Wednesday, June 16, 2004Maybe that's a little too strong, but you get my point. Jefferson is one of the most revered of American founders. And to his credit he did write the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinances. But.......
If Hamilton is the forerunner of modern American nationalism, then Jefferson is the apostle of states rights. Jefferson truly believed that any increment in power to the central government resulted in a loss of personal liberty. He seemed blind to the fact that the states are more often a threat to civil rights than the federal government. The behavior of southerners vis a vis African-Americans is the obvious example. The only time that the condition of black Americans has improved, it has been at the behest of the national government- the states are a brilliant demonstration of the problems of majority faction. Jefferson is indirectly responsible for the Civil War, since his doctrine of nullification was contained within it the seeds of secession. He was no fried to the American Union, which makes it strange that Lincoln so relied on him. Also, Jefferson's states rights rhetoric has been used a smokescreen for attacking any government program to the benefit of the middle class or the poor, which jibes poorly with Jefferson's egalitarian rhetoric.
Jefferson's agrarianism has also had baleful consequences. He fed the latent anti-urban feelings of the society, arguing that republics could only survive if they were based on small farmers. Now it is certainly true that small proprietors are essential for a stable popular government, but why farmers? Why not shopkeepers? The problems run deeper than that, however. Jefferson believed that industrialization would lead to the end of civic virtue and the rise of dictatorship. He wanted the U.S. to concentrate on agricultural goods and import all finisher products. Jefferson, if he had successfully blocked industrialization, would have condemned us to third-world poverty.
I don't really need to talk about Jefferson's racism and hypocrisy in regards to slavery, do I?
Jefferson's foreign policy was also disastrous. Rather than building a strong military to act as a deterrent and secure American interests, he relied on a passive neutrality. When U.S. ships were being seized by the British and American sailors impressed into the British navy, Jefferson responded with a predictably ineffective embargo.
In sum Jefferson's vision of the world was either faulty on its own terms (agrarianism), or an ineffective method to his aims (states rights as guardians of liberty). Hamilton was clearly won the historical debate- this is his country, an America which is militarily strong, industrially powerful, and with a central government actively defending individual liberties.
None of this is to say that there is NOTHING in Jefferson we should admire. He did help prevent the spread of slavery into the Midwest, and he was an eloquent defender of human liberty. He had enormous faith in democracy (the lack of which is perhaps Hamilton's greatest flaw). Finally, there is something to Jefferson's idea of political decentralization as a means to egalitarian policy. But does this make him a great founder? Does he deserve his iconic status? Not really. Those laurels should be worn by a different man, one who's only honor today is the ten dollar bill.
Shame on us.