Recently, many Americans observed April 13th as the birthday of Thomas Jefferson. However, the fact that some chose this day to remember the man is actually quite ironic. This is because Jefferson did what he could to conceal this date from the public, celebrating instead only on July 4th.
After all, that is the date he considered “the epoch of American independence” and the “great birthday of our republic.” While it may seem strange, Jefferson’s birthday omission was a classic move that perfectly captured essence of the man and the legacy he left behind.
Loved by some and hated by others, Jefferson was a real American enigma. Still, some of his most important contributions are completely overlooked and remain relatively unknown to the world.
Jefferson was many things to many people: the scientist, the architect, the father, the inventor, the farmer, and much more. Most famously, Jefferson was known as a talented writer, diplomat, and statesman. He had a vast amount of knowledge regarding history, philosophy, agriculture, linguistics, and the arts. He was considered charming and well-liked, and once owned one of the biggest libraries in the world.
Many would tell you that Jefferson’s pronunciation of universal rights was his most important philosophical offering. Indeed, most Americans would recognize the phrase “all men are created equal.” In fact, this is probably one of the most well-known sentences in the English language. Still, Jefferson admitted that equality under the law was a long-understood maxim that was understood long before his time. After all, John Locke, Thomas Aquinas, and even Aristotle argued that such rights pre-existed politics and government.
Instead, Jefferson claimed that the focus of the writing was not “to find out new principles, or new arguments,” but to articulate the only terms through which government should be allowed to exist. Late in his life, Jefferson wrote that it was “intended to be an expression of the American mind.”
One has to look no farther than the same document to realize a more significant motif than the oft-repeated focal point. The real Jeffersonian vision in the Declaration of Independence stresses that states serve a non-sacred, utilitarian purpose, and that decentralized government is the only way that liberty can thrive.
Jefferson did not believe that political entities were perpetual and everlasting instruments of society. Instead, states only existed for the purpose of protecting individual rights. Individuals gave states sanction to exist through consent. When individuals felt government had overstepped its own rules, it was the right of the people to improve their safety and happiness.
If a state engaged in behavior that went beyond this definition, it would be acting illegitimately. In such cases, Jefferson wrote that “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.” While Jefferson mentioned that mankind tended to suffer abuses continually rather than to challenge them directly, “a long train of abuses and usurpations” necessitated a severance. Craftily, he justified overthrowing one’s government if it became too tyrannical.
In 1776, this view lead to the announcement that the states had become “free and independent,” each with the power to “levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.” Jefferson added that all connection to the state of Great Britain was and ought to be “totally dissolved.” Long before the term was outlawed, Jefferson was a secessionist.
Short of overthrowing one’s government, how could the people eradicate government expansion? In the Jeffersonian perspective, liberty would only exist if a government was restrained through strict enforcement. While he had almost nothing to do with the writing and ratification of the United States Constitution, Jefferson recognized its original meaning as paramount. “Let us not make it a blank paper by construction,” Jefferson wrote.
These were not idle words to Jefferson – on the contrary, he lived by them. By the 1800s, this apprehension stretched to the federal judiciary. Jefferson believed that if judges possessed a monopoly on constitutional interpretation, they would insert their own proclivities into rulings and would personify the “despotism of an oligarchy.”
Following this belief, Jefferson looked to an important constitutional mechanism to thwart government wrongdoing: impeachment. This tool did not exempt federal judges, and Jefferson believed it to be an important safeguard against arbitrary government. In 1805, Jefferson’s Republican-controlled Congress successfully impeached sitting Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase for his partisan behavior and his attempts to guarantee convictions of those charged under the Sedition Act.
While Chase was not convicted and removed from office, Jefferson was displeased and came to believe that the impeachment instrument would never be effectual: if Chase was not expunged for his trespasses, what government figure would ever be? Still, Jefferson held to his word throughout his life, and refused to view federal judges as impartial, infallible umpires of truth. Jefferson ultimately became the first warrior in the battle against “activist judges.”
Jefferson criticized the whiskey excise, and the figures that imposed it. He challenged national banking practices, condemned trade privileges, and chastised Alexander Hamilton for being ambitious for power. While vice president, he acted to undermine the Adams administration and render the Alien and Sedition Acts unenforceable. Late in his life, he condemned the Congress for the Missouri Compromise because it would allow the federal government to impose its unconstitutional desires upon future states.
Clearly, the Jeffersonian pledge to apply constitutional accountability extended to all actors in government.
If unchecked, Jefferson realized that powerful rulers would produce a government of unlimited powers. This, of course, would produce nothing better than a monarchy. Therefore, Jefferson intentionally shunned this tendency, and carefully distanced himself from traditions that would leave the appearance of royalism. He dressed like a commoner to avoid kingly attire, ended state balls and celebrations to bypass the pomp and pageantry, and refused to give a yearly formal speech to Congress like his predecessors because he considered the practice too similar to Britain’s Speech from the Throne. By banishing the monarchical tradition, Jefferson preserved the republican tradition.
Honest observers can safely conclude that Jefferson carried himself this way for a reason: republicanism must distance itself from royalism and tyranny. In doing so, liberty becomes the focal point rather than the figures in power. Being this the case, it is no wonder why Jefferson chose to conceal his birthday. The importance of his ideas surpasses the personal minutia.
Latest posts by Dave Benner (see all)
- Antonin Scalia and the Incorporation Doctrine - January 15, 2017
- Slavery and the Electoral College: A Misguided Assumption - November 16, 2016
- The Battle Over the First National Bank and Its Constitutional Implications - October 27, 2016