The Founders' Vision & Today's Issues
Most of the issues that we face in America today, are ones which Thomas Jefferson did not address directly. This is not surprising. Jefferson addressed himself to the basic, fundamental questions of government and society, mainly because that is what really concerned the Founding Fathers, those who were "present at the creation." Getting the new nation started on the right path was their chief concern.
"[To establish republican government, it is necessary to] effect a constitution in which the will of the nation shall have an organized control over the actions of its government, and its citizens a regular protection against its oppressions." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1816.
Once the new nation was established, however, we who live in an evolved form of what they created tend to take that creation for granted. We are faced with new problems built on their foundation, and we puzzle over what attitude the Founders may have had towards such problems. It is unfortunate that we do not have their wisdom to give us direct guidance with these new sets of problems; but we are at least fortunate that we have, especially with someone as prolific as Jefferson, a solid statement of what are the fundamentals upon which our nation was built and what should continue to guide us even today.
Two Monumental Legacies
In establishing this nation, the Founding Fathers presented their posterity with a government founded on two monumental principles: the principle of inherent and inalienable rights, and the principle of government by the people. The first encapsuled the ideals of a free society; the second provided the means by which that free society may be maintained. In understanding the basic foundation on which the American government exists, it is important to recognize these two principles, and to realize that there is no necessary connection between the two! A government by the people does not automatically produce and guarantee a government that respects the inherent and inalienable rights of its people; rather it is the best means for securing such a government. Whether it actually does this or not is left up to the people themselves.
"The equal rights of man, and the happiness of every individual, are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government. Modern times have the signal advantage, too, of having discovered the only device by which these rights can be secured, to wit: government by the people, acting not in person, but by representatives chosen by themselves, that is to say, by every man of ripe years and sane mind, who contributes either by his purse or person to the support of his country." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Coray, 1823.
Here, then, is their legacy: the idea of natural rights, and the means by which those rights may be assured. But the only way those means may guarantee those rights is if the people themselves remain attentive to their rights. While not an absolute guarantee, government by the people is surely a more certain guarantee than government by any other entity. If the people do not attend to the security of their own rights, who will do it for them? By what other means can it possibly and reliably be done? Will a piece of paper do it? Or a political theory? Can any other human being or group of humans be relied upon to do this?
"Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.
The Founders established our form of government based on our inherent and inalienable rights. Therefore, it is necessary for us to ground ourselves as thoroughly as possible in an understanding of that foundation, and then let that guide us in shaping the policies of government in our own age. Thomas Jefferson was fully aware of this process. He fully expected us to be smarted than his generation was, just as they were smarter than their forefathers who lived under oppressive governments, and just as even those were smarter than their forefathers.
"When I contemplate the immense advances in science and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life, I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were, and they than the burners of witches." --Thomas Jefferson to B. Waterhouse, 1818.
I'm not sure we have lived up to Jefferson's expectations, or that we are as competent at building on the foundation as the Founding Fathers were at laying it; but that is our responsibility, whether we meet it or not. If this nation is to remain free and secure, it is necessary that the citizens themselves take responsibility to keep it on the right course.
"[Without becoming] familiarized with the habits and practice of self-government,... the political vessel is all sail and no ballast." --Thomas Jefferson to H. Dearborn, 1822.
Our job, then, is to take what the Founders did establish, to understand what it all means, and to try to project from that knowledge of fundamentals what is conducive to a good society and a sound policy. In this way, we can rightly determine what our position regarding new issues should be.
America Belongs to the Living
There are those who would say that it doesn't matter what the Founders did or what they thought; that we are alive today, and the nation is ours to do with as we think best. Even Jefferson would agree with that point of view, to a certain extent. He wrote:
"I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident: 'That the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;' that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it... We seem not to have perceived that by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation to another." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Madison, 1789.
But in launching out on our own course, reason, understanding and free inquiry are always better than ignorance and error. As Jefferson wrote in another place,
"Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error... They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Va., 1782.
We are always better off inquiring and knowing as much about our situation and how we got where we are, than if we remain in ignorance and the error into which ignorance causes us to fall. Moreover, being mindful of our founding principles helps us to understand the impact of today's policies and to avoid losing that which our forefathers struggled to gain.
"We will breast... every misfortune save that only of living under a government of unlimited powers. We owe every other sacrifice to ourselves... and to the world at large to pursue with temper and perseverance the great experiment which shall prove that man is capable of living in society, governing itself by laws self-imposed, and securing to its members the enjoyment of life, liberty, property and peace; and further to show that even when the government of its choice shall manifest a tendency to degeneracy, we are not at once to despair, but that the will and the watchfulness of its sounder parts will reform its aberrations, recall it to original and legitimate principles, and restrain it within the rightful limits of self-government." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration and Protest of Va., 1825.
These, then, are the two great principles, disconnected but yet dependent on one another: our inalienable rights, and a government by the people. And that disconnection, that lack of an absolute guarantee, establishes the necessity for Education, Eternal Vigilance, Free Press, Free Speech, and all the other factors that make self-government practicable. Only in this way can we assure ourselves that we shall maintain government by the people within its rightful limits, preserving it free from those forces that would corrupt it.
"The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes." --Thomas Jefferson: Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, 1779.
By considering our roots and our fundamental principles, we can better understand present day problems and be able to pick up on ideas and themes that put the questions that face us in proper perspective. This may require us to stretch our minds as we interpolate between the Founders' vision and our problems. But that is how we test and expand our understanding, that is how we gain a better insight into the problems we face: by being especially aware of principle and letting that be our guide.
"The organization of [government] may be thought [to entail great difficulties]. But follow principle, and the knot unties itself." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.
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