People remember Thomas Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote in 1776. A few will remember that he served as president from 1801 to 1809, but aside from that, they know almost nothing of his life and work. In actual fact, he lived till 1826, when he died on July 4, fifty years to the day after the ratification of his Declaration.
During those fifty years, Jefferson’s intellectual life bloomed. He was an inventor, a horticulturalist, and especially a philosopher. In fact, he was a brave and excellent philosopher.
As I wrote previously, Jefferson was convinced that he and the other “founders” had blown their shot at freedom. That’s not something that a lot of Americans are comfortable hearing, but it’s true just the same.
His Final Message
In his last years – after a lifetime of learning and experience, Jefferson had one thing preeminently on his mind: the principle of decentralization.
Rather than saying “centralization,” Jefferson used the word “consolidation,” but they mean the same thing. Here’s his core statement on the subject, from his autobiography, written in 1821:
It is not by the consolidation, or concentration, of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected.
This statement put Jefferson at odds with the political leaders of his time and raised difficulties for him, as he writes in a letter to Judge William Johnson in 1823:
I have been blamed for saying, that a prevalence of the doctrines of consolidation would one day call for reformation or revolution.
For the following passage – a letter to William Johnson, written in 1822 – I’ll set Jefferson’s words in italics and my explanation/commentary in plain text:
They [a political party] rally to the point which they think next best, a consolidated government.
Here he points out that political parties tend to favor centralization, which they certainly have since.
Their aim is now, therefore, to break down the rights reserved by the Constitution to the States as a bulwark against that consolidation
This party is trying to steal the power of the individual States and centralize it in one city, and they are willing to alter or bypass the Constitution to do so.
the fear of which produced the whole of the opposition to the Constitution at its birth…
Here Jefferson is saying the Anti-Federalists were right and that the Constitution could not prevent the theft of liberties by the national government.
I trust… that the friends of the real Constitution and Union will prevail against consolidation, as they have done against monarchism.
Notice his phrase, “the real Constitution.” Already in 1822, he needed to make this distinction, because the Constitution was already being twisted, overridden, and bypassed.