As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, I am reading the book “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.” I am over 100 pages into the book, and have determined that Jefferson, although flawed, was a disciplined thinker, influenced heavily by Patrick Henry, and could write very well. I have been inspired by his philosophy, and his ideas reflected in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights , Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
I find these words written by Jefferson very interesting; especially in light of the fact that he owned on average 200 slaves per year. Yet, these are powerful words defining the purpose of government. Jefferson has been identified as a Republican, but does the term mean the same thing today as it did in the early 19th century?. Jefferson was liberal, and he was a secular humanist, so politically he was probably closer to what we call a Democrat today. However, I am still intrigued with what was considered Republicanism in the early years of our nation.
Early Republicanism, first and foremost, stresses liberty and unalienable rights as critical values. Jefferson as a Republican believed what De Tocqueville said concerning the tyranny of the majority. Although John Adams first used the phrase in 1788, De Tocqueville helped the phrase gain prominence in 1835, but I will use Lord Acton’s comment to illustrate early Republicanism. “The one pervading evil in a democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds by force or fraud, in carrying elections.”
The one thing that Revolutionary Republicanism was concerned with was the limitation of corruption and greed. Republicanism was recognized as giving up one’s own interest for the common good. Virtuous people then were those who stood up for liberty, challenging corruption and greed within the government. What did Thomas Jefferson say about the Republic? Jefferson defined the republic as “a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority.” Another comment gives us a clearer sense of what the founding fathers thought a republic was. John Adams defined the term republicanism as referring to “a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws.
So to say that Jefferson is a Republican in the same manner that John Boehner is today would be inaccurate. But the lesson for me today is, Jefferson understood what it took to create a republic. Do we know what it takes to keep a republic.
And that is my thought for the day!