Decrypting Jefferson

Understanding the author of America’s Declaration of Independence is easier said than done. He may have hated big government, but big government was born of the rationalism that he loved.

It is difficult to imagine our Founding Fathers walking about in the United States of the twenty-first century. Gone are the regular gongs of church bells, the sounds of horse-drawn carriages rattling along cobblestone streets. And gone too, in large part, is the limited and efficient federal government that they pledged their lives and their sacred honor, with a firm reliance on Divine Providence, to establish and ensure.

The emergence of political parties during the 1790s, the death of states’ rights during the 1860s, the lust for foreign intervention and world building during the 1910s, the transformative New Deal policies of the 1930s, and the mistaken War on Poverty of the 1960s have all struck at the foundation of the American experiment. Far have we fled from the sound advice of Washington’s farewell address.

Our first president warned against the “danger of parties,” the “indispensable” role of “religion and morality” to “political prosperity,” the threat of “permanent alliances,” and the disruption of “unrestrained intercourse” between the North and the South. We have heeded few of his instructions. While we still enjoy a level of economic prosperity, political privilege, and religious freedom that is nearly unrivaled in the modern world, it is evident to many defenders of the founders’ vision that we have taken a step backward, that we have retreated from the rewarding yet rocky road they laid before us.

The truth, though, is that the seeds of our present problems were planted in our political soil before the giants of American independence exited from the stage of history.

Conflict in the Cabinet

While the United States was relatively unified during the war against Great Britain, the constant confrontations of the 1790s proved that there were two opposing forces vying to determine the destiny of the fledgling Republic.

Commonly, the conflict within Washington’s first presidential cabinet is viewed as a microcosm of the general political divergence of the day. Alexander Hamilton, the ambitious Secretary of the Treasury, defender of the Constitution, and leader of the Federalist faction, is often viewed as the champion of an energetic government. Hamilton pushed for a Bank of the United States, the assumption of state debts by the federal government, and closer ties with Great Britain, the commercial colossus of the late eighteenth century.

By contrast, Jefferson, Washington’s Secretary of State, was skeptical of the Constitution, apprehensive of a strong central government, and enamored of an agrarian republican ideal that snickered at the seaboard cities that Hamilton saw as antecedents to American glory. Disappointed in the direction of the Washington administration and embarrassed by the theatrics of the French emissary Genêt, Jefferson resigned from his post as Secretary of State on New Year’s Eve 1793. Hamilton resigned little more than a year later, but it was clear that his vision had had a greater impact on Washington than that of the man from Monticello.

By 1796, Hamilton and Jefferson had become the driving forces behind the Federalists and the Republicans, respectively. These two factions would do battle with one another until the 1800 election, when Jefferson ascended to the presidency and the Federalists fell into relative irrelevance.

The Triumphant Vision

Jefferson may have lost early battles when Washington went with the counsel of his former military aide, but he ultimately won the war. It was the Virginian who was elected president in 1800 and again in 1804. It was Jefferson’s closest political ally, James Madison, who was elected in 1808 and 1812, and it was their protégé, James Monroe, who would be elected in 1816 and once more in 1820.

Hamilton died on July 12, 1804, as a result of wounds suffered in a duel with the insidious Aaron Burr, and his Federalist following effectively died with him. Never again would they control either the executive or the legislative branch.

This leaves us to wonder: if the Republicans dominated the federal government for nearly a quarter of a century, then why was their legacy the implementation of their greatest rival’s political program? The answer is that while Jefferson’s vision was ultimately triumphant, it eventually took a form that he himself never would have expected.

Jefferson famously preached the necessity of a limited central government. In fact, many attribute to him the well-known phrase “that government is best which governs least.” He fought the Federalists and continually accused them of overstepping their constitutional powers. He authored the Kentucky Resolutions that, years later, would inspire John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification. All of this has led to an almost universal belief that conservatism and Jeffersonianism are simply different names for the same idea—a government of limited powers working to ensure that the law protects the life, liberty, and property of all people.

The great paradox of Jefferson’s political philosophy is that it was inconsistent with his own worldview. By the time he had risen to the head of the American government, Jefferson had spent years in France, where he developed a particularly strong attachment to the presuppositions of the philosophes. He embraced the wave of rationalism that fired the tumults of 1789, and his faith in man’s cognitive ability blossomed despite the bloodied blades of Parisian guillotines.

Jefferson’s letter to Roger C. Weightman of June 24, 1826, the last of his public papers, clearly lays out the infatuation that Jefferson had developed for the rationalist religion. In these last published words, the Sage of Monticello claimed that the legacy of the American Revolution was its “arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves.” “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man,” said Jefferson. “The light of science,” he optimistically argued, would guide men into a future that they would shape, mold, and perfect through the disinterested exercise of simple reason.

The heart of the rationalist movement is an unwavering belief in the ability of man to perfect his existence on earth through the use of his intellectual capacity, and nothing but his intellectual capacity. This idolization of reason leaves no room for revelation and faith, and it is for this reason that the great majority of rationalists were either deists or atheists. In light of this basic reality, the peculiar religious habits of Jefferson make more sense (his removal from the Gospels of the virgin birth, miracles, and references to the resurrection).

The tragedy is that rationalists, even those who are fiercely focused on preserving the natural rights articulated by John Locke, are incapable of indefinitely supporting the small government that Jefferson declared until the day of his death. Divorced from their basis in biblical revelation, separated from the notion that we are eternally responsible to the justice of a God who is intimately involved in and concerned for his creation, the perpetual protection of life, liberty, and property is impossible. The shift in emphasis from God to man is inherent in rationalism and, ironically, the history of civilization shows that as our eyes are retrained from heaven to earth, we are rendered incapable of properly focusing on the rights, dignity, and sacredness of our fellows.

Rights cannot be found through empirical observation of the natural world via the use of the five senses. There are only supernaturally endowed rights that are natural insofar as we tend to recognize them as being necessarily possessed by a being created in the image of God. And these rights can be attacked in different ways by rationalisms. The extreme and intense rationalism of the French revolutionary variety brings about immediate destruction, analogous to a sudden and fatal heart attack. The more moderate rationalism of some American Founders starts off admixed with the religious tradition that it is slowly replacing, the sort embraced by Jefferson and his faithful followers. This type is similar to an undetected disease that, upon running its course, proves to be just as lethal as a violent coronary.

Rationalism and a deep appreciation for the role of rational thought are two very different things. The first is a religion unto itself. The second is a characteristic of the Judeo-Christian worldview—even if believers have often, for fear of endorsing the former, not properly appreciated the latter.

As a Man Thinks

It is axiomatic that ideas invariably have consequences. All social changes are rooted in the changing beliefs of individual human beings or groups of human beings. Jefferson’s worldview—which grew in popularity throughout the beginning of the nineteenth century before giving way to the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau—was the ideological catalyst for the exponential growth of the federal government.

Divorced from an acknowledgment of man’s depravity—and rationalist orthodoxy denies that depravity—the divisions of power between separate branches and levels of government make little sense. Rather than serving to “counteract ambition,” as Madison claimed the system of checks and balances would do, constitutional restrictions on governmental power are but an obstacle to the sort of consolidated power that enlightened man could use to right the world. This project of using the state to usher in a perfect or nearly perfect society is the chief task of both the rationalist and Progressive traditions.

In France, where the rationalist faith was instituted more fully than anywhere else in the world, the results were ultimately death and destruction. Rather than justifying the ideas of the philosophes before the watching world, the Terror only proved Lord Acton’s claim that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The unlimited power of the French revolutionary governments was the logical outgrowth of the rationalist vision (which is inevitably bent on progress), not a perversion of it.

As the influence of biblical Christianity in our political culture has waned, power has been further concentrated in the hands of the national government. Federal spending, which for the first seventy years of the nation’s history stayed consistently below five percent of the gross domestic product, is now never less than four times that amount. And greater control over the nation’s expenditures is but one way in which the government has overstepped its constitutional boundaries. To list them all is a project in and of itself.

The power of the Union grew slowly in the decades leading up to the 1860s—primarily because of the central government’s larger role in directing economic development through protectionist tariffs. Ironically, the result of this long process of centralization was the Civil War and the destruction and subjugation of the southern way of life that Jefferson loved so dearly. If Jefferson had trembled at the injustices of slavery, then he would also have shuddered at the realization that his rationalist legacy, with its unrelenting drive for human progress, had sentenced his agrarian vision to death. The policies developed under Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were simply further monopolizations of political power rooted in the progressive tradition that rationalism helped create.

Conservatives can claim to be Jeffersonians when they push for smaller government, and that is good as far as it goes. But the sort of intellectual consistency required to move America back to her founding principles must be sought for and discovered outside of Jefferson’s ideology.

We would be better off turning from Monticello to Massachusetts. In the little coastal town of Braintree, just outside Boston, John Adams was articulating the sort of political philosophy that can more than hold its weight in the modern world. Adams’s awareness of human shortcomings, his belief in the importance of religion to the free and virtuous people of a republic, and the Christian worldview that gave him a permanent basis for a limited government, provide a north star toward which today’s lovers of liberty may tack.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!