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 Honoring Jefferson 

July 1, 2004 
In observance of Independence Day, Time magazine has put Thomas Jefferson on its cover. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.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 platitudes.

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.

[Breaker quote: Self-evident truths or convenient slogans?]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 potential.

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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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