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Jefferson on the Federal Government   2 comments

This is Part 2 of a 2-part series.

Turning his mind from the Constitution and form of government, Jefferson hoped to explain the checks and balances of the federal system and also asked if perhaps the country should not be so attached to any one system

Jefferson knew that most foreigners did not understand how the United States worked and he attempted to explain the interaction to Major Cartwright.

With respect to our State and federal governments, I do not think their relations correctly understood by foreigners. They generally suppose the former subordinate to the latter. But this is not the case. They are co-ordinate departments of one simple and integral whole.

Jefferson rightly surmised that most foreigners though the states were under the authority of the federal government (which is how a national government works), but he was quick to correct this misunderstanding. Were he to suddenly be resurrected in the 21st century, he would quickly and probably forcefully remind us that our government was never supposed to involve the states kowtowing to the federal government. They were meant to be equal partners.

To the State governments are reserved all legislation and administration, in affairs which concern their own citizens only, and to the federal government is given whatever concerns foreigners, or the citizens of other States; these functions alone being made federal. The one is the domestic, the other the foreign branch of the same government; neither having control over the other, but within its own department.

Jefferson understood that the states were to focus on their own domestic matters while the federal government was only to function in matters with other countries or when states could not agree. He rightly states that the federal government is the foreign branch of the same government. Neither was supposed to have control over the other. I think this would be one of those times when Jefferson would want to amend the Constitution, if he could see how bloated and tyrannical the federal government has become.

There are one or two exceptions only to this partition of power. But, you may ask, if the two departments should claim each the same subject of power, where is the common umpire to decide ultimately between them? In cases of little importance or urgency, the prudence of both parties will keep them aloof from the questionable ground: but if it can neither be avoided nor compromised, a convention of the States must be called, to ascribe the doubtful power to that department which they may think best.

Jefferson foresaw conflicts and saw two solutions to them. One would be where the two parties just ignore when one oversteps on unimportant issues. That has not worked well fo us in the 200 years since Jefferson wrote the letter. His second option for dealing with overreach has never been used. We’ve never called a convention of the States to discuss whether doubtful power should be ascribed to the states or the federal government. Instead, the federal government has continually assimilated powers to itself and told the states to sit down and shut up. Jefferson, were he alive today, would be organizing committees of correspondence and militias in Virginia and urging Alaska and all the other states to do the same.

You will perceive by these details, that we have not yet so far perfected our constitutions as to venture to make them unchangeable. But still, in their present state, we consider them not otherwise changeable than by the authority of the people, on a special election of representatives for that purpose expressly: they are until then the lex legum.

Jefferson explained that the Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of the states were not set in concrete, but could only be changed by a special committee, elected by the people for the purpose of making changes. Until such a convention had been organized and met, the constitutions were considered the “law of laws.”

But can they be made unchangeable? Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.

Jefferson touches on something that we can go around and around on. Should constitutions be unchangeable? Should one generation bind the next to what was important to that earlier generation? That earlier generation is dead and dead things should not dictate to the living, Jefferson said.

But it should be noted that Jefferson considered rights and the powers that issue from them to be the same from generation to generation. So while subsequent generations can change the structure of government set out in the constitution, the inherent and unalienable rights of men remain the same.

You see, that’s where folks like me disagree with those who would be our rulers today. They’re fine with the current structure of government, but want our rights to be changeable based on what they think is best. Rights, to them, flow from the government. Jefferson and our founders saw rights as being inherent in the individual. I live, therefore, I have a right to an opinion and to state it, a right to practice my faith as I see fit, a right to bear arms, a right to security in my person, property and papers, a right to a fair trial, and a right to be unmolested in my efforts to support myself and my family (in so long as those efforts do not harm anyone else). I don’t live in that world anymore. I live in one where my rights can be taken away whenever the government decides they are inconvenient to the government or some group the government favors.

I object.

I Did Not Consent

Jefferson’s Lament   3 comments

Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Major John Cartwright in 1824, when both were elderly men. The purpose of the letter was to praise Major Cartwright’s book on the history of Anglo-Saxon rights, but Jefferson also attempted to explain the American experiment to Cartwright. Although I might enjoy reading Cartwright’s book as much as Mr. Jefferson did, as an American, I am much more interested in what Jefferson had to say about the country he lived in.

After remarking on what he found interesting and hopeful in Anglo-Saxon history, Jefferson turned to America.

Our Revolution commenced on more favorable ground. It presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased. We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.

The American Revolution was based on Lockean notions of natural law, which Jefferson insisted issued from human nature. The Anglo-Saxons had an ancient history of exercising those rights, lost in the Norman invasion, but reconstituted when kings were put in their place as limited monarchs once more. For them to move toward liberty had required an exploration of and a negotiation with their past. The Americans had mostly a blank slate on which to draw.

Yet we did not avail ourselves of all the advantages of our position. We had never been permitted to exercise self-government. When forced to assume it, we were novices in its science. Its principles and forms had entered little into our former education. We established however some, although not all its important principles.

“We were,” Jefferson seems to say, “Like kids in a candystore, complete novices at this self-government notion.” Americans didn’t really know what they were doing, so they established some of the guiding principles of self-government, but they also missed some. It’s important to remember that Jefferson was in France at the time of the Constitutional Convention. John Adams was in Holland. Ben Franklin was old. The old guard of the Revolution was not well represented in Philadelphia that hot summer of 1787. Had they been there, the Constitution might have been a better document. At least, Jefferson thought so.

The constitutions of most of our States assert, that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves, in all cases to which they think themselves competent, (as in electing their functionaries executive and legislative, and deciding by a jury of themselves, in all judiciary cases in which any fact is involved,) or they may act by representatives, freely and equally chosen; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed; that they are entitled to freedom of person, freedom of religion, freedom of property, and freedom of the press.

Jefferson found little fault with the state constitutions. For the most part, they stated:

  • All power is inherent in the people and is theirs to exercise in direct democracy and/or by selecting representatives
  • They have a right to be armed at all times
  • They have freedom of person
  • They have freedom of religion
  • They have freedom of property
  • They have freedom of the press

I wonder what Jefferson would think of our current state of affairs, where we have the largest prison population in the world, major presidential candidates who want to disarm the entire country, survelliance programs that potentially are tracking each and every one of us on a daily basis, government telling people they must violate their faith to obey the government, eminent domain, and press corps that lick the boots of the White House.

In the structure of our legislatures, we think experience has proved the benefit of subjecting questions to two separate bodies of deliberants; but in constituting these, natural right has been mistaken, some making one of these bodies, and some both, the representatives of property instead of persons; whereas the double deliberation might be as well obtained without any violation of true principle, either by requiring a greater age in one of the bodies, or by electing a proper number of representatives of persons, dividing them by lots into two chambers, and renewing the division at frequent intervals, in order to break up all cabals.

Jefferson here praises the separation of powers and encourages the frequent flushing of the legislature. What would he think of us today?

Virginia, of which I am myself a native and resident, was not only the first of the States, but, I believe I may say, the first of the nations of the earth, which assembled its wise men peaceably together to form a fundamental constitution, to commit it to writing, and place it among their archives, where every one should be free to appeal to its text. But this act was very imperfect. The other States, as they proceeded successively to the same work, made successive improvements; and several of them, still further corrected by experience, have, by conventions, still further amended their first forms. My own State has gone on so far with its premiere ebauche; but it is now proposing to call a convention for amendment.

All right, first, I have to thank Jefferson for teaching me a new word “ebauche” which is the preliminary sketch of a canvas prior to painting. I didn’t know it had a specific term.

Jefferson was very proud of Virginia and its exercise in self-government. Virginia may, he said, have been the first nation (note that he calls it a NATION, not a state) to write a constitution and put it on permanent record for everyone to appeal to. Yet, he admitted, it was an imperfect document and wanted amendment. Other States had discovered improvements, areas of liberty that required acknowledgment. It was time for Virginia to amend its constitution as well.

Among other improvements, I hope they will adopt the subdivision of our counties into wards. The former may be estimated at an average of twenty-four miles square; the latter should be about six miles square each, and would answer to the hundreds of your Saxon Alfred. In each of these might be, 1. An elementary school. 2. A company of militia, with its officers. 3. A justice of the peace and constable. 4. Each ward should take care of their own poor. 5. Their own roads. 6. Their own police. 7. Elect within themselves one or more jurors to attend the courts of justice. And 8. Give in at their Folk-house, their votes for all functionaries reserved to their election. Each ward would thus be a small republic within itself, and every man in the State would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, yet important, and entirely within his competence. The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable and well administered republic.

Jefferson then laid-out what he hoped a republic might look like. He wanted small wards to divide larger counties. Each of those wards should:

  1. educate its children
  2. provide for its defense
  3. assure peace within its borders
  4. take care of its own poor
  5. build its own roads
  6. hire its own police
  7. elect jurors
  8. vote for representatives

Jefferson envisioned each ward being a republic unto itself, where every man would have a voice, exercising their rights and duties. He saw this as the foundation of republican self-government.

I have to say that if our communities were organized in this way now, we might have less frustration with our government. In the borough that I live in, we have a geographic divide between conservatives — mostly working-class (although some are college-educated) and former military who live on the east end of the borough (sort of like a county) and liberals – mostly university professors and government employees who live on the west side of the borough. These two broad groups are in a tug-of-war with one another, each trying to coerce the other into doing things their way. Would it not be better if we had smaller units where folks with similar ideas could work together to achieve their goals and pretty much ignore adjacent neighborhoods that have divergent goals?

Jefferson himself admitted that this letter was long and rambling (he was 84 years old, after all), so I’m going to make this a two part series.

Jefferson on the Federal Government

The Tree of Liberty – For Your Consideration   Leave a comment

I read this last night and thought it would be good to post it here for you consideration:

 

Thomas Jefferson was in Paris as the American ambassador when the Constitution was written — I suspect had he been present, some of the gaping holes that have become traps for liberty would not have gone unremarked. He was waiting for post when he wrote this letter to William Stephens Smith on November 13, 1787

“I do not know whether it is to yourself or Mr. Adams I am to give my thanks for the copy of the new constitution. I beg leave through you to place them where due. It will be yet three weeks before I shall receive them from America. There are very good articles in it: and very bad. I do not know which preponderate. What we have lately read in the history of Holland, in the chapter on the Stadtholder, would have sufficed to set me against a Chief magistrate eligible for a long duration, if I had ever been disposed towards one: and what we have always read of the elections of Polish kings should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life. Wonderful is the effect of impudent and persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, and what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusets? And can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independant 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusets: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order. I hope in god this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted.” Thomas Jefferson

Truth: God Gave Us Rights   10 comments

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights …

There are those who would say that Thomas Jefferson was being cynical in the use of this term as well. Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Jefferson was not a deist. He didn’t just write the Declaration. He wrote a lot of things and when you read his writings (not just cherry-picked quotes) you find a man who believed in God, but didn’t necessarily believe in religion. There is a valid difference.

(Original Draft of the Declaration: We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable,)

Our Founders’ generation believed in objective truth and God is an objective truth, then as now. There may have been Founders who doubted the activity of God, but they didn’t doubt God’s existence and in saying “endowed by their Creator”, they were asserting that when God created human beings, He created us with natural rights. God might have retired from the stage after that … for some of them – but He created them with free will, not just so they could choose autonomy from Him, but so they could exercise sovereignty through self-governance.

Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs were evolving. A restless intellect, he questioned the existence of God at some point. Big deal! I’m a born-again Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher and I’ve questioned the existence of God. Not recently, but as a younger person, before I grew into the person I am now. That’s a healthy thing. Faith needs to be tested and found worthy. Thomas Jefferson’s private position of faith are subject to speculation, but his public actions regarding faith are quite easy to ascertain.

Jefferson began his federal career in 1789 as Secretary of State to President George Washington. One of his early assignments was to oversee the layout and construction of Washington, D. C. In late 1800, the new Capitol building was ready, and on December 4, Congress (with Vice President Thomas Jefferson presiding over the U. S. Senate) approved a plan whereby Christian church services would be held each Sunday in the Capitol.

Throughout Jefferson’s presidency, he faithfully attended the Capitol church (arriving each week on horseback) and did not even allow bad weather to impede his attendance. He had the Marine Band play at the worship services, and under his tenure Sunday services were also started at the War Department and Treasury Department. Of his faithful participation at the Capitol church, he explained:

No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion – nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.

The so-called “Jefferson Bible” is actually a modern creation and there’s no evidence he would recognize it as his own work. Jefferson himself was a founding member of the Virginia Bible Society and gave liberally to its mission of publishing and distributing the unedited version we all use today. He did publish a work with the words of Jesus strung together without all the extra verses, to be distributed to the Indians, saying that he believed that the words of Jesus by themselves were without controversy. He did something similar with the moral teachings of Jesus for what he described as a personal Bible study. There’s no evidence that he was trying to change the Bible or edit out parts he disagreed with. It seems that he may have been trying to understand Jesus better.

I cannot say that Jefferson was a Christian, but I can say that he believed in God, as did his two primary editors. In that, they were very typical of their day.

Truth – All People are Created Equal   Leave a comment

It may seem contradictory that a slaveowner like Thomas Jefferson would assert that all men are created equal. That is the argument of some progressives for rejecting the Declaration – it was written by a white slaveowner who obviously didn’t believe what he wrote or who considered blacks not to be men.

(Original Draft of the Declaration — We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness;)

Please read Thomas Jefferson’s other writings, including the original draft of the Declaration.

(Original Draft of Declaration – [H]e [King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce; and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.)

Thomas Jefferson hated slavery and he wanted to end it with the Declaration. There had already been considerable attempts in the colonial legislatures to end slave importation and slavery was frowned upon in the northern colonies where many wanted it to be illegal. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams edited out this section because they felt it was a secondary issue. Benjamin Franklin had grown up as a Quaker and was very much against slavery. Removing that section was not a cynical decision. They wanted the Declaration to address the issues at hand and not get bogged down in secondary issues.

Back to Jefferson: He’d inherited his slaves and he wanted to free them. He was stuck. Slaves were property and Jefferson – like many Southern planters at the time – was in debt. He couldn’t just free his slaves because his loans – many of them started by his father before Tom inherited his land – were secured on their value. If he were to free his slaves, he would bankrupt himself and be jailed for selling his creditors’ property. He understood that unless the entire nation ended slavery, using wage labor would put him at an unsustainable disadvantage. Slave labor was inefficient and cruel, but it was cheaper than wage labor, so freeing his slaves individually was not something Jefferson could do. However, if his actions as a legislator resulted in freeing all the slaves, he would have been well-pleased … but King George had prevented that because many of the English banks that colonial planters owed money to secured that debt on the value of slaves.

So “all men are created equal” was not a cynical phrase. It was a firmly held belief of people living in an imperfect world. Remember, slavery was legal in England at the time. Once the colonies broke from the Crown, they were free to make changes – and they did take steps toward it. It would be another 50 years before England took those same steps.

So, equality meant just that. The common laborer was equal to King George in terms of governance. The common laborer had as much right to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as Thomas Jefferson, King George or Barack Obama.

How did he get in there? Hang on … we’ll get to it.

Truth, Like Gravity, is Self-Evident   2 comments

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s important to understand the Founders’ worldview. Truth was not relative to anyone in that generation. The relativist philosophers had not yet thought those thoughts or written them down. Even religious skeptics believed in something they called Providence – something greater than mankind and in control above the authority of humans. That might be God, but even if it wasn’t, it was greater than mankind. This was completely understood by our Founders. Gravity was truth. You don’t argue with gravity and you can’t argue with truth. Truths are also self-evident. These truths prove themselves. They can be discovered by any sane person who applies some reason to the subject. They did not need to be created. Again, gravity is a self-evident truth of nature. And the self-evident truths are:

  • All men are created equal
  • Men are endowed by their Creator
  • with certain unalienable rights
  • These rights consist (broadly) of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

 

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