heroes were easier to recognize, easier to admire, and easier to gain inspiration from. The sentiment was a noble one, but picking a baseball player may be a little more naive than can be tolerated in the reality of today's world. If we really wanted to pick a true hero, we should go back more than 200 years to one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, for the type of inspiration that we could use today.

Here is a man who served his country well and fully as a member of the Assembly and Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to the Court of France, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and as our 3rd President. Most importantly, he served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. It is in that early role that we see his intelligence, his eloquence, and his vision as he penned the Declaration of Independence.
The truly amazing thing about this is that Jefferson did all of it while earning a living as a: farmer, lawyer, inventor, horticulturist, archaeologist, paleontologist, author, and architect (oh yeah, and he also helped found the University of Virginia). In spite of all of the time he spent in government service, Jefferson ultimately remained a private citizen, believing in the concept of the "yeoman farmer" as the ideal. Serving the government when required was a duty, not a profession; and was performed as personal sacrifice.

This belief in working with the land made him suspicious of urban dwelling as well. Jefferson loathed both commerce and manufacturing as ways of life, seeing them as temptations for corruption. He was also skeptical of both newspapers and banks. When the discussion of a National Bank arose, he said:

"I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale."

(You have to wonder how he would feel about the current state of the Federal budget and the Federal Reserve.)

In truth, he had nothing but contempt for large cities, and believed that the country was best served when there were new lands to conquer. It was this vision, over strong opposition in the country at the time, that compelled him to complete the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (many thought it was in fact, unconstitutional at the time). This massive land purchase from Napoleon for just over $23,000,000 now encompasses about 23% of the Continental United States, and truly established the US as a world power. This new frontier, and the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore it, fit very well with the concepts of freedom as Jefferson understood them, and provided citizens at the time with the chance to act in relative isolation and independence, free from the entanglement of government and growing with the country.

Above all, Jefferson was a man who believed in Republican principles (no, not the political party, but the principles of representative government). He truly believed in the inalienable rights of man, restricted only by interference with the rights of other men. He also believed that men had an innate sense of morality, which would allow them to restrain themselves from interfering with their fellow man's rights. He believed that because of the nature of man, little government was necessary, or preferable. Government's only function would be to prohibit individuals from infringing on rights of other individuals and to restrain itself from diminishing individual freedom. (I would say that belief in such principles today would make Jefferson sound like a libertarian, but I wouldn't want to place the "right-wind lunatic" label on one of our Founding Fathers.)

The epitaph on his tombstone (he was buried on his Monticello estate), is one that he himself wrote with the insistence that it be only his words used and "not one word more". It was simply:

HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA

Where are those today who believe in the rights and responsibilities of Man? Where are those who believe in the limits of government? Where are the true defenders of Republicanism today? Where those who contribute from a broad range of knowledge to their society? Where are those citizen-servants who leave private life only for a brief period in order to serve their fellow citizens in government? Where have you gone, Thomas Jefferson?



11 comments:

Roland Hansen said...

Excellent!

Hooda Thunkit said...

Tim,

I too lament the loss of the citizen/farmer representing the common interests of our brothers and sisters.

But, when you discover that you can grant yourself pensions, better health care and other financial benefits AND you can exempt yourself from the very same laws you see fit to impose on the rest of us, the prophecy is fulfilled; Absolute Power Absolutely Corrupts.

Not to mention drawing/attracting the kind of vermin that it brings to Congress. . .

Tim Higgins said...

hooda,

I couldn't agree more with you, and I have an answer that doesn't involve term limits. Simply do away with the retirement program in Congress and health benefits to be provided only while serving. Such thinking would force members back into public life in order to save for their own futures and would give the government back to citizens. Perhaps that would return us to the world that Jefferson hoped for.

Perhaps the real regret that we should have is that Jefferson was serving in France at a time when his voice should have been heard in creating a Constitution.

Roland Hansen said...

While those days of political heroes are long gone, we can rest easily knowing "The Three Amigos" are the forever watchful and fearless exposers of political ineptness and are the defenders of free people everywhere!

Tim Higgins said...

Wherever there is injustice, you will find us.

Wherever there is suffering, we'll be there.

Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find...

The Three Amigos!

Let's ride!

Ben said...

"Simply do away with the retirement program in Congress and health benefits to be provided only while serving. Such thinking would force members back into public life in order to save for their own futures and would give the government back to citizens...."

Nice idea, no way it would ever happen though

Tim Higgins said...

Ben,

Great changes in the world, like the founding of this country, began as simple ideas. I agree that the task would be a difficult, if not impossible one. I also believe that something must be done before the Republic is taken over by career politicians and bureaucrats.

This country was after all, founded to do away with a "ruling class".

OhioPolitical said...

Before you get too choked up about Jefferson as either advocate for freedom or exemplar of rural purity, remember that much of his yeoman farming was accomplished by slaves whom he refused to free, even upon his death.

Tim Higgins said...

OP,

While it is true that Jefferson owned slaves. It is likewise true that he fought to end the practice going back to emancipating them in Virgina in the House of Burgess in 1769. He later fought for language in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence decrying the importation of slavery to the colonies. This language was dropped in the final draft at the request of the delegations of South Carolina and Georgia. He finally won approval for a bill banning further importation of slaves to Virginia in 1778.

The fact that he did not manumit his own slaves during his lifetime appears to be a great source of guilt and shame to Jefferson. It appears that Jefferson intended to do so when finally debt-free. He passed away deeply in debt however, and his possessions were sold at auction.

Goose said...

Well thought out and well worded post. I suspect Jefferson would be appalled at how far from the principles of true representative government we, as a collective citizenry, have allowed our country to stray.

Shame on us! I wonder what can now be done (if anything) to return our government to the fundamental principles intended by this nations founders.

Tim Higgins said...

Goose,

My thanks...

I suspect you are right in regards to Jefferson's opinion on the present, and like you, I am equally at a loss to come up with a solution.

Perhaps simply calling attention to those principles and sharing them with others is a start.