Jefferson and the New Freedom


Not long ago a very eminent member of the present administration at Washington, in speaking to the students of the University of Virginia, declared with evident candor and some fervor that all he knew about the science of government he had learned from Thomas Jefferson who, by the way, so highly prized things academic that he omitted from his chosen epitaph all mention of his service as President of the United States, and in its place recorded his labors in the foundation of the honorable university that bears the name of the Old Dominion.

We have no reason to believe that the distinguished Secretary who thus acknowledged his debt to Jefferson was speaking without due deliberation. He was not just seeking to stir the enthusiasm of his youthful auditors. On the contrary, his public policies and those of the important section of his party which has long followed his leadership bear eloquent testimony to the accuracy of his declaration. If so influential a statesman and his supporters look to Jefferson for their guidance in political science, it may behoove us to reexamine in the light of the twentieth century the civilization Jefferson had in mind. What might otherwise be a pleasing historical excursion becomes a civic duty.

Unfortunately for us, Jefferson never wrote a treatise on politics such as we have from the pen of his great rival John Adams, and it is necessary to discover his system by piecing together scattered documents written for varying purposes and circumstances. In this undertaking we discover many contradictions, real and apparent.

Jefferson had a good word to say for John Adams' defence of government by aristocracies, and an equally good word for John Taylor's relentless and exhaustive attack on the system of the New England philosopher. He declared in a private letter that he was in favor of "a general suffrage" and yet when he sketched a constitution for his native state he provided property qualifications for voters. On more than one occasion he expressed views favorable to the doctrine that courts should enjoy the power to nullify acts of legislatures, and yet he smote John Marshall hip and thigh for "judicial usurpation." Like all men of a speculative turn of mind he doubtless hoped for a system too ideal for the world of fact, and like all practical men he did not allow theoretical consideration to interfere with exigent political duties.

Nevertheless, Jefferson acted in the main on a fairly consistent theory which has a meaning for us to-day, and is the more interesting in that it has descended to the political party which claims to face the problems of modern industrialism. For the creed of Jeffersonian "Republicanism," as his followers first named their faith, is the "New Freedom" of Wilson Democrats.

It would be an error to assume that the capitalistic swing of human activities which has given rise to the new creed was not observed by so keen a man as Jefferson. Factories were driven by water power, and steam engines were running in England when the Declaration of Independence was Bung out to the world. In his notes on Virginia, written five years later, Jefferson shrewdly remarked upon the tendencies of European states to foster manufacturing, and after making a careful analysis of the rising capitalistic system he came to several fundamental conclusions as to its meaning for the United States. Agrarian democracy was the goal of Jefferson's analysis, just as the equally unreal and unattainable democracy of small business is Wilson's goal.

After some startling reflections on the relation of economic independence to civil liberty and republican institutions, Jefferson arrived at the principle that only farmers, owning their own land, tilling it with their own hands, looking to nature and to labor for their sustenance, could possess that independence of character which is the basis of democracy. Whoever depends upon the "casualties and caprices of customers" has set upon him the mark of corruption and subservience. Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, while those who haggle in the market place and those who labor for others in factories are on the highway to that moral decay and servility which marks the end of republics of free peoples.

Lest there be some mistake, let Jefferson take the floor himself: "Generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of other classes of citizens hears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts and is a good enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption." And of wage workers: "Let our workshops remain in Europe . . . The mobs of the great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the human body." Again: "I consider the class of artificers [artisans] as the panders of vice, and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned."

These were no temporary outbursts, but the deep convictions of a determined man. They were at the basis of Jefferson's political science. He believed that the farmers, like Wilson's independent men of small affairs, should rule the country. The whole capitalistic edifice reared by the Federalists, the bank, the funded debt, protective tariff, and the promotion of industries, were odious to him because they augmented the class thriving upon the arts and chicane of trade, and the dependent class, the artisans, mobs of the great cities. Jefferson went so far as to declare that good would arise from the destruction of the public credit; the bank he declared unconstitutional as well as unsound; the funding system he looked upon as a devilish device for corruption; and the whole Federalist program he viewed as a scheme to assimilate the United States to the "rotten parts" of the British constitution. The United States Senate, which was the political stronghold of these capitalistic interests, he described as "an Augean herd."

The battle which Jefferson waged in 1800 he frankly announced to be a war of the agrarian and petty trading interests against the larger capitalistic interests. As early as April 24, 1796, he declared that on his side was "the whole landed interest," and that on the other side were "British merchants and Americans trading on British capitals, speculators and holders in the hank and public funds." And a year later he said that the issue depended upon the election of "farmers whose interests are entirely agricultural. Such men are the true representatives of the great American interest." Even his antipathy toward the British was largely based upon their affiliations with American capitalistic interests. On this line the battle of 1780 was fought, and when it was won, Jefferson directed his first message through Congress to the "agricultural part of our citizens," not overlooking the capitalistic interests yet too strong to he ignored.

The conflict of classes which Jefferson distinctly recognized came out clearly in the alignments of the campaign of 1800. From the commercial and financial centers came the plaintive plea of the holders of bank stock, public securities, and industrials, for the "widows and orphans" whose invested savings were endangered by the Virginia planter. In the upstate agrarian regions of New York, the Republicans accepted Jefferson's analysis of the conflict, and avowed themselves to he the party of the farmer battling to wrest the government from those who made money without labor. New Jersey Republicans, to be sure that no capitalistic sympathizer could slip into Congress by their route, named farmers for the House of Representatives. The rural regions of Pennsylvania did likewise, and represented their nominees to the voters to be endorsed by Jefferson as of the class which Providence had made the peculiar deposit of Republican virtue. In Virginia, the Republican Dawson found only "pestilential air" in the towns, while the spirit of '76 and Republican liberty reigned among the farmers. The upland regions of South Carolina swamped the "corrupt squadron of stock jobbers" in Charleston. The Wall Street ward of New York City went Federalist; the "clodhoppers" up the Hudson valley voted for Jefferson.

But in spite of the "glorious revolution," the tide of capitalism and industrialism swept resistlessly onward. Today nearly half of us belong to the "mobs of the great cities"--sores on the body politic. What message has the sage of Monticello for us? What message have the statesmen and their followers whose political science is derived from Jefferson for a society founded upon "the casualties and caprices" of trade?

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