The Latest Defamation of Jefferson

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Perhaps the biggest lie of all that has been perpetrated by the Straussian/neocon court historians is that Abraham Lincoln was a Jeffersonian. In fact, Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon once said that Lincoln "hated Jefferson" as a man and as a president. Lincoln was the anti-Jefferson.

Jefferson was the apostle of states’ rights, enunciated in his famous Kentucky Resolve of 1798; Lincoln waged the bloodiest war in American history to destroy the Jeffersonian states’ rights doctrine. Jefferson authored America’s Declaration of Secession from the British empire, known as the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s overriding purpose in his war was to destroy the secessionist and states’ rights principles of the Declaration (while using slick rhetoric designed to pretend that he revered the document).

Jefferson was against protectionism, central banking, and “internal improvement” subsidies; Lincoln devoted his entire political career to lobbying and proselytizing for these very things. Jefferson was a strict constructionist; Lincoln eviscerated constitutional liberty by illegally suspending habeas corpus, shutting down the opposition press, imprisoning thousands of political opponents, confiscating firearms, and many other atrocities.

Jefferson was a southern agrarian; Lincoln was a corporate trial lawyer who represented northern banking and railroad interests. The two men were almost exact opposites politically and philosophically. The notion that Jefferson would have supported Lincoln’s invasion of the southern states is outrageous. Indeed, one of Jefferson’s descendants, Thomas Garland Jefferson, was among the VMI cadets who were killed by federal soldiers at the Battle of New Market.

I was reminded of all of this recently upon learning of a conference to be held at Grove City College on April 5—6 under the title, "Mr. Jefferson Goes to the Middle East." It is not Mr. Jefferson who has "gone to the Middle East," of course, but George W. Bush. The clear implication of the title of the conference is that George W. Bush’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq is somehow "Jeffersonian." The neocons at Grove City apparently believe that our mumbling, tongue-tied president is no less than Thomas Jefferson personified. (Not surprisingly, the first speaker listed on Grove City’s web site advertising the conference is AEI neocon Michael Novak.)

But this is unequivocally the opposite of the truth: Jefferson was opposed to a standing army, let alone one that would wage imperialistic wars of conquest, even under such "benevolent" sounding guises as spreading democracy. (As for democracy per se, Jefferson was hardly a fan of it: He believed it needed to be "bound by the chains of the Constitution.") It was Lincoln, not Jefferson, who made a "god" of "democracy."

A brief survey of some of Jefferson’s opinions on the subject of foreign wars proves how farcical it is to assert that the Bush administration’s invasion of the Middle East is "Jeffersonian." The following quotations are from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Memorial Edition).

Jefferson was adamantly opposed to interfering in foreign wars for any reason. "I am for free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, and little or no diplomatic establishment," he wrote to Elbridge Gerry in 1799. "And I am not for linking ourselves by new treaties with the quarrels of Europe, entering that field of slaughter to preserve their balance . . ."

Like the Middle East of today, the Europe of Jefferson’s time was comprised of "nations of eternal war," he wrote to James Monroe in 1823. Thus, "I have ever deemed it fundamental for the United States never to take active part in the quarrels of Europe."

Jefferson wished "well to the progress of liberty in all nations," but still, "Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto," he wrote to Thomas Lomax in 1799. This flatly contradicts the theory put forth by neocons (and even a few libertarians) that America somehow has a duty to intervene militarily in the affairs of other countries in the name of preserving our liberty at home.

Jefferson was such an anti-interventionist in foreign policy that he saw "not much harm in annihilating the whole treaty-making power except as to making peace," he wrote to James Madison in 1796. Nor did he believe that "democracy abroad" would have any connection to American liberty. As for the Europeans, "Let them be free or slaves at will, navigators or agriculturists, swallowed into one government or divided into a thousand . . . ," he wrote to George Logan in 1801.

Let other countries "act their follies and crimes among themselves, while we pursue in good faith the paths of peace and prosperity," Jefferson told James Monroe in an 1823 letter. "Our attachment to no nation on earth should supplant our attachment to liberty," he stated in his 1775 Declaration on Taking Up Arms.

Jefferson would never have been capable of waging an unprovoked war on a foreign country because he was stridently opposed to the existence of a standing army in peacetime. "There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation," Jefferson wrote to David Humphreys in 1789, that they should not be permitted. Such an instrument is "a standing army." "I do not like [in the proposed Constitution] the omission of a Bill of Rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for . . . protection against standing armies," Jefferson wrote to Madison in 1787. "The spirit of this country is totally adverse to a large military force," Mr. Jefferson wrote to Chandler Price in 1807.

Unlike Lincoln, who instituted the first federal conscription law, Jefferson was also opposed to that imposition on liberty. "The breaking of men to military discipline is breaking their spirits to principles of passive obedience," he warned in a 1788 letter to John Jay.

In light of all this it is clear that the title of the upcoming Grove City College conference is extraordinarily deceiving. It should be changed to "Mr. Lincoln Goes to the Middle East." It was Lincoln who masked his economic, political, and military conquest of the southern states in the rhetoric of democracy. It was he who made a "god" of democracy by claiming that that was the reason for some 600,000 deaths during the war. It was the Party of Lincoln, not Jefferson, that put America on the road to imperialism with the Spanish-American war. And it is the Party of Lincoln, not Jefferson, that is currently engaged in an imperialistic war of conquest in the Middle East.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country’s History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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