Bohemian Tangents

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Thomas Jefferson: Lockean, Revolutionary, American “Sphinx”

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Thomas Jefferson, American founding father and icon among American libertarians, was a radical revolutionary to some, a Lockean classical liberal to others, and a mysterious “sphinx” to biographer, Joseph Ellis. He was an enormously multi-talented man:  an architect (including Monticello), inventor, musician, prolific writer, scholarly lawyer, and observant scientist (in several fields).  He achieved the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which really matched his keen interest in natural science, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which embodied his deep convictions about religious freedom.

Jefferson was a planter farmer, author, governor of Virginia, foreign diplomat (and celebrity abroad), secretary of state, president, co-architect of Virginia’s constitution, founder (and architect) of the University of Virginia, political philosopher, and much more. Jefferson believed in the enlightened rights of man as reflected in the Declaration of Independence, and he advocated the Bill of Rights to ensure that they were specifically expressed in the Constitution. Jefferson more than any other major leader of the Revolution believed in those lofty ideals, which were radical for the time. Jefferson was a revolutionary and a dreamer.

He also was a legal reformer, supporter of the arts, and a public education advocate – far ahead of his time. He believed in equal opportunity in the context of his time, although he could be quite arrogant towards those of lesser achievement and, like almost everyone else at that point in American history, did not yet believe that women and people of color were equal in civil matter. As president, he is rated among the best.

Thom Hartmann, a progressive liberal, outlines the virtues of Thomas Jefferson as the founding father whose vision of a free democratic America which excluded corporate monopolies and was an egalitarian utopia of free farmers and independent businessmen. He had 3 basic fears that he wanted addressed in the Constitution: tyrannical governments, organized religion, and commercial monopolies. He wanted to make sure that the wealthy ruling elites would not corrupt the fledgling democracy of the U.S. In a letter to James Madison he wrote: “I will tell you now what I don’t like. First, the omission of a Bill of Rights, providing clearly… for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, and the eternal and unremitting force of habeas corpus laws and trials by jury”.  The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791 but had no provision against monopolies and the standing army issue was addressed by the 2nd amendment with the “well-regulated militia”.

Biographer Richard K. Matthews, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson, claims that Jefferson went farther than his fellow revolutionaries in creating a radical democratic philosophy. The Virginian was a true believer in not only a philosophy of liberty, but the best way to preserve that liberty through societal revolution, the “earth belongs to the living” concept, and his view of “ward republicanism”. He saw the American Revolution as a fulfillment not only of Locke and Algernon Sidney (English political critic of absolute monarchy) but also saw it as a new beginning for liberated man. This new begining would constantly renew the faith of the American Revolution through periodic change in laws and constitutions. Jefferson wanted to preserve liberty by extending democratic republicanism to virtually all white males through his granting of 50 acres of land to every man in Virginia in the belief that property ownership would secure the liberty fought for in the Revolution. Jefferson’s proposals to abolish primogeniture and entail are radical attepts to equalize property relations by as he put it ” to put all on an equal footing”. Next is Jefferson’s “ward republics”, which he saw as his most important. The ward would be the basic unit on democratic government which were similar to New England Townships and would allow for citizens’ direct local governance. Public schools, militia duty, opposition to tyranny from other branches of government could all be begun here. He also included the “care of the poor” and “care of the roads”.

Many American libertarians seem to claim Jefferson as their ideological forbear or hero or icon as the advocate of “limited government”, states rights, and Lockean principles of government. Van Bryant, II, debunks the notion of Jefferson as a libertarian president, noting that “a peculiar trait found among a majority of libertarians” which is “the desire to elevate Thomas Jefferson to the heroic status of intellectual forebear of their ideology.” Bryant says that “From state’s rights and secession, to individual freedoms, peace, and the role of central government, Jefferson talked the talk, but never walked the walk. Far from an ideologue or proto-libertarian (lol), Jefferson was simply a successful politician, a well-read master of rhetoric and propaganda… And a statist.”

 Bryant adds: “The Louisiana Purchase stands out as one of America’s greatest ‘internal improvement subsidies,’ with a number of foreign and domestic interests receiving their share of the wealth of the U.S. citizenry. In fact, part of the deal included the U.S. assuming $3.75 million in debt owed to private U.S. citizens by the French government. ‘Paying it to ourselves,’ indeed. As a side note: Many people are also unaware of the private banking interests in both England and the Netherlands that were involved in financing this deal. For all of his writings against the ‘monied aristocracy’ , Jefferson was more than willing to work through the wealthy bankers to achieve his goals. One must finally ask: where was Jefferson’s ‘strict Constitutionalism’ when he pushed the Louisiana Purchase Act through Congress without amendment?”

The general point I am attempting to make is that Jefferson, like any mortal imperfect human serving as president was a creature of his times, having to deal with immensely difficult and complex issues and not able to live up to anyone’s idealizations 200 years later, particularly if these idealizations are constructions of cherry-picked facts. Jefferson possessed a massive intellect and polymath education, but this gargantuan mind left behind a thicket of enigmas and contradictions as the “American sphinx” described by Joseph J. Ellis whose characterization of the American icon treads a path between vilification and hero worship in order to formulate a plausible portrait of the man who still today “hovers over the political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams.” For, at the grass roots, Jefferson is no longer liberal or conservative, agrarian or industrialist, pro- or anti-slavery, privileged or populist. He is all things to all people. His own obliviousness to incompatible convictions within himself (which left him deaf to most forms of irony) has leaked out into the world at large–a world determined to idolize him despite his foibles.

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson


The fact does remain that Jefferson was the father of the anti-federalist movement that became the democratic-republican party versus the federalist party led by Alexander Hamilton. These two men both served under George Washington as secretaries of state and treasury and butted heads over what the proper role and function of the national government should be vis a vis the individual states. This particular massive topic will require its own blog post which means Alexander Hamilton will be included on an equal billing with Jefferson.

Author Elvin T Lim notes that the anti-federalists had their “first founding” under the 1781 Articles of Confederation and that the Constitution ratified in 1789 was the “second founding”.

“The United States has had not one, but two Foundings. The Constitution produced by the Second Founding came to be only after a vociferous battle between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The Federalists favored a relatively powerful central government, while the Anti-Federalists distrusted the concentration of power in one place and advocated the preservation of sovereignty in the states as crucibles of post-revolutionary republicanism — the legacy of the First Founding. This philosophical cleavage has been at the heart of practically every major political conflict in U.S. history, and lives on today in debates between modern liberals and conservatives.”

Source: The Lovers’ Quarrel: The Two Foundings and American Political Development by Elvin T. Lim

Lim’s assessment of the quarrel between Jefferson’s anti-federalists vs Hamilton’s federalists dramatically sets the stage for part II of this blog installment.


Written by joethebohemian

April 19, 2015 at 7:04 pm

Posted in politics

2 Responses

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  1. I many ways, he was all of the above, brother. PTxS

    Thomas Snograss

    April 22, 2015 at 4:15 pm

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