Today in 1743, Thomas Jefferson was born. A classical liberal that embraced decentralized power, Jefferson championed a distinctly American political philosophy during Virginia’s ascension to statehood, the creation of the United States, and throughout the remainder of his life. Undoubtedly, he was one of the most successful statesmen in the history of the country.
Jefferson was a multi-faceted polymath. His mind was boundless, and he thrived in almost every realm he endeavored to pursue. He was well studied in many fields, including history, philosophy, law, music, architecture, and science, and considered Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke as the greatest men who ever lived. An unwavering defender of natural rights theory, he famously wrote that “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”
Jefferson may be best known as the primary penman of the Declaration of Independence, a declaration of secession against the British crown. The document enumerated a list of Parliamentary transgressions under George III, and acknowledged natural law and the right to alter or abolish one’s own government by force. Upon its acceptance by the Continental Congress, the former colonies were now free and independent states, each with the “full 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.”
In 1791, Jefferson wrote that the “foundation” of the United States Constitution was its embrace of federalism, which was made explicit in the Tenth Amendment. “To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress,” he wrote, “is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.” Certainly, Jefferson rejected the apocryphal view that the Constitution was a “living document” which would be malleable at the will of the government.
In his later years, Jefferson worked to maintain the federal model agreed upon by the states under the United States Constitution, and supported local nullification of unconstitutional federal laws. “He tirelessly attacked the Alien and Sedition Acts because of their blatant unconstitutionality, and penned the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. “Whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force,” he wrote.
By all accounts, Jefferson held disdain toward central banks and central economic planning. While the Hamiltonian economic plan called for a national bank, protective policies, and “bounties” (corporate welfare), Jefferson embraced free trade and unregulated commerce. In his first inaugural address, he announced that “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations” would be the cornerstone of his administration. He wrote that “The exercise of a free trade with all parts of the world [is] possessed by [a people] as of natural right.” Jefferson also despised paper money, and recognized the destructive power of banks to print such bills. “Paper is poverty…it is only the ghost of money, and not money itself,” he wrote.
Jefferson abhorred the notion that a small group of federal judges could decide of the constitutionality of every matter. In the 1800s, Jefferson went to war with the federal judiciary, which had been packed with Federalist activists from the Washington and Adams administration. Jefferson’s Republican faction impeached Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase for his partisan activities on the bench. Still, he could not impede the predilections of his cousin, John Marshall, whose constant rulings in favor of increased national authority made him a thorn in Jefferson’s side. Jefferson wrote that a federal judiciary that held a monopoly over the extent of its own powers would be characterized by the “despotism of an oligarchy.”
From his earliest days as a Burgess in Virginia, and despite owning slaves himself, Jefferson worked to curtail slavery where it existed and to impede its extension. In the 1760s, he proposed that individual slave owners should have power over slave manumissions rather than the bureaucracy of state government. In 1770, he worked pro-bono for a mixed-race boy, arguing that he had natural rights. Jefferson’s legal argument in this case noted that “Under the law of nature, all men are born free.”
He strongly opposed the international slave trade, which he condemned in the original version of the Declaration of Independence. In 1784, he proposed a resolution that – had it not failed by one vote – would have prohibited slavery in every corner of the Northwest Territories. Fortunately, a similar measure passed in 1787. In 1785, he drafted the century’s most prominent anti-slavery work, Notes on the State of Virginia.
In his own state, he wrote and championed legislation that would provide public education to slaves for the first time. As president in 1808, Jefferson signed the bill outlawing the international slave trade forever. Believing that all Americans, including slaves, were equally entitled to self-government, he came to support recolonization efforts that never fully materialized. Finding himself in the doldrums of debt as a spendthrift, Jefferson was never able to freed his slaves, but his writings certainly prove that he believed slavery to be an immoral atrocity.
Jefferson’s vision for the United States held that “energetic” government was to be rejected in favor of republicanism and federalism. Despite modern political tendencies, he defended the notion that “the several States composing, the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government.”
The states, he countered, were “the surest bulwark against antirepublican tendencies.” One of the most important Americans to have ever lived, Jefferson’s legacy is one to be celebrated by all generations and all ages.