Political Hay

Jefferson on His Birthday

The great Founder speaks out on the pressing issues of the day.

By 4.13.06

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Today is Thomas Jefferson's birthday, and given the state of American politics, with neither major party really putting Jeffersonian ideals into action, wouldn't it be great if we could resurrect the Sage of Monticello and get his take on current affairs?

Unfortunately, Jurassic Park technology cannot yet be used to reproduce a Founding Father. But we do have Jefferson's writings. Since I cannot interview him, I've combed through a great deal of Jefferson's papers to try to find how he might answer questions about today's politics. Jefferson was complex and somewhat contradictory, and doubtlessly the answers to some of these questions could differ depending on Jefferson's age and state of mind. I've tried to come up with passages that most accurately reflect his views. All quotations can be found at the University of Virginia's Thomas Jefferson quotations page:

Q: The Republican Party claims to be the party of fiscal responsibility, but under a Republican President and Republican Congress federal spending has risen from 18.5 percent of GDP to 20.8 percent, the largest percentage increase in more than half a century, and Congress had to raise the debt ceiling so the government could borrow more money. What do you make of this?

Jefferson: "Warring against [the principles] of the people there is no length to which [the delusion of the people] may not be pushed by a party in possession of the revenues and the legal authorities of the United States, for a short time indeed, but yet long enough to admit much particular mischief. There is no event, therefore, however atrocious which may not be expected." (Letter to Samuel Smith, 1798.)

"I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt; and not for a multiplication of officers and salaries merely to make partisans, and for increasing by every device the public debt on the principle of its being a public blessing." (Letter to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.)

"To preserve the faith of the nation by an exact discharge of its debts and contracts, expend the public money with the same care and economy we would practice with our own, and impose on our citizens no unnecessary burden... are the landmarks by which we are to guide ourselves in all our proceedings." (2nd Annual Message, 1802.)

"I... place economy among the first and most important of republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared." (Letter to William Plumer, 1816.)

"I sincerely believe... that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity under the name of funding is but swindling futurity on a large scale." (Letter to John Taylor, 1816.)

Q: April 15 is Tax Day. Americans pay 31.6 percent of their income in taxes, up from 5.9 percent in 1900, according to the Tax Foundation. Do you think Americans are overtaxed?

Jefferson: "Economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burdened, I deem [one of] the essential principles of our government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." (1st Inaugural Address, 1801.)

"Private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by private extravagance. And this is the tendency of all human governments." (Letter to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.)

"Taxes should be proportioned to what may be annually spared by the individual." (Letter to James Madison, 1784.)

"The suppression of unnecessary offices, of useless establishments and expenses enabled us to discontinue internal taxes. These covering our land with officers and opening our doors to their intrusions, had already begun that process of domiciliary vexation which, once entered, is scarcely to be restrained from reaching successively every article of produce and property." (2nd Inaugural, 1805.)

"'A capitation is more natural to slavery; a duty on merchandise is more natural to liberty, by reason it has not so direct a relation to the person.'" "A quote in Jefferson's Commonplace Book.)

Q: Illegal immigration is a huge issue right now, with estimates that between 11 million and 20 million aliens reside in the United States illegally. How should the United States approach immigration?

Jefferson: "Born in other countries, yet believing you could be happy in this, our laws acknowledge, as they should do, your right to join us in society, conforming, as I doubt not you will do, to our established rules. That these rules shall be as equal as prudential considerations will admit, will certainly be the aim of our legislatures, general and particular." (Letter to Hugh White, 1801.)

"[Is] rapid population [growth] by as great importations of foreigners as possible... founded in good policy?... They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their number, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass... If they come of themselves, they are entitled to all the rights of citizenship: but I doubt the expediency of inviting them by extraordinary encouragements." (Notes on Virginia Q.VIII, 1782.)

"I mean not that these doubts should be extended to the importation of useful artificers. The policy of that measure depends on very different considerations. Spare no expense in obtaining them. They will after a while go to the plough and the hoe; but in the meantime, they will teach us something we do not know." (Notes on Virginia Q.VIII, 1782.)

Q: What do you make of the War on Terror?

Jefferson: "I think it to our interest to punish the first insult; because an insult unpunished is the parent of many others." (Letter to John Jay, 1785.)

"We have borne patiently a great deal of wrong, on the consideration that if nations go to war for every degree of injury, there would never be peace on earth. But when patience has begotten false estimates of its motives, when wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality." (Letter to Mme de Stael, 1807.)

"The lamentable resource of war is not authorized for evils of imagination, but for those actual injuries only which would be more destructive of our well-being than war itself." (Reply to Address, 1801.)

Q: What about President Bush's attempt to spread Democracy in the Middle East?

Jefferson: "I freely admit the right of a nation to change its political principles and constitution at will, and the impropriety of any but its own citizens censuring that change." (Letter to the Earl of Buchan, 1803.)

"The presumption of dictating to an independent nation the form of its government is so arrogant, so atrocious, that indignation as well as moral sentiment enlists all our partialities and prayers in favor of one and our equal execrations against the other. I do not know, indeed, whether all nations do not owe to one another a bold and open declaration of their sympathies with the one party and their detestation of the conduct of the other. But farther than this we are not bound to go; and, indeed, for the sake of the world, we ought not to increase the jealousies or draw on ourselves the power of [a] formidable confederacy." (Letter to James Monroe, 1823.)

Q: Even if that country does terrible things to its own citizens and violates international law?

Jefferson: "Every nation has of natural right, entirely and exclusively, all the jurisdiction which may be rightfully exercised in the territory it occupies. If it cedes any portion of that jurisdiction to judges appointed by another nation, the limits of their power must depend on the instrument of cession." (Letter to Gouverneur Morris, 1793.)

"The people wish for peace... They feel no incumbency on them to become the reformers of the other hemisphere, and to inculcate, with fire and sword, a return to moral order." (Letter to James Monroe, 1811.)

Q: What about the International Criminal Court? Can't it get involved when despots violate human rights?

Jefferson: "No court can have jurisdiction over a sovereign nation." (Letter to William Short, 1791.)

Q: The U.S. House just passed a bill to further limit donations to 527s, which are citizens' groups formed to speak out on national politics. This follows a campaign finance reform law that forbids some citizens' groups from advertising their messages within the 60 days immediately before an election. Are these justified restrictions of citizens' free speech rights?

Jefferson: "The following [addition to the Bill of Rights] would have pleased me: The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or otherwise to publish anything but false facts affecting injuriously the life, liberty or reputation of others, or affecting the peace of the [United States] with foreign nations." (Letter to James Madison, 1789.)

"The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe." (Letter to Charles Yancey, 1816.)

"The will of the people... is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object." (Letter to Benjamin Waring, 1801.)

"[This is] a country which is afraid to read nothing, and which may be trusted with anything, so long as its reason remains unfettered by law." (Letter to Joseph Milligan, 1816.)

Q: One of the reasons federal spending has grown so much is the accumulation of power in Washington. The federal government dispenses economic aid and medical assistance, regulates local schools, funds local development projects and otherwise has its hand in every pot. Is that to your liking?

Jefferson: "I consider the foundation of the [Federal] Constitution as laid on this ground: That 'all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.' [10th Amendment] To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition." (Opinion on National Bank, 1791.)

Q: President Bush is exceedingly unpopular at the moment. How important is popularity for a chief executive?

Jefferson: "Government [is] founded in opinion and confidence." (The Anas, 1792.)

"It is not wisdom alone but public confidence in that wisdom which can support an administration." (Letter to James Monroe, 1824.)

Q: Why do you think President Bush's administration is so poorly thought of?

Jefferson: "It is much easier to avoid errors by having good information at first, than to unravel and correct them after they are committed." (Letter to David Rittenhouse, 1790.)

"Free people think they have a right to an explanation of the circumstances which give rise to the necessity under which they suffer." (Letter to Nathaniel Green, 1781.)

Q: Congress abolished the inheritance tax, only to see it return in a few years. That is one of the tax cuts Congress could make permanent. Should it be abolished, or does the government have the right to tax the transfer of property from one generation to the next?

Jefferson: "To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father's has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and 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.'" (Note in Destutt de Tracy's "Political Economy," 1816.)

Q: Happy Birthday.

Jefferson: "Disapproving myself of transferring the honors and veneration for the great birthday of our republic to any individual, or of dividing them with individuals, I have declined letting my own birthday be known, and have engaged my family not to communicate it. This has been the uniform answer to every application of the kind." (Letter to Levi Lincoln, 1803.)

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.