Exactly 210 years ago this month, a recently retired president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, found himself being asked advice – by a future governor of Virginia, one William Nicholas. The answer Jefferson offered to his political colleague – is fascinating, in context of current events.
While we think of Jefferson as the iconic author of our Declaration of Independence and America’s esteemed third president, he was controversial in his time. The reasons were diverse. They included his innate belief in the good sense of average Americans, unshakable trust in their ability to see the truth.
He stirred controversy by opposing an indebted federal government (which Hamilton favored), seeking to avoid international entanglements – especially with Great Britain, constructing America’s first naval ships, including the USS Constitution, and opposing slavery.
In short, Jefferson felt individual responsibility, lower taxes and a smaller, accountable federal government took precedence over whatever good might come of federal debt, higher taxes, and lure of material benefits from Congress. I think he was onto something.
He would be shocked at America’s 23 trillion-dollar debt, taxes which consume half a worker’s wages, federal “entitlements,” and glib promises by presidential candidates to “forgive” – that is, assume to taxpayers – every citizen’s (and non-citizen’s) debt for medical care, education and altering weather.
He believed strongly in education – and making the Constitution a centerpiece of every citizen’s education. He would defend America’s borders – and did in his time. He would defend an accurate teaching of US and global history. He would defend civic duties and first principles, including free speech and free exercise of religion. After all, he put God and those principles into the Declaration.
At heart, he was a fiscal conservative – cautious on public debt, resistant to taxes. Contrary to current thinking, he wrote: “I consider the fortunes of our country as depending, in an eminent degree, on the extinguishment of the public debt … because that done, we shall have revenue enough to improve our country in peace and defend it in war, without recurring either to new taxes or loans.”
While a product of his time, he was troubled by the clash of morals and slavery. No coincidence, inside the Jefferson Memorial, you read: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
He also wrote: “There is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach,” slavery. While he understood the stain could not be removed in his time, he shouted the contradiction – and was condemned.
Beyond strengthening our defense, he confronted the Middle East, beating the Barbary Pirates. He did that with naval ships many did not want him to build. While he opposed entanglements, his USS Constitution ended up critical in securing victory over Great Britain in the War of 1812 – under his successor.
The main point: While we today revere Jefferson’s boldness, tenacity, constitutional and small government convictions, emphasis on individual liberty and responsibility, smaller government, lower taxes, national defense, and distaste for foreign entanglements, these were not popular positions.
Perhaps most we honor his trust in the good sense of average Americans, their penetrating instincts, willingness to work hard, hunger for facts, belief in the future, no matter their critics – and his.
That brings me – as we think on current controversies – to what Jefferson wrote to that inquiring colleague, Mr. William Nicholas, 210 years ago this month. Perusing Jefferson’s many letters, I found this one especially heartening.
How did Jefferson handle critics? Well, this is how: “I laid it down as a law to myself, to take no notice of the thousand calumnies issued against me, but to trust my character to my own conduct, and the good sense and candor of my fellow citizens.”
In short, critics and controversies, calumnies and crisis-mongers are as old as Mankind. They were in the days of Jefferson – and are still. You can let them get to you, or take stock of your own views, belief in America, and “good sense” of like-minded American citizens. Jefferson suggests the latter, and – as Congress heaps a “thousand calumnies” – I tend to agree. My faith is still in “We, The People.”