Saturday, April 12, 2008

April 13: Thomas Jefferson born

In honor of Thomas Jefferson's 265th birthday, born April 13, 1743, I am demolishing one of the myths that have sprouted around Mr. Jefferson. This is an excerpt from David Mayer's Thomas Jefferson, Man versus Myth, originally published in MayerBlog on April 13, 2006 and then reprinted with permission by The Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship of Rockford College, Rockford, IL, 2007.

The "Father of American Democracy" Myth

Jefferson has been long regarded as the "father of American democracy." During the celebration of his 250th birthday in 1993, he was officially proclaimed "the architect of democracy" (a play on words that coupled his famous association with democracy and his achievements as an architect). The first writer to explicitly associate Jefferson with democracy may have been Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic book, Democracy in America, where Tocqueville referred to Jefferson as "the most powerful advocate democracy has ever had."

Jefferson himself would have been surprised - perhaps even apalled - by this association with democracy because he would have strenuously denied it, and with good reason. Jefferson never explicitly identified his political philosophy with democracy. Rather, he identified with the republican form of government and called his own politics - and the political party that he founded in the 1790s - "republican."

Like virtually all the Founders, Jefferson regarded democracy as a bad form of government. Under the classical "mixed constitution" model of government to which most English-speaking thinkers adhered in the 18th century (a model that could be traced back to ancient political thought, specifically to Aristotle's Politics), democracy was one of three "pure" forms of government (the other two were monarchy and aristocracy) which, by themselves, would degenerate into either despotism or disorder. (Monarchy would degenerate into tyranny by "the one," a dictator - as in the ancient Roman empire; aristocracy would degenerate into tyranny by the "the few," the aristocrats or oligarchs, as in the ancient Roman republic; and democracy would degenerate into tyranny by the "the many," majority tyranny or mob rule, or else into anarchy). An ideal constitution, it was believed, would combine elements of each of the three pure forms into a "mixed" model of government, as Englishmen in the 18th century saw their constitution (with all three forms of government represented by the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, joined together in King and Parliament).

Jefferson's mature politcal thought eventually rejected the English "mixed constitution" model and instead embraced republican government, which he defined as, essentially, representative government. The "essence of a republic," as Jefferson understood it, was "action by the citizens in person, in affairs within their reach and competence, and in all others by representatives, chosen immediately, and removabsle by themselves." Governments were "more or less republican in proportion as this principle enters more or less into their composition." Like other American founders, he would have denied that the American system of government was a "democracy"; rather, he insisted, it was a "republic," as he thus defined it. He and his good friend James Madison, who were co-leaders of the opposition political party of the 1790s (the first true national opposition political party in U.S. history) called their party "Republican" because they believed they stood for preserving the republican system of American government against their opponents, the Hamiltonian Federalists, whom they accused of trying to introduce monarchical or aristocratic principles into the American system and thus of trying to undo the American Revolution. (For more on how the terms democracy and republic were used in early American politics, see my previous entry "A Republic, Not a Democracy," Jun3 6, 2005. )

Many people today - including historians, political scientists, and even Jefferson scholars - minunderstand Jefferson's commitment to republicanism and particularly his advocacy of "self-government," confusing it with democracy. But democracy is government by the majority of the people; republican government is government by the representatives of the people; and limited, constitutional, republican government - the American system - is government by the people's representatives whose power is limited by various constraints imposed by the constitution. "Self-government," as Jefferson understood it, meant, literally, individuals governing themselves, without the interference of government. Early in his presidency Jefferson wrote, "Our people in a body are wise, because they are under the unrestrained and unperverted operation of their own understandings." He viewed the United States as the leading model to the world for "the interesting experiment of self-government"; that it was the nation's destiny to show the world "what is the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members." To "leave" them to do what? To be free - to govern themselves.

Jefferson had much confidence in the ability of individuals to govern themselves - in other words, in their ability to be free of government control. He did not, however, have much confidence at all in the ability of individuals to govern others; like the English radical Whig philosophers who so influenced his political thought, he fundamentally distrusted men who held political power. Perhaps the most important statement of Jefferson's distrust of power can be found in his Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, where he wrote,

Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in
confidence; it is jealousy, and not confidence which
prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those
whom we are obliged to trust with power:. . . . our
Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which,
and no further, our confidence may go. . . . In questions
of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in
man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of
the Constitution.

The "chains of the Constitution" to which he referred were the various structural devices - federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, and ultimately, the ability of the people to amend the Constitution - the devices that its framers put in the document to help check the abuse of political power.

As I show in my book, The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (University of Virginia Press, 1994, paperback ed., 1995), Jefferson's philosophy of government emphasized the need for citizens to be constantly vigilant - to be ever on their guard against government and all uses of political power - because power was inherently threatening to individual freedom. My study of Jefferson's constitutional thought highlights what was most important about his philsophy of government: his committment to liberty and his distrust of government. Believing 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.

Jefferson's politcal philosophy differed profoundly from that of modern-day advocates of democracy, who seek to use politics to "empower the people" - to allow the majority in society to use the coercive power of government to limit the freedoms of individuals, in the name of some amorphous concept called the "public interest." Although Jefferson himself never uttered the famous maxim often attributed to him - "That government is best which governs least" - the sentiment behind the maxim is perfectly consistent with his political philosophy. And although Jefferson frequently defended the democratic principle of majority rule - his Republican party was, after all, far more populist (in the literal sense of the term) than its opposition, the rather elitist and paternalistic Federalist party of the 1790s - it is significant that Jefferson always coupled majority rule with the protection of minority rights. In his First Inaugural Address of March 4, 1801, for example, he urged all Americans to keep in mind "this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression."

Jefferson's well-known advocacy of religious freedom aptly illustrates this concern with the rights of minorities - for, after all, the most important minority of all is the lone individual. Jefferson regarded freedom of religion as a natural right because he understood that, in his own conscience, every individual is free. Accordingly, he authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom because he championed the right of every person to hold (or not to hold) religious beliefs, free of governmental interference. Justifying the Statute in his book (the only truly book-length work he ever wrote), Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson explained: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neghbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." If one government, the result would be not democratic government but rather limited government - indeed, the same kind of limited government (government limited to the basic function of protecting individuals from harming one another) that modern-day libertarians advocate.

Rather than being considered an "architect of democracy," Jefferson ought to be remembered as a champion of individual rights - and especially of the essential natural right, liberty, the right to be free - and of the limited, constitutional, and republican system of government that best safeguarded that essential right.

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