With July 4th approaching fast, and the fact that Thomas Jefferson is regarded as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, I wanted to share what I learned about him from scholars of American history. Please share this info with your kids or grandkids, who, odds are, aren’t learning them.
There are four myths about Jefferson that most believe are true but are not. These are four beliefs, policies or practices often attributed to our third president that are either false or cherry-picked partial views.
The first myth is that Jefferson was for big government. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While Jefferson expanded U.S. territory through enactments like the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, he knew that when it came to expanding government, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”
Dr. Peter Unuf, professor of history at Jefferson’s own University of Virginia. explained his views well: “In Thomas Jefferson’s mind, the first order of business for him as President was the establishment of a ‘wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another’ but which would otherwise leave them alone to regulate their own affairs. He wanted a government that would respect the authority of individual states, operate with a smaller bureaucracy, and cut its debts.”
Jefferson was actually for smaller government, less debt and less taxes. This quote from him is quite long, but it shares exactly what he saw would be the end outcome of a massive-spending and tax-grabbing federal government.
Jefferson wrote, “We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude. If we run into such debts as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and our creeds, as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses, and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes, have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account, but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers.”
So, did Jefferson follow his own advice? Yes, in government, but no in his personal life.
Jefferson and his contemporaries did in fact apply some wise fiscal principles to the running of the federal government. For the record, Jefferson’s administration witnessed the reduction of the national deficit during his eight-year tenure in office (1801-1809), from roughly $83,038,050.80 to $57,023,192.09, despite America’s war with the Barbary States during the same period.
Sad to say, however, that Jefferson’s own personal life ended up in quite the financial shambles, owing $107,000 when he died, which is $2 million in today’s terms.
The second myth about Thomas Jefferson is that he was always an isolationist or non-interventionist: That is, he believed the U.S. should avoid alliances with other nations so as not to draw the U.S. into wars not related to direct territorial self-defense. Neutrality was a nice goal of our first presidents, but rarely enacted in reality.
True, President Jefferson is often noted as extending George Washington’s ideas of commercial-only relations with other countries. For example, in his March 4, 1801inaugural address, he said, “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
But a brief view of virtually any country’s history – including the U.S. and Jeffersonian actions in government – easily demonstrates that commercial-only relations more often than not morph into “entangling alliances.”
Case in point: France. Our founders were largely non-interventionists, at least in desire and theory. But when push came to shove, our founders signed the Treaty of Alliance with France on Feb. 6, 1778, creating a military alliance between the U.S. and France against Great Britain. The U.S. also signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France on the same day, endorsing trade and commerce between the two countries.
And if one thinks that those treaties were signed only to secure freedom and stability in the Revolutionary era, consider that they weren’t annulled by Congress until 25 years later in 1798. If 25 years doesn’t qualify as an “entangled alliance,” then what does?
Jefferson’s own enablement of an entangled alliance with France seems to be further supported by the fact that he was one of America’s greatest Francophiles and lived some of the best years of his life in Paris, from August 1784 to September 1789, bringing back dozens of crates from the European culture to his own Monticello estate.
And on another battlefront, let’s also not forget that Jefferson confessed to Congress in 1801 that he was “unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense,” when he ordered a small fleet of warships to the Mediterranean to ward off attacks by the Barbary Powers. Marines and warships were deployed to the region, which eventually led to the surrender of Tripoli in 1805. Nevertheless, it would still take another decade to defeat completely those sea-marauding pirates.
The third myth is that Jefferson was pro-abortion, which many liberals and progressives espouse he was. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.
Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton both made comments about the ‘concealment laws’ in their states that demonstrated how they approved of a murder charge for a woman who intentionally aborted her child. The “concealment laws” were adopted by most states, and prohibited infanticide and even abortion, especially “post-quickening.”
Jefferson firmly believed it is the primary purpose of government to protect every human’s rights for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness from the womb to the tomb. As he wrote after eight years as president, in 1809, “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”
That is why Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
(For more on how other America’s founders regarded human life, I recommend reading my recent column, “America’s founders views on life in the womb,” or chapter 6, “Reclaim the Value of Human Life,” in my New York Times bestseller, “Black Belt Patriotism.” For scientific proof that life in the womb is indeed human life, read my recent column: “Restoring all human life, from conception to the grave.”)
The fourth and last myth concerning Thomas Jefferson was that his view of the First Amendment (and particularly its’ Separation Clause) prohibited any intermingling between church and state. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.
As I wrote in “Black Belt Patriotism,” skeptics are quick to point to Thomas Jefferson, who is generally hailed as the chief of church-state separation. But proof that Jefferson was not trying to rid government of religious (specifically Christian) influence comes from the fact that he endorsed using government buildings for church meetings, signed a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians that allotted federal money to support the building of a Catholic church and to pay the salary of the church’s priests, and repeatedly renewed legislation that gave land to the United Brethren to help their missionary activities among the Indians.
Some might be completely surprised to discover that just two days after Jefferson wrote his famous letter citing the “wall of separation between Church and State,” he attended church in the place where he always had as president: the U.S. Capitol. The very seat of our nation’s government was used for sacred purposes. As the Library of Congress website notes, “It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809) and of James Madison (1809–1817) the state became the church.”
Please re-read those five words: “… the state became the church”! What’s not clear about that?
One of the most brilliant scholars in the modern age on religion in America is Dr. Michael Novak, a former university professor and U.S. ambassador, who was awarded the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion and served as Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
Dr. Novak said the following about the last 100 years of religious education in our secular academia and institutions across America: “This is a scandal. How could it have happened? For one thing, many of the guardians of the nation’s memory are secular men, for whom the faith of our fathers is of diminishing importance. The law schools, the jurists, and the history departments show little interest in religion. One wing [i.e. faith and religion] of the eagle by which American democracy took flight has been quietly forgotten. … In one key respect, the way the story of the United States has been told for the past one hundred years is wrong.”
That is why I say, the best thing you can do this forthcoming Fourth of July week is teach your family and friends about America’s true history. Maybe you can start by sharing this column.
Happy upcoming Independence Day! And God bless America!
(For those interested in understanding the truth about history and what George Washington called “the pillar and foundation of our republic, which no true patriot can subvert,” that is, religion, please purchase and read Dr. Michael Novak’s “On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.”)
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