by Jim Jess

This year, hundreds of thousands of citizens have met in Tea Party rallies across our nation and have given a voice to the Jeffersonian tradition. The crowds support the reduction of federal power and an end to undisciplined government spending. This approach to government is the philosophy advocated by our third president, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was one of the early proponents of the “strict constructionist” view of the Constitution. This view affirms that any powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited to the states, should be reserved to the states and to the people. This is the essence of the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was part of the Constitution Jefferson swore to uphold in his oath of office.

Jefferson defended the rights of the common man over the prerogatives of the state. His view on the subject is stated succinctly in a letter to Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the U.S. Constitution and one-time governor of Massachusetts. The letter was dated 1799, a year before Jefferson was elected president.

“I am for preserving to the States the powers not yielded by them to the Union, & to the legislature of the Union [Congress], its constitutional share in the division of powers; and I am not for transferring all the powers of the States to the general government, & all those of that government to the Executive branch.”

In his first Inaugural Address, Jefferson also touched on this subject when he listed his “essential principles of our government.”

“…the support of the state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies…”

Jefferson would start another revolution were he alive today, for what he opposed occurred in the twentieth century. The federal government assumed more and more authority in every area of government policy, from building roads to educating children. Jefferson would have left these matters to be handled at the state level; he would not have enlarged the federal government to administer them in Washington.

Executive branch departments and so-called independent agencies control the program delivery systems and administrative rule-making powers that define federal policy today. Meanwhile, state officials must go to Washington, D.C. and beg for federal money and federal programs.

The states should tell the Feds to keep their programs and their money, but that would be difficult politically and financially. States would have to raise state and local taxes to make up for the loss in federal funds and the federal government would lose control over the states and the populace.

Of course, this would mean the federal budget could be balanced and the national debt retired, over time. This is the program of reform that Congress would enact if it really wanted to serve the people and carefully steward the taxpayers’ money.

Jefferson’s strict constructionist view put him at odds with Alexander Hamilton, who advocated the opposing doctrine of implied powers, which gave the federal government a much more expansive field of authority.

Jefferson and Hamilton were both members of the Cabinet during George Washington’s presidency. The two men sharply disagreed over the question of public debt. Hamilton saw it as a positive tool that could be used to establish credit for the United States, while Jefferson saw public debt as an affront to the liberty of the citizens.

Hamilton believed a national debt to be a blessing. Jefferson, however, was of a different mind. He wrote to James Madison in 1789 regarding the nation of France, “. . . would it not be wise and just for that nation to declare in the constitution they are forming that neither the legislature, nor the nation itself can validly contract more than they may pay within their own age, or within the term of 19 years?”

In his 1799 letter to Elbridge Gerry, Jefferson commented on frugal government and eliminating public debt.

“I am for a government rigorously frugal & simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt; and not for a multiplication of officers & salaries merely to make partisans, & for increasing, by every device, the public debt, on the principle of its being a public blessing.”

In getting Congress to accept all Revolutionary War debts at face value, Hamilton obligated the government to pay for years on the principal and interest. In order to make payments on the debt, several new taxes were necessary. These taxes included tariffs or import duties and excise taxes on such things as alcohol, refined sugars, auctions, and licenses. Once in office, Jefferson and his allies in the Congress worked to repeal the excise taxes.

During his presidency, Congress, at Jefferson’s request, abolished the internal revenue service, which had been established to collect the excise taxes. This branch of the Treasury Department should not be confused with the modern Internal Revenue Service.

The agency in Jefferson’s day consisted of about five hundred employees who were involved in collecting excise taxes. (The income tax had not yet been established.) With the excise taxes repealed, there was no need for this tax-collecting agency. Jefferson and his Treasury secretary also persuaded Congress to cut government spending and make substantial payments to reduce the war debt.

According to Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy organization, our government has already spent trillions in its attempt to solve our economic problems. This is more than the cost of World War II. In addition, the government has committed to spend trillions more over the next few years, which will bring the grand total to an unbelievable $11.6 trillion in new spending – more than 26 times the size of the New Deal.

It is time for citizens to engage their public servants and demand a stop to this madness. It is time for the Washington liberals to wake up and do what common sense demands. Fiscal responsibility is a big key to solving our problems. Now is the time to make the changes that will re-establish American liberty.

Jim Jess has participated in politics as an activist, writer, and nonprofit organization leader for 30 years. He worked in the office of Governor Sonny Perdue and is a member of several conservative groups. Jim writes for and maintans the website

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