Thomas Jefferson on Liberty

Recently by Jeff Thomas: Revisiting the Future

In 2010, it occurred to me that Thomas Jefferson has not been interviewed for some time on the state of things and that, as his comments are invariably insightful, there couldn’t be a better time to seek his advice. Despite the fact that Tom has not been alive since 1826, he was very gracious in granting an interview in late 2010, in which we discussed The Proper Role of Government.

In 2011, I sought a second interview to discuss his views on Debt and Entitlement, as US debt had risen dramatically to pay for continued and growing entitlements, becoming a primary concern in the present economic crisis.

Recently, I was in Williamsburg Virginia, where Tom was staying at the home of his old friend, mentor and law teacher, George Wythe. I went by for a visit one evening. Tom got out the sherry decanter and we sat down for a chat.

Jeff Thomas: It’s good to see you again. Looking around at all the papers here on the desk, I see you’ve been busy. What’s been on your mind?

Thomas Jefferson: The issue is the same today as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite.

JT: Well, I couldn’t disagree with you on that. The presence of those who regard themselves as a ruling elite has never been more prevalent. I can’t remember a time when so many people feared the loss of their liberty.

TJ: The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and for government to gain ground.

JT: That seems to be so. There’s no doubt that it’s a progression that we’re seeing throughout the First World. It’s not just here in America.

TJ: Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic and will be alike influenced by the same causes.

JT: Isn’t that the truth. It seems that, politically, in every country, worldwide, there’s a liberal party and a conservative party, but no matter who’s in power, the liberties of the public are continuously eroded.

TJ: In every country, these two parties exist … Call them therefore Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please. They are the same parties still and pursue the same object.

JT: Do you think any one party has a better answer than the other?

TJ: I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men … where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.

JT: But doesn’t it seem expedient to side with a party if you agree with them in general? I think we grasp the idea that both parties are corrupt, but doesn’t affiliation with one party give us some sort of edge?

TJ: If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.

JT: So, do we, in effect, have a one-party system? Is the outcome the same no matter which we align ourselves with?

TJ: Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are, therefore, its only safe depositories.

JT: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. You’ve always been deeply suspicious of the concept of democracy – stating that rule by the majority may endanger the rights of the individual.

TJ: A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty nine.

JT: You’ve said that before. The original concept of the United States was that it was to be a republic; which is to say that the rights of the individual come before the rights of the many. That spirit seems to have been lost over time.

TJ: Bear in mind this sacred principle … that the minority possesses their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

JT: And as to the right of others to disagree?

TJ: I tolerate with utmost latitude the right of others to differ with me in opinion without imputing to them criminality. I know too well all the weaknesses and uncertainty of human reason to wonder at its different results.

JT: We seem to be having a renewed problem with that principle lately. I don’t know if you’ve been following the civil unrest that’s been growing. The demonstrators are quite disorganised and often don’t even agree with each other on their concerns. In many ways, they are such a nuisance that …

TJ: God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.

JT: Wouldn’t it at least be reasonable to expect them to be quiet until they can get together on what they are objecting to?

TJ: The people cannot be all, and always, well-informed. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. And what country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance?

JT: I just meant that …

TJ: Liberty is to the collective body what health is to every individual body. Without liberty, no happiness can be enjoyed by society.

JT: Well, at least for the moment, the majority seem to want to be sure that the police maintain control of demonstrators.

TJ: The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest, breaks up the foundations of society.

JT: It’s certainly true that control seems to be the greatest goal of government today. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which some believe declares the entire US a battlefield. I don’t know if many people have figured it out yet, but, essentially, that means that all Americans are classified as “suspected enemy combatants” and can be treated accordingly by the military. That means that the Fourth Amendment that you drafted is out the window.

TJ: I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive … Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add “within the limits of the law,” because law is often but the tyrants’ will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.

JT: And here we are back to the concept of a republic – You and the other Founding Fathers defined individual rights as being paramount.

TJ: No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him … I hold that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

JT: I think that the American people are divided on that perception. I would guess that all Americans would want greater freedom, but not at the cost of not feeling safe.

TJ: A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both and deserve neither … We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather bed.

JT: I’m not sure if Americans presently see their leaders as despots. They were elected, after all, and …

TJ: An elective despotism was not what we fought for, but one which should not only be founded on true free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among general bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.

JT: And yet that very system of checks and balances seems to be collapsing … It’s been said that the natural and historical progression of any nation is that it rises out of bondage during a period of great courage to a state of liberty. The liberty creates a collective consciousness of hard work, resulting in abundance. The abundance eventually gives way to selfishness, which, in turn, gives way to complacency, then to apathy. The period of apathy is always followed again by a state of bondage. It’s certainly true that this is the path that America has followed. All that is yet unfulfilled is the final stage – bondage. But how can it be? Although America is now deteriorating rapidly, not long ago, it was the greatest country in the world. In my belief, that was due to the fact that, back in the 18th century, you produced a near-perfect republic.

TJ: Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic, but will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom?

JT: I’d have to admit that America seems to have lost its character along the way, having supplanted traditional values with a reverence for material abundance. Is this not reconcilable?

TJ: Material abundance without character is the path of destruction.

JT: So, history seems to tell us. From the fall of Rome until the present day, each nation seems to have a shelf life – its day in the sun. To date, no nation has ever turned the process around at the last minute. The baton is invariably passed to whatever nation is waiting in the wings that is on its upward swing.

Editor’s Note: All of the views stated above by Thomas Jefferson have been taken from his writings and re-presented in this interview format.

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Reprinted from International Man with permission.