March 22, 1997
For The Model Citizen
Wanted citizens trained in science, law, politics, economics and
history and loyal to the best American ideals.
By Howard Hobbs Ph.D.
WASHINGTON -- Sometime during the past generation, the American public has begun to regain interest in Thomas Jefferson's life and thought. The growing use of digital online media has only amplified interest in him.
For the most part today's writers have condemned Jefferson's policies on human rights, slavery, and his non-scientific theories of farming and human evolution. However, a recent biography, The American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis, concentrates on Jefferson's character traits.
American Sphinx focuses on both the development of Jefferson's character and his confusing legacy. This is the legacy that president William Clinton has molded his polices on, according to the Clinton's statements to the press prior to his inauguration while touring Jefferson's Monticello estate.
Ellis is one of an ever-dwindling number of scholars who believe that it is possible to know Jefferson, or indeed any historical figure, 'as he really was.' By examining the 'bedrock Jeffersonian values that determined the shape of the political vision he projected so successfully onto his world.'
Ellis portrays Jefferson as an idealist who was never as comfortable creating institutions or governing as he was when playing at being an architect of an American Greek revival in building temples in Washington D.C., designing obelisks, monuments, and columned public forums.
There was tension in his public and private life resulting from his aristocratic values and his unstable personal finances. This tension distorted the man who espoused extraordinary vision on the one hand, and who practiced intense self-deception, on the other.
Immersed in the Enlightenment's intellectual currents, Jefferson was a true libertine radical, but unlike many other intellectuals before and since he was forced to deal with the realities of life in a revolutionary society on the American frontier.
On his better days, Jefferson's ideal was an abstract theory borrowed from the ethos of Solon [638-559 BC] the Athenian statesman and legislator, whom Jefferson considered the founder of City-State republican democracy. Jefferson thought of Solon as a kindred spirit. He too was born of a noble family, as a young man he engaged in foreign trade, gaining valuable experience in trade and government policy.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. His statement is still one of the most eloquent expressions of human rights among the early founders of the nation.
American colonial aristocrats like Thomas Jefferson read the French writers on political virtue, such as Charles Montesquieu who wrote that '... honor is found in a republic through its spring of political virtue.' An honest man ...' he also wrote '... is a man who loves the laws of his country and is actuated by the love of those laws.'
During Solon's lifetime, a crisis occurred in social and economic conditions in Greece. An agricultural depression had taken hold, and many free Athenian small farmers who could not pay their debts were sold into slavery. In 594 BC Solon was elected chief magistrate, to reform the oppressive conditions.
Although many details of Solon's legislation are lost, Solon undoubtedly emancipated the individual and took the first decisive step toward true republican democracy. The key to his reforms was moderation, and he introduced a citizenship ideal where each class in society would receive privileges in proportion to the public burdens it was able to bear.
The ancient historian, Herodotus, wrote that Solon met with great opposition and following a year in office, he withdrew from public life in self-exile for a period of approximately ten years.
Thomas Jefferson read Thomas Hobbes' 1642 work De Cive in which Hobbes laid the foundations of modern scientific sociology by attempting to apply to human beings, as both makers and matter of society, the principles of physical science that govern the material world. Hobbes developed his political economics and ethics from a naturalistic basis.
But, Jefferson was preoccupied with Greek thinking and Solon's great experiment in republican forms of government. Jefferson was also an earthy business opportunist whose acumen made him not only the champion of the 'common man' in American politics, but also an aggressive proponent of English planter capitalism. The common-good was also a vague ideal.
The Scotsman economist, Adam Smith had written in 1776 'Every individual in pursuing his or her own good is led, as if by an invisible hand, to achieve the best good for all. Therefore any interference with free competition by government is almost certain to be injurious.
There is evidence that Jefferson was also well read on Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments(1759) and his later An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Adam Smith's concept of the 'common good' is represented in the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson was a wealthy Virginia planter. He was the lord of a vast economic enterprise, an agricultural plantation system powered by human slaves.
When Jefferson acquired his plantation, its land was the richest and most productive in the British colony of Virgina. In the beginning, a few slaves could achieve great productivity.
But, as time passed, Jefferson noted the low productivity of his plantation and accounted for it as the fault of enslaved workers. To correct this trend, he established harsher work rules, and hired hundreds of new slaves to work his land.
Jefferson's intense exploitation of the plantation soils continued to diminish the ability of the soil to carry the crop load demanded of it. What Jefferson failed to appreciate during the early years was his management of the plantation had 'worn-out' the soil. In time, he would come to recognize that soil exhaustion of the land had greatly diminished the economic value of the plantation.
He maintained the pretense of a going concern, in spite of his knowledge that it was inefficient to maintain an enormous estate of worthless land and hundreds of slaves, for whom there was little or no work.
He was the revolutionay theorist who drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1775 and 1776. He served as secretary of state. He was the diplomat whose mission it was to travel to Paris in the 1780s. He served as vice president. He was governor of Virgina. He served two terms as president of the United States. He had been retired from public life for nine years when his death occurred in 1825.
The central tenet of Jefferson's political conscience sought a libertine escape from responsibiliities of good government to dreaming and avoidance of physical labor and personal responsibility.
George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, on the other hand, were of a very conservative character, concerned chiefly with the practical question of balancing order and liberty.
Ellis' new biography makes several interesting conclusions. The central tenet of Jefferson's political creed, he claims, was political liberation -- escaping the restraints of governments and traditional institutions that prevented people from achieving their full potential.
In this he might have stood apart from most of the rest of the revolutionary generation - George Washington, John Adams, and even Jefferson's own protege James Madison - who were concerned chiefly with the practical question of balancing order and liberty. As Ellis writes, 'Jefferson was more a political visionary than a political thinker.'
As is generally the case with visionaries who carve out careers in practical affairs, Jefferson learned to overlook inconvenient facts. His livelihood rested on the labor of black slaves, the subjects of an oppression infinitely worse than anything George III planned for the American colonists.
To his credit, Jefferson recognized the contradiction, but he never did anything about it. Likewise, he minimized the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands, because he supported the effort to demolish the stultifying institutions of ancien regime France - the monarchy, aristocracy, and church.
Despite the eagerness of almost every modern politician to claim Jefferson's mantle, Ellis concludes that the Sage of Monticello had a fairly limited political legacy. Throughout his public life, Jefferson championed states' rights and the yeoman farmer.
However, in the past four years, President Clinton and the Democrat Party, while loudly proclaiming Jeffersonian themes, have quietly and from behind the scenes, advanced tax programs and engaged in free-wheeling spending of the nation's treasure into the red to the tune of $5.3 trillion and climbing. Every day, this trend produces increased debt of more than $488,520.00 in unpaid interest.
Fudging government accounting protocols instead of paying-down the National Debt the president's Budget Office has proclaimed that Mr. Clinton's tax policies have generated a huge tax surplus that can be added to current domestic social programs transfer for the poor.
[Editor's Note: The epic Black Hills sculpture links the face of Jefferson to three other exalted American presidents George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. The Black Hills provide the back-drop for Mount Rushmore, the world's greatest mountain carving. These 60-foot high faces, 500-feet up, look out over a setting of pine, spruce, birch, and aspen in the clear western air. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum began drilling into the 6,200-foot mountain in 1927. Creation of the Shrine to Democracy took 14 years and cost a mere $1 million, though it's now deemed priceless. Click here to access the new book
American Sphinx - The Character of Thomas Jefferson Alfred A. Knopf,New York. ]
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