In Defense of Thomas
In today’s Ask Jerusha, a reader questioned the value of Thomas Jefferson as an ideal.
The reader pointed out that Jefferson owned numerous slaves, he likely had children by Sally Hemings, and he did not free them when he could have. He was not a strong abolitionist, took no action to spread his vision of liberty to indentured servants or slaves.
The reader could have said more: Jefferson deserted the White House out of frustration during his presidency. He was nearly silent in congress. He bought Louisiana even though it is not clear that was Constitutional. He fought bitterly with other “founding fathers”.
My personal grief is that he did not insist on complete freedom for all people. His failure to do so resulted in the Civil War, fought not over slavery, but because of it. The war freed slaves but did terrible damage to Jefferson’s efforts to keep the federal government subservient to the states. Our misery with central government and standing armies today spring from that failure.
Should we require perfection from Jefferson? Should we insist that to be a hero a person must be without flaw, never cowardly, never selfish?
I don’t think that is necessary. I think the real Thomas Jefferson was a sound enough example for our newspaper and our readers.
Jefferson was the author of our understanding of liberty, that freedom is something resident within the person, not something governments held and could distribute. He formed the ideas by which our very special philosophy of personal sovereignty came to be expressed in the modern world. He mistrusted large governments, central banks and standing armies. He favored strong states. He defended freedom of, and freedom from, religion. Though the newspapers of his day vexed him personally, he steadfastly maintained that a free press is vital to a free society. This is because he had faith in his fellows, he believed if they knew what government was doing, and if they informed themselves and each other, liberty would be safe.
Above all, Jefferson believed in those who lived on and worked the land, and believed they were a valuable resource. That is an idea that still works for us.
In these times, when basic rights are under continual assault, there is no one better than Jefferson and his philosophy to turn to. The elements of freedom are under constant threat of “modernization.” Conservatives whittle away at personal choice, liberals at individual sovereignty, and both at privacy. If we had to rely on the guidance of today’s leaders, we’d swiftly be nothing special at all, just another European colony still struggling to build its own empire.
Jefferson wasn’t perfect. No one is. We all deal with the clay we’re created from. Even so, I’m pleased to have T.J. as our ideal, and I hope he would be pleased at our attempts to meet his dream, to inform the people about their government.