Thomas Jefferson: The Progressive Libertarian

Thomas Jefferson’s last testament to his political, religious, and educational ideology is encapsulated by his self-ascribed epitaph: “Here lies Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” [1]. Fittingly, these three accomplishments are the culmination of Thomas Jefferson’s lifework, and reflect the progress he made in affecting American attitudes in each of these areas. To understand the significance of each, it is necessary to reference his writings to discover the foundation for his beliefs.

Jefferson is best known for his authorship of the seminal American political treatise, the Declaration of Independence. In this text, Jefferson develops a fresh understanding of the functions of the state and principles for good governance. Jefferson’s first innovation is to adopt the notion of the consent of the governed being the legitimate basis for state authority:

governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that when any government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, & to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, & organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness. [2].

For Jefferson, government is simply a vehicle by which the people exercise their authority. This effectively transformed the prevailing concept of the divine right of monarchs promulgated by the Church and the Hobbesian theory of social contract. Sovereigns are under the divine dictate to honor certain natural rights, such as personal autonomy and freedom from state coercion. The public good was redefined as protecting the welfare of the governed, rather than preservation of the State. The tenets of divine claim to authority, social contract theory, and representative government are reconciled into a single coherent theory of participatory democracy.

The public good to be preserved was equal treatment under the law. Jefferson beleived that one of the most onerous features of the English form of government was that it was plaugued by the “pseudo-aristoi,” an “artificial aristocracy” founded on wealth and birthright, whom lacked the aptitude to honor principles of good governance. [3]. Traditional English rule was based on aristocratic elites who usually sought their own preservation, rather than the public welfare. Among its failures, Jefferson believed this wealthy class failed to acknowledge and preserve humanity’s natural rights to intellectual inquiry, equity of opportunity and government by consent.

Jefferson believed there to be a meritorious “aristoi” among men, a “natural aristocracy” endowed with superior “virtue and talents” for public service. Jefferson reasoned that “it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society.” [4].

Jefferson judged the Republican form of government to be best suited to accommodate the ascent to power of the legitimate “aristoi.” Jefferson’s opinion was that the general public was capable of choosing those individuals best suited to protect its interests:  “the best remedy is exactly that provided by our constitutions, to leave the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff.” [5].

Jefferson also acknowledged the English tradition of property rights had led to a lack of economic equity in America, whereby property was “absolutely concentrated in a very few hands.” [6]. His solution for combating the hereditary rule, fostered by an unequal distribution of wealth, was twofold; Jefferson called for “subdividing” the property of affluent individuals to prevent the mass accumulation of property by a single heir, as well as proposing a progressive tax system, which provided an exemption from taxation “below a certain point” and taxed “the higher portions or property in geometrical progressions as they rise.” [7].

The Jeffersonian concept of equality under the law carried over to religious freedom, as well. Jefferson was a staunch advocate of intellectual freedom, arguing that the free exercise of religion was a “natural right.” [8]. He reasoned that “the opinions of men are not the object of civil government; nor under its jurisdiction” and that to allow governmental intrusion into matters of opinion and faith “destroys religious liberty.” [9]. The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom drafted by Jefferson ensured “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument maintain, their opinions in matter of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” [10].

Jefferson had witnessed, that through “intolerance”, erroneous religious beliefs had historically been institutionalized, to the detriment of society. [11]. Jefferson perceived religious faith as a “matter of conscience” and recognized that the dominant religious sect was routinely “oppressive” to minority opinions. [12]. He viewed the “religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain” as a threat to “civil freedom” [13], and foresaw religious diversity as implementing a balance against error by “the several sects perform[ing] the office of a censor morum over each other.” [14].

Jefferson believed that education, not religion, was best suited to preserve the public good, and that democracy’s strength was in the free flow of knowledge: “I think that by far, the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” [15]. Education was the great equalizer among men and ensured that “the mass of the people” would seek the “guidance of reason” to “shake off all the fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched.”[16]. As a result, Jefferson advised that “an amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education.” [17].

Jefferson proposed free primary education in “reading, writing, and arithmetic” through a series of county school districts “to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of people.” [18]. Further education could be obtained through tuition, or in the case of the poor, each school would annually “chuse the boy, of best genius” and reward him with a grant to attend further schooling. [19]. Jefferson’s liberal arts education included a firm foundation in the humanities, the fine arts, physical and social science, mathematics, and History, with an emphasis on the morals to be learned from history, “apprising [students] of the past [to] enable them to judge of the future” and qualifying them “as judges of the actions and design of men.” [20].

The Jefferson model proceeded on meritocracy; the students of “superior genius” advanced through the system to produce a natural aristocracy “rendering the people” as the “ultimate guardians of their liberty.” [21]. Jefferson deemed that the people themselves were the only “safe repository” of government and that by improving their minds “every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority.” [22].

Jefferson’s legacy to political reform, religious freedom, and public education are enshrined in his three great accomplishments: the American Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Staute of Religious Freedom, and the University of Virginia. They are the culmination of Jefferson’s democratic vision at work to practically implement the principles of government by consensus, equality under the law, intellectual and religious freedom, and to promote an educated, self-governed nation capable of producing its own “natural aristocracy.”

Lawrence Christopher Skufca (2007)

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Bibliography

[1] Monticello.Org. A Brief Biography of Thomas Jefferson. http://www.monticello.org/jefferson/biography.html (accessed 1/08/07).

[2] Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence.  http://www.constitution.org/us_doi.pdf (accessed 11/16/2015).

[3] Jefferson, Thomas. The Natural Aristocracy: Letter to John Adams, October 28, 1813. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s61.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[4] Jefferson, Thomas. The Natural Aristocracy: Letter to John Adams, October 28, 1813. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s61.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[5] Jefferson, Thomas. The Natural Aristocracy: Letter to John Adams, October 28, 1813. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s61.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[6] Jefferson, Thomas. Property and Natural Right: Letter to James Madison, October 28, 1785.  http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s32.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[7] Jefferson, Thomas. Property and Natural Right: Letter to James Madison, October 28, 1785.  http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s32.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[8] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII.   http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/JEFFERSON/ch17.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[9] Jefferson, Thomas. Revisal of the Laws: Drafts of Legislation. A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, June 18, 1779. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-02-02-0132-0004-0082 (accessed 11/16/2015).

[10] Jefferson, Thomas. Revisal of the Laws: Drafts of Legislation. A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, June 18, 1779. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-02-02-0132-0004-0082 (accessed 11/16/2015).

[11] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII.   http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/JEFFERSON/ch17.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[12] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII.   http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/JEFFERSON/ch17.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[13] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII.   http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/JEFFERSON/ch17.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[14] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII.   http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/JEFFERSON/ch17.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[15] Jefferson, Thomas. A Crusade Against Ignorance: Letter to George Wyth August 13, 1786.  http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/letters-of-thomas-jefferson/jefl47.php   (accessed 11/16/2015).

[16] Jefferson, Thomas. The Homage of Reason: Letter to Peter Carr Aug. 10, 1787.  http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/jefferson_carr.html (accessed 11/16/2015).

[17] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV.http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp (accessed 11/16/2015).

[18] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV.  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp (accessed 11/16/2015).

[19] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV.  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp (accessed 11/16/2015).

[20] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV.  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp (accessed 11/16/2015).

[21] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV.  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp (accessed 11/16/2015)..

[22] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV.  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp (accessed 11/16/2015).

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