More on Thomas Jefferson

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The author of the US declaration of independence, and philosopher of much of US democracy, Thomas Jefferson, must have been some thinker. President John F Kennedy once said of him, to those assembled at a dinner celebrating American nobel laurates, that the gathering was: "the most extraordinary gathering of talents…that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." (Quoted in Garrett Ward Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, preface, page ix.)

Jefferson was a major critic of Alexander Hamilton and the establishment of federal power that he, Jefferson, believed would ultimately concentrate political power in the hands of a few wealthy merchants and bankers. "For Jefferson, as for other classical republican thinkers, there was a constant struggle between a corrupt centralized government that wished to control all wealth and power (giving it out as patronage to control the masses) and a strong, independent, democratic citizenry capable of ruling itself with wisdom, virtue and self respect." (Sheldon, page 78.)

For Jefferson, corruption meant "a legislature legislating for its own interests, in opposition to those of the people," a definition originally from Aristotle. All of the reforms Jefferson went on to propose were designed with this in mind: laws to counter the concentration of wealth and its hold on power, and an economic system lifting the citizenry to a level of economic independence that might promote an interest in political participation.

Absolutely central to Jeffersonian style democracy was a learned and articulate, economically independent citizenry. Jefferson wrote extensively how he believed this was achievable, but in the main it involved independence in land ownership, or some satisfactory other type situation. Jefferson is often quoted as saying he favored a land of agrarian farmers, in preference to bankers and 'stock-jobbers', but it was not quite as simple as that. At Jefferson's base was the economic independence of the people, rooted in land ownership, but this did not mean everyone had to be a farmer. Jefferson many times later in his life supported the development of cities and manufacturing concerns, especially if it could be seen to increase the economic independence of the nation as a whole.

Jefferson knew what he was talking about, and clearly saw where societal problems begin, as is illustrated by a letter he wrote to friend James Madison in October 1785, whilst visiting pre-revolutionary France, after having just given money to a woman begging on the streets:

"She burst into tears of a gratitude which I could perceive was unfeigned....This little attendrissement, with the solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections of that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentrated in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downwards ...

I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the sake of game ...

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind ...

Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state."

Of course Jefferson was not an insubstantial plantation owner himself, complete with quite a number of slaves. So the words of independence could well have read; all men are created equal - except those who I keep as slaves. Nevertheless, there are very few better pieces of writing than his contribution to the US Declaration of Independence.


Print This Page

Home ----- Contact Us