Thomas Jefferson: A Fatally Flawed Radical

Thomas Jefferson was a leader of the American Revolution, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. He became the second Vice-President (under John Adams) and the third President. He was a significant thinker and proponent of democracy and republicanism and there are many quotes expounding his ideas of liberty which resonate with us today. One I find significant is:

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

Something which we can also identify with is Jefferson’s warning of the dangers of corporatism, which was sadly ignored:

I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

But the practical working out of his republicanism had a flaw which limited its application as the United States developed through the 19th Century. He was at heart an agrarian and influenced by the Country Party tradition of British politics. He saw society working best when it was a free collection of planters, small traders and smallholders which in many ways was a regressive concept harking back to a perceived agrarian golden era. Lest this be considered a criticism based on hindsight we can compare his ideas with his great friend and contemporary, Thomas Paine. Paine was an urbanite and correctly perceived that in the future land would be used for many purposes other than agriculture. Moreover republican theory would have to deal with the fast emerging capitalist culture. Paine’s solutions were very different and included, for example, the introduction of a Universal Basic Income to compensate the majority of citizens alienated from land ownership.

But there is one issue which put Jefferson at complete odds with republicanism – he was a slave-owner. It is important here that throughout this post I am not referring to republicanism in terms of the modern day American GOP bit as a concept of liberty and government. It has been remarked how little Jefferson had to say on the issue of slavery during his Presidency after 1800, but his position has been defended on the grounds that he favoured a gradual emancipation which allowed minimized racial tensions and time for adoption of slaves into society. The essence of the problem, however, can be seen in Jefferson’s controversial relationship with one of his slaves (with which he had several children) following the death of his wife. It is claimed that despite owning Sally Hemmings, Jefferson allowed her every freedom of action. This may be acceptable on libertarian grounds where freedom exists when there is no de facto interference in the affairs of another. But it is unacceptable in republican theory which has the stricter premise that not only must there to be no arbitrary interference of one person with another, but there must be no possibility of such interference. Today this can be seen in cases where libertarians are happy to accept a British constitutional monarch. It is why I am a republican!

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