The Memoirs of Thomas Jefferson

Last week, I finished reading the Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson which you can get for free in four parts here at Project Gutenberg.  This work was one that I took my time getting through, alternating between this and other books, as the bulk of it is a collection of the letters that he wrote throughout his political career.  But I thought it was fitting that I finished reading on the very day that the US federal government went on semi-shutdown.  And there were a few key points that Jefferson makes in his writing that I found fascinating to reflect on over the past few weeks.

A theme that carries through all his political ideology is that each individual should be allowed to govern himself to the best of his abilities.  But almost every single time he talks of individual rights, he follows it up with “and responsibilities”.  The two go hand in hand.  And unfortunately, you don’t hear too many people speaking of personal or citizen responsibility anymore, unless it’s to point a finger at and shame the poor.

Jefferson also spoke freely of his feelings on the two party system.  He believed that there would always be two sides to any serious issue, but as long as two men came to their opposing decisions based on fact and moral reflection, then there would be room for disagreement, and that the majority would rule.  This is how he stayed friends with John Adams over the years.  However, majority did not rule, even in the start of the United States.  Corruption existed from the very beginning.  A handful of people started rigging the game from the first, which I never really thought about before.

He had a truly remarkable vision of the potential of our nation, which I believe we have failed miserably.  He wanted a true republic, where each county was broken down into “wards” that governed and educated themselves, the representative of that communicated the needs/desires of each ward with the overall county, the county with the state, and the state with the federal.  The federal government was only to cover the areas of government that needed to be covered for international relations and trade.  He wanted a nation that was self-sufficient and neutral in all outside affairs and only traded when there was a surplus at home.  He never got a chance to see if his idyllic model would work.

Jefferson was distrustful of the British model of government.  He feared the new nation getting behind in it’s debt.  And here’s another point that struck me.  He thought that no generation had the right to saddle future generations with debt.  That each generation had the right to use the land and resources to make the best life they could without destroying it for future use.  He didn’t want to see America become like Britain, a working class kept enslaved by working long hours and practically starving and numb to pay the middle class who in turn were overtaxed and worked to support the elite class and government debt.  He didn’t want a class of nobles to rule the nation.  And yet, isn’t that where we are now, and where we have been?  We have an “elected” body of officials who have no clue what it’s like to choose between a tank of gas and healthy food, or to have to wait in line for the bus, or feel the shame of needing some kind of assistance or charity.  We have people who feel entitled to their full pay and benefits even while they furlough other workers – workers who actually work a full day and a full year, unlike our lovely elected officials.  We have the choice of the lesser of two evils in almost every election.  And almost the whole teeming mass of them are in some corporate or special interest group’s pockets.

We have McDonald’s posting this ridiculous budget sample, showing how comfortable one can live on minimum wage: 

I think Jefferson would be disappointed in our country today.  I know that I am.

Further reading:

Thomas Jefferson Gives Advice to his Teenage Grandson

“Preach, my dear sir, a crusade against ignorance…” Thomas Jefferson

A couple of Christmas’ ago, my in-laws bought us a Kindle.  Besides trying to support my favorite independent authors, I also use my Kindle to support a habit I started several years ago of perusing Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/) and reading old, sometimes forgotten works.  I try to alternate between the novels/novellas and project Gutenberg, and I usually read these while reading a paperback or hardcover (there are some instances where one works better than the other) so it can take a long time to get through something.  Currently, I’m working on the second volume of Thomas Jefferson’s Memoirs and Letters.  And I came across this quote that I had to share.  It’s from a letter written in France to Mr. Wythe on August 13th, 1786.

“Preach, my dear sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people.  Let our countrymen know, that the people alone can protect us against these evils [of tyranny currently in France], and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose; is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles, who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”

This strikes home to me.  While we don’t label them kings, priests, and nobles, we are definitely in a have/have-not situation here in the United States, where education is valued less than war and commercial gain, where it seems in the power structure’s best interest to keep us as ignorant as possible, where we are all caught in the dance and whirl of material desires and media spin.

We need to look to the nations with the top education, health care, and technology stats and emulate them if we are not to continue our descent into the dust.  We need to base our opinions on the facts (as we actually can dig them out) and be able to debate civilly on issues.  We need to do what is best for society as a whole without infringing on the rights of individuals.  And we can do it as long as we can get rid of the special interests that currently hold our government hostage.  Will we be able to?  That remains to be seen.

I think most of the founding fathers would be very disappointed with the fear and ignorance that grips our nation today, and that saddens me.