My father recently forwarded an email of quotations purportedly by Thomas Jefferson, warning of the threats to democracy by banks and financial institutions, big government, taxation, and an unarmed citizenry.
It is clear from this email that some Americans are fed up with what they view as out-of-control government spending, Wall Street shenanigans followed by federal bailouts, and high taxes. To express this disgruntlement, someone has compiled a group of quotations (some provably Jeffersonian, others not) to show that one of America’s sages, and perhaps its greatest champion of liberty, foresaw the current economic crisis over 200 years ago.
Thomas Jefferson had plenty of pithy things to say, and at one point in my life (before I read very much American history) I really admired him. But as I began to read American history in earnest, I discovered that the more I read about him, the less I liked him. He wrote a magnificent Declaration of Independence, purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon for a smoke and a pancake, and had the vision to sponsor the Lewis and Clark expedition (which, if nothing else, led the Americans to Oregon). But he reveled in the indiscriminate bloodiness of the French revolution; he vociferously opposed the creation of a national bank to help pay the debts incurred in the course of the American revolution (preferring, perhaps, to let the states duke out who should pay what and start the new nation on an acrimonious foot); and he hired yellow journalist James Callender on the sly to smear President John Adams in the press, helping to bring down the presidency of one of the most honest, sensible, rational men of that time. As a politician, he was less than admirable. As a man, he was frivolous and irresponsible, spending his considerable fortune on expensive book and wine collections, remodeling Monticello constantly, and racking up enormous debts (that would go unpaid until his death) while preaching economy to anyone who would listen. Some also find it disturbing that he fathered several children by his slave, Sally Hemings. (Assuming it was consensual, I am less disturbed by that than by the fact that he promised his dying wife never to remarry, and then kept his promise. What a fool.)
The following are the “quotations” by Jefferson in the email I received, followed by my comments:
“When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.”
This has been correctly attributed to Jefferson, and perhaps there’s something to it. Jefferson was enamored of the rural farming economy of his native South, and had little love for the growing cities in the North. Whether it is true that the South enjoyed more honesty in politics and governing than the North, I can’t say. These days, the least corrupt countries are those with the most women participating in them. Like Iceland. Or Finland. The more women (and, by extension, fewer men) serve in politics, the less corrupt the country is likely to be. (Read Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic—and my review of it—for more commentary on this subject.) Israel is woefully dominated by men in government, and the PA has no women at all that I know of. It’s about more than rural versus urban life.
“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”
As it happens, this quotation has not been proven to be from Jefferson (according to this website, which draws from the 1900 Jeffersonian Cyclopedia.) And if it were? Fine words from a wealthy slave owner.
“It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.”
Poor Jefferson couldn’t hold on to a dollar bill to save his life, and died with staggering outstanding debts. Jefferson’s opposition to the creation of a national bank (invented by Alexander Hamilton, an illegitimate child from the West Indies with no fortune, no pedigree, and no slaves) in order to pay the country’s debts after the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War gives the lie to this observation of Jefferson’s.
“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”
This is a common sentiment among Americans nowadays. But it should be noted that until the Civil War, there was no income tax in America. On the other hand, slave holders claimed that their “darkies” wouldn’t be able to take care of themselves without their white masters to “protect” them. Nonsense. It was their slaves who did the labor that filled their coffers, nursed them when they were ill, cooked their meals, cleaned their homes, and ironed their shirts. I know he wasn’t talking about slaves here, but if you substitute slaveholders for “government” and slaves for “Americans,” it reads very differently. And lest anyone accuse me of applying modern ethics and sensibilities to pillory the ancients, it should be noted that Civil War historian Shelby Foote (a Southerner) has observed that the single greatest mistake made by the Founding Fathers was to create the United States and its Constitution with slavery intact. It was ALWAYS a source of tension and discomfort. The North had outlawed slavery in its states, while the South awarded part-human status to its slaves by insisting that it be awarded additional seats in Congress in the Three-Fifths Compromise. Things only got worse as the country expanded westward and talked of admitting new states to the Union. Slavery, while accepted by some individuals in some parts of the country, was not universally accepted in America.
“My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”
This quotation has not been proven to be by Jefferson, though I’m sure many would like it to be. I believe there are plenty of examples of very bad big government. But where there is less government, there is also a greater reliance on one’s own fortunes (which can sometimes be poor through no one’s fault) and charity (which is not always a compelling motivator to help one’s fellow man). Socialized governmental systems are not all bad (see the Netherlands, Finland, etc.) and minimal government should not by definition be much better.
“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
This is one of the rare statements I agree with. Yitzhak Imes, one of the four Jewish settlers gunned down on the road here in Judea in August by an Arab, was once a licensed gun owner. But after being arrested for praying on the Temple Mount (everyone but Jews is allowed to pray there), his license was revoked as a result of his acquiring a “criminal” record. Had he had his gun in the car and been able to shoot back, it is possible that he and/or the other passengers in the car that day (including his wife who was pregnant with their seventh child, a special education kindergarten teacher here in Efrat, and a young newlywed) might have been able to defend themselves before being shot at point-blank range, and lived.
“The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
This quotation has not been proven to be from Jefferson. Nevertheless, in extreme circumstances it may be true, and a few more arms for the Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s would not have been amiss (or the Jews in Mandatory Palestine, for that matter). In America, I think the right to vote and a government with America’s checks and balances system is a greater safeguard against all but the most extreme forms of governmental tyranny. (Wish Israel had checks and balances; they’re almost absent here and we feel it keenly.)
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
I’m happy to see that since the Civil War, this has not been borne out in the US. Thank God.
“To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”
This is misquoted, the correct quotation being the following: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical” (my italics). One is voluntary, the other obligatory. The net effect is the same. As for the message, I would argue that slaves didn’t pay taxes, but their labor more than subsidized the planters’ way of life and gave the Southern states extra representation in Congress through the Three-Fifths Compromise. Are we supposed to believe that practice was not “sinful and tyrannical”? The safeguards against this are the vote and the Bill of Rights which allow people to challenge their government through words and lawful actions. It works surprisingly well in the long term, though there is plenty of short term frustration. And ironically, it is the American conservatives who have dug the huge hole of debt the Americans find themselves in these days, those who would agree with most of what Jefferson (sometimes) says here.
“I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.”
This quotation is false according to Snopes. Nonetheless, anyone can see why it is so popular now. Before I knew it was false, I could imagine why Jefferson might have said it—he had a personal loathing of financiers since he was perpetually indebted to them, and Virginia didn’t want to pay its share of the national debt after the war. In the end, the nation’s capital ended up in a malaria-infested swamp between Virginia and Maryland as a sop to Jefferson and the other Virginians in the government in order to found a national bank (in New York, under New Yorker Hamilton’s direction) to begin the country’s history with a precedent of fiscal responsibility. Had Jefferson actually said this, his words would have been prophetic: After his death, Jefferson’s children were homeless on the continent their father had helped to conquer.
The Snopes discussion makes some important points about circulating emails like this one:
One of the “Rules of Misquotation” outlined by Ralph Keyes in his 1992 book on that subject is that axiom that “Famous dead people make excellent commentators on current events.” Given the fear and uncertainty engendered by the current economic situation, and the disgruntlement expressed by many Americans at the thought of providing taxpayer-funded government bailouts to financial institutions and other large corporate entities (such as the auto industry), it was only a matter of time until someone trotted out a quotation (apocryphal or otherwise) from a respected, long-dead figure demonstrating that this whole economic mess was both predictable and inevitable. And one could hardly find a more hallowed figure in U.S. history than Thomas Jefferson to deliver this message, warning us from across the centuries that predatory banks and corporations would eventually impoverish us all.
I’m sure I am considered a heretic for my feelings about Jefferson. But if the people who admire him most nowadays are the kind of people who disregard history and fabricate (or believe) quotations like these to salve their own wounds, poor Jefferson’s legacy can suffer no greater harm from my dislike of him.