Andy Quesnelle, Pennsylvania Tenth Amendment Center

On May 1, 2010, President Obama delivered the commencement speech to the Class of 2010 at my alma mater, the University of Michigan.  In the address, the President noted Thomas Jefferson’s statement that “with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times,” and extrapolated it into a defense of robust government activity and intervention in almost every area of our lives:

our government must keep pace with the times.  When America expanded from a few colonies to an entire continent, and we needed a way to reach the Pacific, our government helped build the railroads.  When we transitioned from an economy based on farms to one based on factories, and workers needed new skills and training, our nation set up a system of public high schools.  When the markets crashed during the Depression and people lost their life savings, our government put in place a set of rules and safeguards to make sure that such a crisis never happened again, and then put a safety net in place to make sure that our elders would never be impoverished the way they had been.  And because our markets and financial systems have evolved since then, we’re now putting in place new rules and safeguards to protect the American people.

The President, in other words, used Thomas Jefferson as a springboard to advocate for government power.  I suspect that there is little in the world more full of irony than a defense of big government using the mantle of Jefferson.  What would Jefferson have thought about the federal government building the railroads, regulating public education, dominating the financial system, and involving itself in health care?

First, let us address the quote that the President used as the commencement of his ideas: “with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”  The quote is taken from a July 12, 1810 letter from Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval and is inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial. 

But what was Jefferson actually saying?  This was not, as President Obama claimed, a statement in defense of activist government.  Rather, it is a statement evidencing one of Jefferson’s lesser-known and more radical ideas – the concept of “generational tyranny.”  Jefferson believed that, just as one nation has no right to impose law or regulation on another, so one generation has no right to impose law on generations to follow:

That our Creator made the earth for the use of the living and not of the dead; that those who exist not can have no use nor right in it, no authority or power over it; that one generation of men cannot foreclose or burthen its use to another, which comes to it in its own right and by the same divine beneficence; that a preceding generation cannot bind a succeeding one by its laws or contracts; these deriving their obligation from the will of the existing majority, and that majority being removed by death, another comes in its place with a will equally free to make its own laws and contracts; these are axioms so self-evident that no explanation can make them plainer; for he is not to be reasoned with who says that non-existence can control existence, or that nothing can move something.

Letter to Thomas Earle, 1823.  Far from Jefferson’s comment about institutions keeping pace with the times reflecting faith in big government as the President stated, it actually reflects just the opposite.  Jefferson, for example, would not have believed that the Depression-era financial regulations could justifiably be imposed on the current generation.  He would have been opposed to any federal regulatory structure that persisted over generations as the outdated vestiges of long gone majorities which have no place in today’s society.

President Obama then went on to express exasperation at those who believe “that all of government is inherently bad.”  Based on this comment, Jefferson must provoke much exasperation from the President.  Jefferson valued resistance to government authority above almost all else.  In a 1787 letter to Abigail Adams, he remarked “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive.  It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all.  I like a little rebellion now and then.  It is like a storm in the atmosphere.” 

In fact, Jefferson thought that anti-government rebellion should be contemplated as often as once every twenty years: “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion [as the American Revolution].”  Letter to William S. Smith, 1787.  Rebellion is described by Jefferson as “medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”  And almost everyone is aware of one of Jefferson’s most famous quotes:

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 its natural manure.

Let’s call a spade a spade: Jefferson was radically anti-government.

Jefferson’s anti-government ideas had one primary focal point: the federal government. If Jefferson were alive today, he would certainly be a regular contributor to the Tenth Amendment Center, for he considered the Tenth Amendment to be the focus and the foundation of the entire Constitutional structure. In opposing Alexander Hamilton’s plan to establish a National Bank in 1791, Jefferson noted:

I consider the foundation of the [Federal] Constitution as laid on this ground: That “all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.” [10th Amendment]  To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.

Virginia's American Revolution

This, then, is not a man who would appreciate seeing his words twisted into a method of supporting a federal government which “built the railroads,” “set up a system of public high schools,” put in place “a set of rules and safeguards” to regulate the financial system and put the “safety net” of social security in place.  Jefferson would have reviled these intrusions as more than a mere “single step” beyond the boundaries “specifically drawn around the powers of Congress.”  And he would also have noted that such intrusions are nothing that a rebellion every couple of decades couldn’t fix.

Thomas Jefferson is an American hero who spoke truth to power and was unafraid to say exactly what he thought, no matter how radical or crazy his ideas seemed.  His legacy should never be used – especially by the President of the United States – to support the principles of government intrusion and activism that he so deeply abhorred.

Jefferson “swor[e] upon the altar of God, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  It is unfortunate that many Americans are not so hostile.  If they were, “liberty” today might mean more than a word on a coin.

Andy Quesnelle spent most of his early childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio and moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1992. He has lived in Pittsburgh ever since, except for the 7-year period during which he was in college and law school. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2003 with a B.A. in History and Political Science. His primary areas of concentration were Colonial American History, 20th Century U.S. History, and American politics and government. He received his J.D. from Villanova University School of Law in 2006. Since then, he has practiced as a labor and employment attorney, representing management and employers, in Pittsburgh. He has always been a very strong advocate of states’ rights and decentralized government. He believes that Thomas Jefferson was absolutely right — government power is not to be trusted, and the more centralized government power becomes, the less it is to be trusted.

Author’s Update, May 15, 2010:

In my most recent article, “Hijacking Thomas Jefferson,” I explained why President Obama’s invocation of Thomas Jefferson to support government intrusion and intervention is unsupportable. My intention was to illustrate Jefferson’s thinking on these issues, which was the most radical of the Founders and was obviously colored by his unique experiences and the time in which he lived. I do not think that Jefferson’s literal views as to resistance to government are well-suited to our experiences and the time in which we live.

Thus, at the end of my article, I stated that if more Americans were “hostile” to “tyranny,” liberty might mean more than a word on a coin. The hostility to which I refer should be understood in the context of our times, not Jefferson’s. What I mean by this is that Americans should express their hostility to big government through persuasion, argument and the ballot box, not through literal armed rebellion as Jefferson spoke of. Indeed, one of the cornerstones of our country is that we all have the right and the means to use persuasion and argument to facilitate the victory of our points of view. This is what it means to be American.

Jefferson was, as I said, an American hero. He was an American hero because he helped establish liberty for all of us using means appropriate for his circumstances and times. American heroes today are those who use means appropriate for our times — argument, persuasion, campaigning and election — to advance their ideas.