The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


A Jeffersonian Perspective?

A reader suggested that writing comments on contemporary issues from a Jeffersonian Perspective may be a good idea, but it would be easy to inject one's own philosophy into Jefferson's. This might be an especially strong temptation with controversial issues where the commentator has an entrenched position. It could be compared to those who frequently use the Bible to support positions on issues that are not clearly spelled out in that book and who ignore either the context of the passages, or the other passages that are relevant to the subject. Often, passages are selected in such arguments for their general principles when the statement was clearly meant to apply only to the matter at hand. Jefferson identified that problem when he wrote:

    "We know how often a few words withdrawn from their place may seem to bear a general meaning, when their context would show that their meaning must have been limited to the subject with respect to which they were used." --Thomas Jefferson to -----, 1816. ME 14:444

Thus, it is easy to get specific quotations ("proof-texts") to back up a particular stand, even though the overall context or other related texts may not support the use of the proof-text in the given instance at all. While the problem may seem to be one of simple honesty, more often what happens is the writer, anxious to find support for his own point of view, which is the very point of his search, seizes upon any piece of evidence that might promise to back-up the point he is trying to make without considering the text with some measure of detachment.

This is often seen on websites that present the Founding Fathers' views on religion. If the webmaster is basically anti-religion, he will gather together all the negative things each Founder had to say about religion. If, on the other hand, the webmaster is basically pro-religion, he will gather all the positive things. An unbiased presenter, however, would try to present everything that the Founding Fathers' had to say about religion, letting the organization of the material and the true position of the original writer arise out of the material itself, not out of the presenter's own preferences or intentions and the selection that results therefrom. The former is what I tried to do on my website, Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government. It is a very difficult task, and ultimately means going through all available writings of the original author, and selecting every single relevant statement.

Therefore, to be successful, a person projecting "the Jeffersonian Perspective" must not only be honest with themselves, they must recognize what is their own opinions, put those aside, and attempt to discover what is the Jeffersonian view, and allow that to predominate. I believe I have demonstrated to my own satisfaction that I can do that. For example, when I approached the matter of term limits (see Term Limits & Citizen Legislators) I was orginally opposed to term limits, as a matter of my own opinion. But after studying Jefferson's writings on the subject, I came away with my views modified. On several other issues, I was similarly aware of the Jeffersonian view holding sway over my own, or at least (as in the case of Judicial Review) I was aware of Jefferson's view and did not arrive at a final decision of my own. Whether a reader agrees with my self-assessment is for them to decide, of course. But there is nothing I would welcome more than having a visitor to this Website challenge me and show me from the writings of Thomas Jefferson where any views expressed herein are inconsistent with Jefferson's writings relative to the subject.

Often, however, the reverse situation can easily happen: a position stated herein may indeed be in accordance with the philosophy of Jefferson, but the reader of the essay may have his own ideas of what Jefferson meant, or may have his own ideas of the correct position of Jefferson based on the opinions of other commentators, and may use that as the basis for asserting that the essay does not accurately accord with Jefferson's philosophy. Writers are not the only people who are capable of bias. And to complicate the matter even further, there exists no uniform agreement on what were Jefferson's positions on political issues. Indeed, most scholars assert that Jefferson himself was inconsistent, and that his views changed radically over his lifetime. Richard Hofstadter, in The American Political Tradition, wrote,

    "[Jefferson] never attempted to write a systematic book of political theory--which was well, because he had no system and lacked the doctrinaire's compulsion to be consistent." (pg.31)

I must confess I laughed out loud when I first read that. Here I am totally blown away by the brilliance, the practicability, and the reality-based system of Jefferson's political philosophy, and Hofstadter says it doesn't exist! Even a consummate Jeffersonian scholar like Merrill D. Peterson has written,

    "Precisely because Jefferson's political thought eludes systematic analysis, any attempt to organize it topically must encounter serious problems." (Note preceding The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson)

True, Jefferson himself did not write a systematic book of political theory. But the Website, Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government, attempts to fill that omission of Jefferson's, and to demonstrate that he most certainly did have a brilliant system of political theory, and, moreover, that a central core of political principles can be identified to which Jefferson adhered with remarkable consistency throughout his life. Certainly, Jefferson himself did not think that his basic principles changed, for as he himself wrote,

    "I know my own principles to be pure and therefore am not ashamed of them. On the contrary, I wish them known and therefore willingly express them to everyone. They are the same I have acted on from the year 1775 to this day, and are the same, I am sure, with those of the great body of the American people." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Smith, 1798.

It was not the principles, but the times and circumstances that changed. Different circumstances require the application of different principles. In fact, there is a danger in becoming wedded too much to the historical circumstances in which a principle is enunciated, and in losing sight of the great and noble principles involved by ascribing them to temporal expediency. If something is truly a principle, it remains so regardless of the context or circumstances. As a result, we can consider the proposition that, in general, PRINCIPLE HAS NO CONTEXT! Or, perhaps more accurately, Principles are not restricted to a single context, but apply to many different situations. Different circumstances may call into action different principles, but if Jefferson enunciated a principle in reaction to, for example, the Napoleonic conquests, then that principle remains true for any other situation where the relationships and events are essentially the same. Indeed, that is the whole meaning of Principle: it is an idea that exists before a particular situation, independently of particular situations, and that determines what is right, just and proper in any situation where the principle correctly applies. The date when a statement of principle was made may be important, because it helps us to understand the circumstantial context which made the application of that principle appropriate. But the core principle itself remains valid, even though later changed circumstances require the application of other principles.

For example, Jefferson believed that agriculture was the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful nation such as ours, and that we should leave manufacturing to the European states. Hofstadter writes,

    "So Jefferson believed, at any rate, until the responsibilities of the White House and the conduct of foreign policy caused him to modify his views." (pg. 37)

What caused Jefferson to modify his views was the warfare in Europe and the ability of those powers to cut off the supplies of manufactured items to America. It became necessary for this nation to be able to supply its own needs for manufactured items, or suffer the consequences. But his agrarian principles did not change; the greater principle of self-sufficiency in the face of warring European states came to the fore. Maintaining the spirit that was so well nurtured by an agrarian society was still just as important for the nation's well-being; but now circumstances forced the nation to embrace elements that would make those ideals more difficult to attain.

Even his views on rebellion seemed to change. Early on, Jefferson stated:

    "I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.

But later on, when the Constitution was in place and the nation was well established, when the will of the people could be expressed and had control of the principal reins of government, insurrections against the public order no longer merited rational support.

    "In a country whose constitution is derived from the will of the people directly expressed by their free suffrages, where the principal executive functionaries and those of the legislature are renewed by them at short periods, where under the character of jurors they exercise in person the greatest portion of the judiciary powers, where the laws are consequently so formed and administered as to bear with equal weight and favor on all, restraining no man in the pursuits of honest industry and securing to every one the property which that acquires, it would not be supposed that any safeguards could be needed against insurrection or enterprise on the public peace or authority. The laws, however, aware that these should not be trusted to moral restraints only, have wisely provided punishments for these crimes when committed." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806.

In other words, when the people have avenues for change open to them, when they have the means to make their will known, and to force government the alter its course by the free expression of that will, violent rebellion is not necessary or appropriate. The same will that expresses itself in rebellion, can now express itself at the ballot box. The fundamental principle of having a people who remain alert and who maintain an independent and even rebellious spirit did not change, however. If government, in spite of means and safeguards installed, became unresponsive to the people, then some measure of resistance to government would still be appropriate. Jefferson very likely would have generally approved of the opposition expressed to the Vietnam War, while regretting some of the excesses of that opposition. He would have strongly disapproved of the bombing of buildings by certain dissident groups, such as that in Oklahoma City. The one was an expression by the public of opposition to government policies, and eventually reflected the opinion of most Americans; the other was an enterprise on the public peace and authority, and was abhorred by the vast majority of the people. One is basically protest, the other is basically criminal.

History that concentrates solely on circumstances and events, rather than on fundamental principles, vitiates itself. It becomes a tale of who did what to whom and when, and it fails to comprehend the underlying motivating principles of human interactions, the reasons why these things happened, and the lessons they have for us, which are the things that make the study of history valuable. As Jefferson wrote,

    "True wisdom does not lie in mere practice without principle." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1816.

Yet that is precisely what history becomes when it considers everything in terms of expediency, becoming a study of practice without focusing on the underlying principles involved. Such a study guarantees a minimum of benefit to the student.

In any case, the attempt to provide a Jeffersonian perspective is bound to create some differences of opinion, and is bound to clash with other interpretations of Jefferson and his writings. But all of this is useful in understanding, not only the lessons of history, but the principles upon which nations exist and their leaders act, IF, indeed, we do study the underlying principles and not just the circumstances, the events and the dates.

    Representing Jefferson Fairly

One point that might indicate fairness is to ask, Is the writer willing to state Jefferson's position fully, even if he does not agree with it himself? I am reminded of one homepage I've seen that listed a small selection of Jefferson quotations. The person who installed the page was obviously an atheist, and he had the effrontery to take that most famous of Jefferson quotes:

    "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

and "edit" it to read:

    "I have sworn... eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

thus providing a clear example of an attempt to shape Jefferson's ideas so that they fit the editor's biases (and for which I thank him).

It all boils down to a question of honesty and integrity, and perhaps just a modicum of attention and carefulness and even detachment. I feel sure that the student who edited out "upon the altar of God" had no malicious intent; he probably felt he was merely focusing on the essential point of the quote and eliminating extraneous material. But such a rationalization arises from a naive view of what constitutes accuracy. Conveying Jefferson's position fully and fairly is not really so difficult if one makes a genuine effort. Recognizing these inherent dangers, a good commentator will take extraordinay steps to assure that he does not allow his "good" intentions to mold his presentation of Jeffersonn's ideas.

As a reader pointed out, on some current-day issues, Jefferson may not provide a direct answer, and it will be necessary to assess how he would view the issue judging from the general principles contained in his overall philosophy. This is an area that is even more vulnerable to the insertion of bias by the speculator on "the Jeffersonian Perspective," and this is an area where difference of opinion as expressed by visitors to this website will be invaluable in discovering the truth. On this point, Jefferson said:

    "Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth; and I am sure...we both value too much the freedom of opinion sanctioned by our Constitution, not to cherish its exercise even where in opposition to ourselves." --Thomas Jefferson to Mr. Wendover, 1815.

Too often, political discussion groups consist of people who basically agree with one another and differ only on fine points and tactics. Conservatives want to talk only to other conservatives, liberals to other liberals, and libertarians to other libertarians. What a missed opportunity! The point of any such discussion group should be to bring together people with genuine differences of opinion, because this is what leads to the kind enquiry that then leads to truth. It is TRUTH that we are searching for, not just partisan agreement.

The bottom line of it all is, one must tread carefully and honestly, with an open mind and with careful attentiveness to the texts, trying with all diligence to let Jefferson speak to our times, testing every step of the way with reason and contrary opinion, and relying always on the search for truth, not just the authority of Jefferson, for as he himself said,

    "It is surely time for men to think for themselves, and to throw off the authority of names so artificially magnified." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Short, 1820.

The purpose of our inquiry is not just homage to Jefferson, neither is it a "doctrinaire's compulsion to be consistent." The purpose is to discover what is true.

    "In all cases, [we must] follow truth as the only safe guide and eschew error which bewilders us in one false consequence after another in endless succession." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1819.

We look to Jefferson for our perspective on politics, convinced that there is no better guide, no person of greater integrity to lead us in our own path of discovery. But even with him, we do not assume he was infallible. The search for truth demands that we question even his principles and his justification for them. But let us do it first identifying what are truly those principles, and then criticizing them head-on, if need be; not by selecting his ideas out of context or his principles misapplied, in an attempt to clothe our own biases and prejudices with the authority of the great name of Jefferson.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To sections in Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1998 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.