Thomas Jefferson is an extraordinary figure of the political and social scene of the United States’ history. He has retained many different public offices during his life starting from ‘the bottom’ until reaching the ‘highest’ possible. His career has been an excellent one in politics, one that every politician today would envy. Thomas Jefferson has been the third President of the United States serving for two terms from 1801 to 1809 (Eyler, 1892, p. 3). Before that he has served as the second vice president of the United States under the presidential term of John Adams. He has also served as the first United States Secretary of State under the first American independent government headed by the first president, George Washington. He has also been ambassador to France at the end of the 18th century and witnessed the French Revolution (Eyler, 1982, p. 5).
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There are many legislative acts from which many of the freedoms we have today have emerged. In many of them, Jefferson is the author, co-author, or at least an influential figure on their formation. He also is the author of many executive orders of extreme importance laying down the road for his successors in office to continue down that road, that of the basic principles on which the United States were formed and forged.
Many of us today know little, if not nothing, about the political philosophy of our Founding Fathers of the nation. In this short assignment we will discuss the core principles behind his actions and thoughts. I will try to do this by analyzing certain important acts he committed during the time he held public office.
Philosophical thoughts and views
Jefferson was certainly the most influential figure at the time favoring the development of republicanism in the United States against the British aristocratic system. Before the war he thought this aristocratic system was “inherently corrupt and that Americans’ devotion to civic virtue required independence” (Adler, 2000, p. 14). Even after independence he publicly denounced the policies of Hamilton and Adams as policies that were like those of the British monarchical system and that this situation was a major threat to republicanism in the United States. So, extreme was Jefferson in opposing the monarchical system that he openly supported the War of 1812 to drive away from the British military along with the “ideological threat from Canada” (Pocock, 1975, p. 46).
Vision of economy
Thomas Jefferson had a unique view of the American economy at the time. Many others, like Alexander Hamilton for example, envisioned the country to base its wealth formation of commerce and manufacturing of goods. Citizens would use the richness of raw materials and land of the continent as an advantage of producing high-quality goods and trade them with other, foreign, nations. This would ensure a fast development for the country. But Jefferson opposed this view. His “vision for American virtue was that of an agricultural nation of yeoman farmers minding their own affairs. His agrarianism stood in contrast to the vision of Alexander Hamilton, who envisioned a nation of commerce and manufacturing, which Jefferson said offered too many temptations to corruption” (Pocock, 1975, p. 45).
Thomas Jefferson expressed on several occasions a deep belief in the potential of this new continent, America. For his this was a place with unique characteristics in the entire world. Thus, he deduced that even the chances and possibilities were unique in the world. He was particularly confident that “an underpopulated America could avoid what he considered the horrors of class-divided, industrialized Europe” (Pocock, 1975, p. 46). Another important belief and political view that he had was his opposition to a financial regulatory body that would deal with the currency of the nation. In fact, many authors do note the fact that Jefferson had a fierce opposition toward the establishment of a ‘Bank of the United States, otherwise today called the ‘Federal Reserve Bank’. In his biographical book in 1892 about the life and work of Thomas Jefferson, the author Robert Coates Eyler reports an important statement written by Jefferson:
“I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” (p. 14)
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Unfortunately, as history tells us, in 1816 president Madison and the Congress at the time disregarded his warning and formed a national bank of the United States. The war of 1812 and the financial turmoil caused by it were the factors influencing this decision.
Jefferson had a strong personal belief that each individual possesses “certain inalienable rights. That is, these rights exist with or without government; man cannot create, take, or give them away” (Eyler, 1892, p. 22). He especially focuses much attention on freedom and liberty as the core values of the individual and his life. For him liberty was:
“…an unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.” (Eyler, 1892, p. 22)
This is an important view. Today there is an important debate going on regarding the role of government in the personal sphere of the individual. As it can be understood by his own words, for Jefferson the government cannot create liberty by its intervention, instead it can indeed violate it. Thus from this, we can understand that he saw the limits of individual freedom not confined by what the law may prohibit, allow or not allow, but from the barriers, you form to others to have them. In other words, you cannot prohibit another individual from enjoying the same freedoms as you are. That is your limit of individual freedoms. So, Jefferson has a clear message from the government: stay away from individual freedom and do not try even to intervene to ‘protect’ them. The duty of a government, for Jefferson, was to control that members of the society do not infringe each other’s liberties.
Another task for the government was to ensure equality among all its citizens, for Jefferson. He demonstrated this commitment when he put much effort into the abolishment of the ‘primogeniture law’ in Virginia when he was governor. This rule meant that the firstborn son inherited all the land and property of the family leaving the other sisters and brothers with nothing if he wished so (Eyler, 1982, p. 24).
But for one instant did Jefferson underestimate the role and need for government in a society. He believed that an anarchist society, one without government, could function well only in very small numbers, otherwise, without government, it would collapse. Nonetheless, he expressed admiration for the tribal life of Native American Indian tribes. This can be easily understood by the letter addressed to Colonel Carrington:
“I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under the European governments.”
But still, he believed anarchism was “inconsistent with any great degree of population.” This is why a true society needs government but “provided that it exists by the consent of the governed” (Adler, 2000, p. 48). Thomas Jefferson saw government as a sort of intermediary that acted as a guarantor amongst people’s transactions. This is why the concept of ‘consent from the governed’ was central to his idea of politics and governance. He strongly believed that a generation is not responsible for what any previous one had done. This is the reason why every generation should express its consent for the government for this last to become legitimate. As he expresses himself:
“No society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.” (Eyler, 1892, p. 34)
In conclusion, I would like to stress out again the importance that history has on us. As I said above, many of us have heard of Thomas Jefferson but only a few know who he was and what he believed to be true, good and bad. Even fewer are aware of the decisions taken at that time, where Jefferson was an active part of them, and that these decisions continue to influence our daily lives.
This is the case for Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. This short essay aimed to shortly present some of his philosophical points of view for the world surrounding us today and him at the time.
Adler, M. J. (2000). The Great Ideas. Chicago: Open Court Publishing House.
Eyler, R. C. (1892) Life of Thomas Jefferson. Web.
Pocock, J. (1975) The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. NewYork: Penguin Press.