July 1, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     In observance of Independence Day, TIME magazine has 
put Thomas Jefferson on its cover. Naturally, the copious 
articles within pay his genius worshipful lip service, 
while missing the essence of it. They are more interested 
in current obsessions -- such as his views on race and 
whether he had children by one of his slaves -- than in 
his political philosophy.

     The last thing Jefferson would want would be mere 
lip service. The "self-evident truths" of his Declaration 
of Independence -- that all men are created equal, that 
their Creator has endowed them with unalienable rights, 
that government derives its just powers from the consent 
of the governed -- were meant to be challenges, not 

     Today we repeat them as if nobody ever doubted them. 
And we seldom reflect on what they actually mean. But 
Jefferson never ceased pondering their implications, like 
Euclid exploring the remotest implications of the 
simplest axioms.

     By today's standards, King George III was a very 
mild tyrant indeed. He taxed his American colonists at a 
rate of only pennies per annum. His actual impact on 
their personal lives was trivial. He had arbitrary power 
over them in law and in principle, but in fact it was 
seldom exercised. If you compare his rule with that of 
today's U.S. Government, you have to wonder why we 
celebrate our independence. "It was a famous victory."

     A master of several languages and many sciences, 
Jefferson sought to reduce political philosophy to simple 
terms every American could understand. The Declaration 
distills the political philosophy of John Locke, which 
Jefferson regarded as the consensus of reasonable men of 
his own generation.

     Jefferson's 1798 Kentucky Resolutions -- one of his 
most important writings, neglected and disparaged today 
-- took the Declaration's self-evident truths a step 
further. He argued that the "free and independent 
states," as parties to the Constitution, must not allow 
the Federal Government to monopolize constitutional 
interpretation; for if that government could define the 
extent of its own powers, the whole purpose of the 
Constitution would be defeated.

     One of Jefferson's recent biographers remarks that 
this argument was "dangerously close" to an argument for 
the states' right to secede from the Union. That is 
exactly where it led, as the Confederacy later contended. 
The states had the same right to withdraw from a Union 
they deemed tyrannical that they had had to withdraw from 
the British Empire.

     Jefferson was willing to apply the radical logic of 
those self-evident truths. He was a conservative radical 
-- he argued against secession except as a last resort -- 
but a radical nonetheless. Those truths weren't empty 
slogans; they were active principles, full of explosive 

     That potential exploded in 1860, when states did 
begin seceding. The new president, Abraham Lincoln, who 
claimed to be a disciple of Jefferson, had to ignore much 
of Jefferson's thought in order to justify suppressing 
secession as "rebellion." He incessantly cited the truth 
that all men are created equal, but he evaded the part 
about the consent of the governed and established 
military dictatorships in the conquered South, while 
effectively criminalizing Jefferson's views on secession 
in the North.

     All this set a lasting precedent for pretending to 
honor Jefferson while distorting his real philosophy. 
Following this tradition, TIME gives us a toothless 
Jefferson whose views wouldn't rattle today's status quo. 
His great enemy Alexander Hamilton, who took a far more 
liberal view of the "implied powers" of the Federal 
Government, is much more in vogue now.

     Today it's fashionable to condescend to Jefferson by 
saying his philosophy is a bit old-fashioned -- plausible 
in an agrarian society, maybe, but hopelessly out of date 
now. Jefferson would reply that self-evident truths are 
never "old": A proposition is either true or false. If 
his truths were true in 1776, they were always true, and 
will always remain true.

     A slaveowner, Jefferson saw that those truths were 
fatal to slavery. And his personal conduct on slavery has 
been rightly criticized on his own principles. But that 
is all the more reason to take his principles seriously. 
A man of Jefferson's intellect, merely creating a 
philosophy to justify himself, would have come up with a 
very different set of principles.

     The best way honor Jefferson -- the only true way -- 
is to take his words as seriously as he meant them.


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