The Truth About Thomas Jefferson

For a vision of our future, we should look to Henry Clay instead.

Henry Clay in the Senate Wikipedia Public DomainI don’t make a habit of hanging out on conservative websites. Honest! But this morning I landed on an article by Michael Barone of the American Enterprise Institute called “The Return of the Jeffersonian Vision and the Rejection of Progressivism.” Barone’s essay—which paints progressive politics as anti-Jeffersonian—presents a big, fat, juicy target for those of us who see government as a part of the solution to our shared problems, rather than as the source of those problems.

Barone—a scholar who has some good ideas—is basically right about Jefferson: among the Founders, the “sage of Monticello” firmly advocated for limited government, based on a political philosophy anchored in the radical individualism of a rural, sparsely populated America.

Says Barone:

The Founders had different ideas of the worthiness of commerce. Jefferson envisioned a republic of freeholding egalitarian farmers. Alexander Hamilton envisioned a republic on the path toward commercial and industrial preeminence. But Jefferson’s vision was a more accurate picture of the United States in the early years of the republic, where land was plentiful and labor scarce, where the large majority of white men were farmers and most of them owned the land they worked.

But it’s 2010, not 1776:  land isn’t as plentiful, labor isn’t scarce, and we don’t live in a rustic egalitarian utopia. Barone argues that the rural, property-owning Americans of today best embody the Jeffersonian spirit.  Maybe so, but so what?  As a whole we’re no longer a rural nation: our citizens are less isolated, our lives are more interconnected, and our economy is more global. And increasingly our vision of home isn’t a single family, suburban home. if we’re going to make progress on climate and clean energy—among other pressing issues of our times—Jefferson’s precepts are somewhere between irrelevant and unhelpful.

As even Barone points out, the Founders weren’t a monolithic lot.  Barone cites the Declaration of Independence as the founding document of our country.  But it’s the Constitution that governs us, and Jefferson’s vision of limited government was only partially enshrined in our Constitution. And, as I’ve suggested before, there’s reason to believe that our Constitution is in need of a serious update.

And here’s something you may not know about Thomas Jefferson: he was a secessionist. Jefferson believed that if a state didn’t like what the federal government was doing, it had a right to leave the Union. In fact, Jefferson (possibly with help from James Madison) was the author of the earliest document articulating the principles of secession: the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. You won’t find passages of the Kentucky Resolutions being read out loud in elementary school classes (“whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force”) or quoted by scholars like Barone. But listen to the rants of your local tea baggers and the Governor of Texas and you’ll hear similar language. Jefferson’s individualism extended beyond the idea of limited government but to outright nullification of federal laws and withdrawal from the Union, the essential causes of the Civil War.

I’d argue that in today’s world, Thomas Jefferson atomic individualism leads to a blind alley of pointless rhetoric about getting “government out of our lives.”  Instead, there is another strain of American thought and vision we ought to call on. Henry Clay’s “American System” was a comprehensive response to the economic problems of the first decades of the 19th century. Here’s a succinct description of the American System from the US Senate’s webpage on Clay. The American System was:

One of the most historically significant examples of a government-sponsored program to harmonize and balance the nation’s agriculture, commerce, and industry. This “System” consisted of three mutually reenforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other “internal improvements”

Let me be even more succinct about Clay’s vision: taxes, regulating the banks, and spending money on infrastructure. Clay was a Whig, which ironically is the antecedent of today’s Republican Party. His greatest opponents were Jacksonian Democrats who opposed government intervention in the same way Jefferson did. Clay fought against Jacksonian political power to enact a system of regulation and investment to put people back to work and lay out community rules of the game for business. He was a proponent of Keynesian economics a century before it existed.

So when we look back at our nation’s history looking for red white and blue examples of American visionaries who saw government playing an important role in the life of the country, we don’t have to stop at Franklin Roosevelt. Among the Founders (men like Hamilton, shot and killed by a supporter of Jefferson, Aaron Burr), and later figures like Henry Clay, there are leaders that provide a counterbalance to those like Barone who argue that Jefferson has a unique purchase on an American vision of freedom and government. Most of us wouldn’t share much with Jefferson’s radical individualist view of our future if we truly understood it. Our present looks a lot more like Clay’s American System, with a healthy emphasis on sustainable revenues, raising regulatory standards, and investing in jobs and shared prosperity.

Image of Henry Clay on the floor of the Old Senate Chamber from Wikipedia is public domain.

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Comments

  1. Peter says:

    Clay more or less got his way in the end. Andrew Jackson’s Mayfield Road Veto set the South on a permanent campaign against infrastructure spending. They didn’t have any decent highways till Eisenhaeur. It left their economies behind for 150 years. Most of the arguments arise because Dem’s don’t have that sense do some but not all. When they gain the Presidency, they wan’t to ‘fix’ everything right away. That always sets off a war. I agree that if we could make a national plan for the next 25 years or so into the future, it would be less costly in the long run. What God Hath Wrought is a great book on this (not a religous book).

  2. Sierra says:

    Excellent summary of why Jefferson isn’t the liberal hero some have always hoped he was. Great job, Roger.

  3. Nathanael says:

    And yet, in practice, Jefferson made Hamilton Treasury Secretary, was perfectly happy with a centralized Bank of the United States, made the Louisiana Purchase as a single centralized federal purchase, expended large amounts on centralized infrastructure programs, et cetera et cetera….

    …Jefferson was first and foremost a pragmatist, and when his ideals got in the way of getting results, he threw the ideals out the window. An interesting man; I think he’s quite the role model, but he’s not exactly the sort of role model people think he is.

  4. Nathanael says:

    Grrr. Sorry for being utterly wrong. Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary was Gallatin, who was anti-Hamiltonian… but he STILL allowed the Bank of the United States to continue its role. Though he privatized it.

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