What exactly does it mean to be Jeffersonian?

The liberal view of Jefferson is epitomized by the Jefferson Memorial, dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 13, 1943—the bicentennial of Jefferson’s birth. Looking at many of the inscriptions on the walls within the Jefferson Memorial, a student of Jefferson’s thought can see that they were selected to serve as propaganda for the New Deal. Thus, Jefferson’s description of a “wise and frugal” federal government as one having “a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants” does not appear. Instead, there is a quotation in which Jefferson, advocating frequent constitutional change, admonished that as circumstances alter, “laws and institutions … must advance to keep pace with the times.” The words are Jefferson’s, but the Jeffersonian philosophy is missing. In a sense, the memorial symbolized Jefferson’s apotheosis: with its dedication, he joined Washington and Lincoln in the American pantheon and, in the process, was transformed from philosopher to cultural icon. Gone were his ideas favoring limited government; to liberals, he became simply the “father of American democracy.”

Thomas Jefferson has long been a stumbling block for U.S. politicians and political thinkers. As author of the Declaration of Independence, he is unavoidably the man who defined America’s meaning. Yet the Jeffersonian philosophy is clearly one of reason, individualism, liberty, and limited government—all of which are, in different ways, anathema to modern liberals and conservatives. How to resolve this conflict? For the most part, the answer has been to celebrate parts of Jefferson’s philosophy and ignore others.

When examining some of Jefferson’s writings — most notably the Declaration of Independence — it can easily be seen that he borrowed extensively from authors who came before him. In fact, nothing new can really be done without building on or refuting previous works.

As a Deist, Jefferson rejected the concept of a supernatural God; he accepted the primacy of existence and regarded reason as man’s “only oracle.” As he once advised his nephew Peter Carr, “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” When Jefferson sought in his draft of the Declaration of Independence to place before “all mankind” the reasons for American independence “in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent,” he did not invoke divine law but grounded his philosophy of natural rights in man’s nature. To prove his statements, he cited the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—what we would call the laws of science. Such were the metaphysical and epistemological foundations of Jeffersonianism.

Turning to ethics, Jefferson would probably have agreed with Ayn Rand’s description of rights as “conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival.” He also regarded reason as man’s essential attribute; it was reason—or, strictly speaking, the capacity to reason—that provided the basis of natural rights. The three fundamental, “inalienable” rights Jefferson mentioned in the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness— really were different ways of expressing the same basic “right,” in Rand’s sense: recognition that humans are individuals.

Next: See “Being Jeffersonian, Part II”

brian patrick cork