The essay is included in Writing on the Southern Front: Authentic Conservatism for Our Times (Taylor and Francis, 2018).
Thomas Jefferson is America’s favorite whipping boy. Not among the public, which remains either ambivalent or blissfully ignorant of most history. But this certainly is the case among the jealous elites. Nowadays, Jefferson is even more despised than such longtime bogeys as Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon. It’s quite a sight. There is always that psychological need for a scapegoat, for the “other” to keep on hand as a reliable villain. If America is a failing republic, then the road leads back to such Founders as the unsuspecting Thomas Jefferson.
We all know the official motive behind the attacks. I’m not buying. There are deeper reasons for the hatefest beyond abstract notions of equality. Put simply, the Left can no longer claim Thomas Jefferson. So now they must destroy him. This wasn’t always the case. In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt presided over the unveiling of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. With that event, a new era of Jefferson worship among liberals began. This was an age when the New Deal had been given a second life by World War II. Liberalism ruled supreme. Jefferson, according to Merrill D. Peterson, now stood for “ideals of beauty, science, learning, and conduct.” All of which, through massive federal spending programs (money for education, science, “the arts,” and federal control of public school systems), would be enhanced in the postwar golden age of big government.
Times have changed. In the 1950s and ’60s, faith in the federal government to do the right thing “all of the time” ran high. Up to 70 percent of Americans placed their blind trust in the feds for dealing with the nation’s social and economic ills. By the late 1960s, all that was over with. In the nation’s capital— plus countless other cities large and small—Americans could no longer walk the streets or send their children to public schools. Further, their sons were fighting and dying in an unwinnable war. Juvenile sentiments about a benevolent federal government had disappeared. Now, few Americans have any abiding trust in the federal government. Worst of all for the liberal elite, active antistatist, proconstitutional movements have sprung up throughout the country. Although thwarted by the Republican Party’s latest retreat from principle, such movements can be expected to rise again when the next economic or social crisis erupts.
Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophy is to blame for all this. To its horror, the Left realizes Jefferson was no big-government man—nor can he ever be transformed into one. During his presidency, Jefferson cut the size of the federal government by thirty percent—an unheard-of sum by today’s standards. His whole philosophy was not just antistatist but aggressively agrarian, and in favor of those little platoons that sustain families and communities. “What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun?” Jefferson once wrote to a Virginia congressman while providing his own answer. “The generalizing and concentrating of all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of the Venetian senate.”
For instance, not just giving sovereignty to the statehouses, but dividing counties into “subdivisions of wards” was Jefferson’s model for self-government. Consider further his vision of liberty. Counties, as he wrote in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, should only be “twenty-four miles square,” while wards would be even smaller:
[They would be an] average of . . .about six miles square each. . . .In each of these might be . . .an elementary school. . .a company of militia . . .a justice of the peace and a constable. . .each ward should take care of their own poor. . .their own roads. . .their own police. . . .Each ward would thus be a small republic within itself and every man. . .would thus become an acting member of the common government. . . .The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable, and well administered republic.
Citizens of the ward, not far-off bureaucrats or unelected judges, would be solely responsible for the fate of their communities. Would our “big-government con- servative” friends with their dreams
of “national greatness” go along with this arrangement?
Jefferson was not the only prophet of radical decentralization. Patrick Henry comes first. (“The father of all that is characteristic in Southern politics,” as M. E. Bradford described him.) Virginia’s fertile climate also gave us John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline. These giants were later complimented by John C. Calhoun, hailed as “the last of the Founding Fathers.” Unlike Jefferson, none of these gentlemen were ever influenced by the egalitarianism of the French Revolution. Still, Jefferson’s link to Henry, Randolph, and Calhoun provides another reason for the Left’s hatred of the man. All were intellectuals, well learned (often on their own), fluent in several languages, prolific with the pen. Jefferson’s standing as America’s greatest (and most interesting) intellectual cannot be challenged.
These days, however, coastal America is more dominant than ever. All intellectual life in America, it seems, must f low from there, down to the public school system, other colleges and universities, network news programs, corporate-owned newspapers and magazines, the foreign-owned publishing houses and movie studios. A conservative tradition, with its emphasis on orthodox Christianity, decentralization of government functions, and love of a tragic past remains feared and despised by the ruling elites. Folks with one foot in the past stand in the way of a future made by ever more bizarre experiments in social engineering.
So let The New York Times and The Boston Globe rant and rave. The rest of us can honor Jefferson by living up to his legacy. Repealing over 100 years of centralizing trends is a task for the ages, but already plenty of good people have made the effort. On the education front (always a key concern of Jefferson), there has been the proliferation of charter schools, religious schools, and homeschooling. The attack on Leviathan may be aided by a younger, more cynical generation that has no use for the cradle-to-grave welfare state. One of those revolutions that Jefferson felt was necessary “from time to time” may take place only after the welfare/warfare state collapses under both the weight of its own excesses and the expectations of a decadent people. For now, Jefferson’s brilliant vision of liberty stands like a reproach on a conquered people.