Saturday marked the 270th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson. The third president has been claimed by the Democratic Party as one of its own, with the Jefferson-Jackson dinners that are annual fundraising events, especially for prospective presidential candidates. The irony is that Jefferson has more in common with Republican Party conservatives than with the Democrats, except for the fact that the Jefferson Memorial was begun during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
To be sure, Jefferson was an accomplished and complicated man as a result of his wide intellectual and political pursuits. As a politician, he could be as smooth as silk. I recall in 1970 doing research on a Fairfax County, Va., Baptist minister, Jeremiah Moore, a contemporary of Jefferson who wrote his fellow Virginian on July 12, 1800, complaining that the Old Dominion was depriving its citizens of the right to vote or hold office unless they held property. “[I had] not heard it hinted a fine day ago,” wrote Moore, “that you must be more aristocratical in your dispositions than Mr. Adams, the present president of the United States …”
Jefferson, still sitting as vice president under Adams and about to run for the top post, wrote back promptly from his Monticello home. “When the Constitution of Virginia was formed,” Jefferson replied, “I was in attendance in Congress. Had I been here, I should probably have proposed a general suffrage: because my opinion has always been in favor of it.”
Then came Jefferson’s zinger, designed to ingratiate himself to Moore. “I do not approve the incapacitation of a clergyman from being elected.” Although Moore never raised that issue, Jefferson’s pre-emptive answer ensured no more missives from the minister.
The essential Jefferson was clear-cut in terms of the role of government. “Still one thing more, fellow citizens,” he said in his first inaugural address in 1801, “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
Jefferson’s strategy was to cut taxes, slim down government and pay off the national debt.
Of course, cutting taxes mostly excise measures meant less revenue, requiring the government to get funds from other sources. Sales of public lands became one means, as did higher tariffs. Federal offices, “multiplied unnecessarily and sometimes injuriously to the service they were meant to promote,” were slashed, especially in the military, diplomatic corps and revenue offices.
The national debt, in Jefferson’s view, was a “mortal canker,” as illustrated by his annual address to Congress in 1802: ” when merely by avoiding false objects of expense we are able, without a direct tax, without internal taxes, and without borrowing to make large and effectual payments toward the discharge of our public debt and the emancipation of our posterity from that mortal canker, it is an encouragement, fellow citizens, of the highest order to proceed as we have begun in substituting economy for taxation.”
What particularly irritated Jefferson was the financial gobbledygook that permeated the government. He ordered his secretary of the Treasury to ensure that the “finances of the Union [are] as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union, should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses and consequently to control them.”
As for the states, Jefferson pledged in his first inaugural speech “support in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns.” Jefferson had no interest in enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in 1798, that gave the president extraordinary powers over expulsion or incarceration of immigrants. “I am not for transferring all the powers of the States to the general government, and all those of that government to the Executive branch.”
Not surprisingly, in his re-election bid in 1804, Jefferson won in a landslide, losing only Connecticut and Delaware.
No doubt, Democrats will continue to embrace Jefferson. In fact, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has already begun his scheduling of Jefferson-Jackson dinner speeches in anticipation of running for the presidency in 2016. If history is any guide, however, virtually all these speeches will rarely mention, let alone expound upon, the virtues of Thomas Jefferson or even Andrew Jackson.
That’s probably a good thing, especially for Mr. Biden, given his proclivity to misspeak. As Jefferson noted: “Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”
Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.