In a letter to John Taylor in May 1816, Thomas Jefferson commented on the term republic, after having read Taylor’s “Enquiry into the principles of our government”* :
“Indeed, it must be acknowledged, that the term republic is of very vague application in every language. Witness the self-styled republics of Holland, Switzerland, Genoa, Venice, Poland.”
Jefferson goes on to state that the term is ideally applicable to a population of a particular size inhabiting a region not much larger than a Greek city-state, and in which elected and appointed officials are directly answerable to the electorate. He projected that in larger republics, representatives would also be answerable to the electorate and be duty-bound to follow its instructions to secure its life, liberty, and property.
“On this view of the import of the term republic, instead of saying, as has been said, ‘that it may mean anything or nothing,’ we may say with truth and meaning, that governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition; and believing, as I do, that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights, and especially, that the evils flowing from the duperies of the people, are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents, I am a friend to that composition of government which has in it the most of this ingredient.”**
Jefferson also noted in his letter that “the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” What an apt description of the current federal “bailout” and “stimulus” programs! Jefferson, of course, could not have imagined the scale of evil that will flow (and has flowed in past administrations) as a result of a combination of the “duperies of the people” and the arrogance of President Barack Obama through his proposed $1 trillion plus spending programs, together with the government’s theft in the act of printing more money.
Although the body of Jefferson’s politics is often referred to as “Jeffersonian democracy,” one paragraph in his writing obviates that notion. It occurs in an April 1816 reply to Pierre S. DuPont de Nemours (1739-1817), a French economist who had drafted constitutions for South American governments. It buttresses his idea of an ideal republic, one that protects and upholds individual rights:
“Liberty, truth, probity, honor, are declared to be the four cardinal principles of your society. I believe with you that morality, compassion, generosity, are innate elements of the human constitution; that there exists a right independent of force; that a right to property is founded in our natural wants, in the means with which we are endowed to satisfy these wants, and the right to acquire by those means without violating the similar rights of other sensible beings; that no one has a right to obstruct another, exercising his faculties innocently for the relief of sensibilities made a part of his nature; that justice is the fundamental law of society; that the majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society; that action by the citizens in person, in affairs within their reach and competence, and in all others by representatives, chosen immediately, and removable by themselves, constitutes the essence of a republic; that all governments are more or less republican in proportion as their principle enters more or less into their composition and that a government by representation is capable of extension over a greater surface of country than one of any other form.”*** [Italics mine.]
So much for Jeffersonian “democracy.” Jefferson’s concept of “majority rule” was founded on the premise that men would “naturally” know their individual rights and act to defend them, although he had witnessed in his own time how groundless that belief was. However, his concept of the nature of man (inherited chiefly from John Locke) is the basis for his statement on the evil of physical force and is derived from reality. I do not think Jefferson ever divested himself of the intrinsicism present in much of his political thought, but this should not gainsay the empirical truth of his argument here, that is, that he made true statements.
That observation brings us to the pièce de résistance of this commentary. In June of 1816, Samuel Kercheval wrote Jefferson for his thoughts on a proposed revision of Virginia’s first constitution. A month later Jefferson replied, devoting a great part of his letter to a warning about the consequences of unending government debt:
“I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom. And to preserve their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude. If we run into such debts, as that we must be taxed in our meat and our drink, in our necessities and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and our creeds, as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes; have no time to think, no means of calling the mis-managers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers. Our landholders, too, like theirs, retaining indeed the title and stewardship of estates called theirs, but held really in trust for the treasury, must wander, like theirs, in foreign countries, and be contended with penury, obscurity, exile, and the glory of the nation.
“This example reads to us the salutary lesson, that private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by private extravagance….A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, and to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering. Then begins, indeed, the bellum omnium in omnia [war of all against all], which some philosophers observing to be so general in this world, have mistaken it for the natural, instead of the abusive state of man. And the fore horse of this frightful team is public debt. Taxation follows that, and in its train wretchedness and oppression.”****
No better description of our current dilemma can be found anywhere else, except in John Galt‘s speech to the nation in Ayn Rand‘s prophetic novel, Atlas Shrugged.
It could be said that Jefferson placed too much confidence in the wisdom and rectitude of “the people.” Perhaps in his time, a time when reason still exerted an influence on men and on the culture, there was reason to believe that they would not so easily or so quickly sell their birthright for a mess of pottage, as many Americans have done today, that is, those who chose profusion and servitude over economy and liberty. These are the Americans who have been raised in a welfare state, but who also have benefited from the energies of the productive sector of the economy. They have been taught that there is no connection between a growing, looting welfare state and decreasing productivity and a shrinking private sector, and that because there is no connection, there is nothing to think about. Just believe what politicians and college professors and the news media say.
Destroy private fortunes, expropriate the wealth and savings of the productive and the thrifty, redistribute the proceeds, as a consequence sentence millions of others to servitude to subsist on oatmeal and potatoes, to labor in the private sector or to help link their own chains to those of others in government jobs that are but camouflaged welfare programs — and all will be well.
When the connection between the moral and the practical is severed in men’s minds and in practice, then we have today’s crisis. A crisis is a state when all is not well.
John Galt, in his speech, said that man’s only original sin is a refusal to think. That is what many Americans are guilty of, faced with the evidence which they repress in their minds because their appetite for the unearned exceeds their apprehension of reality, an appetite made “moral“ by the advocates, past and present, of faith and force. They are both the dupes and the engine of statism. Our government has little to fear from “the people,” else why would it accelerate its extravagant takeover of the economy with impunity?
“I tremble for my country,” wrote Jefferson in Notes on Virginia, “when I reflect that God is just.” Some Americans may agree with him, as the country moves closer to bankruptcy, collapse, anarchy, and war of all against all for possession of what is left of it, because it had abandoned reason and tried to cheat reality.
Other Americans will agree with John Galt, that it is reality which cannot be cheated, and that its justice is ineluctable and impervious to hopes and wishes.
*Also known as An Enquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States, completed in 1814. Taylor (1753-1824), veteran of the Revolution, a strict “constructionist” of the Constitution, and advocate of the states’ rights doctrine, also wrote Arator (1813) and Tyranny Unmasked (1822), the latter a critique of growing federal powers. A life-long ally of Jefferson, he was a key political philosopher who served in the U.S. Senate and Virginia House of Delegates.
**Jefferson: Writings, New York: The Library of America (1984), “The Test of Republicanism,” pp. 1391-5.
***Op. cit., “Constitutionally and Conscientiously Democrats,” pp. 1384-8.
****Op. cit, “Reform of the Virginia Constitution,” pp. 1395-1403.