Posts Tagged Thomas Jefferson

Breaking News From 1798

I may be the last person on the planet to have read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.  I’ll certainly be digesting it for a while.

Among Chernow’s contributions is a detailed discussion of the American political climate, during the Washington and Adams administrations, when the bulk of Hamilton’s contributions to the nascent government were made.  It’s also when we saw the emergence of the first real political parties in history, parties committed to more than the mere attaining and retaining of power, but also to rival economic and political theories.

Today, we’re used to the stability of the two-party system, but at the time, they were not only a novelty, but a bit of a shameful one at that.  The Founders had wanted to avoid factions, or parties.  The new parties were not only organized around ideas, but also around the personalities of their leaders.  This led to a curious combination of personal touchiness, mutual misunderstanding and hostility, and denial that it was going on at all.

From Pages 391-92 of the softcover edition:

The sudden emergence of parties set a slashing tone for politics in the 1790s.  Since politicians considered parties bad, they denied involvement in them, bristled at charges that they harbored partisan feelings, and were quick to perceive hypocrisy in others.  And because parties were frightening new phenomena, they could be easily mistaken for evil conspiracies, lending a paranoid tinge to political discourse.  The Federalists saw themselves as saving America from anarchy, while Republicans believed they were rescuing America from counterrevolution.  Each side possessed a lurid, distorted view of the other, buttressed by an idealized sense of itself. No etiquette yet defined civilized behavior between the parties.  It was also not evident that the two parties would smoothly alternate in power, raising the unsettling prospect that one party might be established to the permanent exclusion of the other.  Finally, no sense yet existed of a loyal opposition to the government in power.  As the party spirit grew more acrimonious, Hamilton and Washington regarded much of the criticism fired at their administration as disloyal, even treasonous, in nature.

One last feature of the inchoate party system deserves mention.  The emerging parties were not yet fixed political groups, able to exert discipline on errant members.  Only loosely united by ideology and sectional loyalties, they can seem to modern eyes more like amorphous personality cults.  It was as if the parties were projections of individual politicians – Washington, Hamilton, and then John Adams on the Federalist side, Jefferson, Madison, and then James Monroe on the Republican side – rather than the reverse.  As a result, the reputations of the principle figures formed decisive elements in political combat.  For a man like Hamilton, so watchful of his reputation, the rise of parties was to make him ever more hypersensitive about his personal honor.

The parallels between the politics of that day, when parties were being formed, and today, when they have been structurally weakened and are in flux, should be obvious.  The party establishments and the administrative state mitigate some of the effects, but there’s no question that election laws have neutered party back-rooms and allowed anyone to run under a party banner.  The move towards open primaries further erodes party discipline.  Each party increasingly sees the other less as principled opposition and more as a conspiracy bordering on organized crime.  And there is no question that the Bush and Clinton dynasties, along with the personally prickly Obama and Trump, have personalized presidential politics to a degree we’ve not seen in a while.

Over the last several presidential elections, people have called attention to the vitriolic nature of political campaign rhetoric, if not (until 2016) by the candidates themselves, then by their surrogates and supporters.  As often, people have trotted out some of the truly vicious things said in the campaign of 1800.  With a somewhat broader view, that similarity seems less a coincidence and more like the product of a common cause.


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Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee

May 8, 1825

But with respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects.

When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment,nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.

All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. …

Indeed, the national Declaration of Independence followed dozens of state, county, local, and group declarations throughout the country, terminating the legal authority of the British regime in their own jurisdictions. It fell to Jefferson and the Committee to provide a philosophical basis suitable to a national declaration.

The form these declarations took was traditional: a letter to the King explaining grievances, declaring rights, and establishing new rules to preserve those rights. Thus they were acts of rebellion and disunion in forms that emphasized and embodied the continuity of Anglo-American political tradition.

Anyone who hasn’t read Pauline Maier’s American Scripture should do so between now and next July 4.


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The Declaration – A Constitutional Document

I’m writing this even as I’m grilling kabobs out on the barbie, so I probably haven’t adequately synthesized the couple of views presented here.  And like any long an complex story, I’m skipping a lot in a few hundred words.  But they’re worth thinking about, on this Independence Day, in a season of renewed interest and admiration for our founding.

Pauline Maier, in her reluctant study of the Declaration, American Scripture, notes that even adopting it was somewhat controversial.  Was it even necessary?  In fact, states and localities had been adopting “little” declarations for some time.  Many of them were of similar form, and took the point of view that what they did was not declare independence as a new fact, so much as recognize an existing fact.  Much of the debate in Congress over the necessity of the document was over the same question – if Congress was merely recognizing an existing fact, was it necessary or beneficial to make such a declaration.

Eventually, as we know, those in favor of the declaration won out.  The necessity of a declaration, both for national unity and for clarity of purpose, was deemed overriding.

Maier, would agree that the Declaration is descended more from the English Declaration of Rights in 1689, than from Locke.  In fact, Maier traces that descent explicitly.  Jefferson, in his preamble to the Virginia Constitution, and George Mason, in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, both drew heavily from that document, and Jefferson used it as the source text for much of the preamble for the Declaration of Independence.

Russell Kirk would agree.  In fact, he did agree, in his Rights and Duties, Our Conservative Constitution. The Declaration of 1689 was about what form the Constitution of England would take.  It was about the relative powers of King and Parliament, and established once and for all that the King ruled with the consent of Parliament, consent that could, with sufficient provocation, be withdrawn.

Constitutions need not be written; Kirk, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, notes that they’re just the basic rulebook we all agree to play by.  It need not be written, and in the case of our own, it must be open to reasonable and limited interpretation if it is to be brief enough to belong to us all.

Kirk notes that when the Constitution was written, not Locke but Burke was uppermost on the minds of the the Framers, and that the same was true in 1776.  The Founders, whose colonies had been founded by Royal Charter, considered themselves subjects of the King, not Parliament.  They sought the protection of the King against Parliament’s rule, rule which it had asserted in “all cases whatsoever.”  Good luck getting that from a King who knew all too clearly what side his crumpet was buttered on.

Whence, then, that Lockean bit about rights of man?  Kirk argues that it was largely pragmatic.  The Congress was made up of practical politicians who held certain ideas in common.  Pragmatically, they wanted to appeal to the French, and so tossed them a bone in order to appeal to their current political-philosophical fashion.  That doesn’t mean they didn’t believe it, but it does mean that that portion, no less than the bill of particulars against George III, was an attempt to show decent respect to the opinions of mankind.

In Kirk’s view, the Revolution was not about Lockean rights, although the Founders understood those.  It wasn’t even really about taxation without representation; they weren’t interested in representation in a Parliament where such representation would mean submission to its will, “in all cases whatsoever.”  It was about what form the English Constitution would take, and whether or not their own self-government could find a place in it. When they determined, finally, that their own self-government had no place in the English Constitution, they declared that they were, indeed had been, independent, and were now declaring that as a fact for the world to see.

It is that right – the right of self-government as free born citizens, that the Declaration declares, that the Constitution protects, and that we celebrate today.

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