Messenger:  Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson 1743-1846

"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

Reason—Education—Rights—Democracy—Division of Church and State—Fiscal Responsibility

Thomas Jefferson, Liberal

Jefferson was, many historians believe, among the most brilliant men ever to occupy the Presidency. President John F. Kennedy welcomed 49 Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962, saying, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and a source of many other contributions to American culture. Achievements of his presidency include the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  He is also considered one of the leaders of the separation between church and state as he believed that a majority could easily overrun the "natural rights" of the minority, as the Church of England and monarchy did in Britain.

Jefferson was a great believer in the uniqueness and the potential of the United States and is often classified a forefather of American exceptionalism.

Jefferson's political principles were heavily influenced by John Locke (particularly relating to the principles of inalienable rights and popular sovereignty) and by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a proponent of "Enlightenment" and "The Age of Reason", which is reflected in the Declaration of Independence. 

The goal of the Enlightenment was to establish an authoritative ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge based on an "enlightened" rationality. The movement's leaders viewed themselves as a courageous body of intellectuals who were leading the world toward progress, out of a long period of irrationality, superstition, and tyranny which began during a historical period they called the Dark Ages. This movement provided a framework for the American Revolution.

Dignity, equality, liberty and property

The early 19th century saw the primary ideological conflict within liberalism brought forward. The two key concepts of liberalism are the dignity and equality of the individual and the right to individual liberty, particularly to own and control private property. These two principles found themselves in conflict, when it became obvious that the property rights of some individuals could not be reconciled with the dignity of others. The extreme case of this was chattel slavery, where one person was viewed as another person's property. Generally, in this conflict, the weight of liberal thought tilted towards the importance of human dignity, viewed increasingly by liberals as more fundamental than the claims of property. However, balancing these two fundamental values still explains a series of conflicts within liberal thought.

As Thomas Jefferson explained (from Virginia, where keeping slaves, his own included, was deeply entrenched):

"Where the disease [slavery] is most deeply seated, there it will be slowest in eradication. In the northern States, it was merely superficial and easily corrected. In the southern, it is incorporated with the whole system and requires time, patience, and perseverance in the curative process."

As Jefferson and Washington sought to liberalize the State’s slavery laws to make it easier to free slaves, the State Legislature went in exactly the opposite direction, passing laws making it more difficult to free slaves. (As one example, Washington was able to circumvent State laws by freeing his slaves in his will at his death in 1799; by the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826, State laws had so stiffened that it had become virtually impossible for Jefferson to use the same means.)

Unequal Wealth

The late 19th century saw the expansion of voting rights, education and economic progress in the form of industrialism. It also saw the expansion of trade, and therefore opportunity, as well as an explosive growth in the spread of culture and literacy. At the same time, it produced vast inequalities of wealth, and vast human misery in the form of famines, child labor, polluted urban centers, and deep poverty for the majority of the population. The conflict between property and dignity came forward. One strain of liberal thought demanded laws against child labor, and requiring minimum standards of work and wages, while the laissez-faire strain argued that such laws were an unjust imposition on property and a hindrance to economic development.  Thomas Jefferson warned against organizations growing so large that they become tyrannical.

Republicans believe in laissez-faire and seek to abolish liberal laws that protect children, our health and our collective wealth.  There is much discussion as whether Jefferson was a Republican, liberal or libertarian.  Beyond labels, Jefferson was a man of reason who believed in the power of an educated populace and the potential tyranny of unrestricted business to strip individuals of their natural rights.  Progressives draw upon his beliefs that a democratic government " the people and for the people" is worth fighting for.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  All images are from the Library of Congress, and are believed to be in the Public Domain.


Thomas Jefferson — Words we live by:
"Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation of power first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence."
"Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
"Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor."
"A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine."
"It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world."
"I believe that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another."
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State."



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