Okay, okay, what I meant to say was that Libertarians should hate Thomas Jefferson; after all, don’t they hate people with whom they disagree? While I admit that it would be wrong to classify all Libertarians this way, the vast majority of Libertarians that I and friends of mine have debated (and there have been many) have acted with vitriol and disgust toward anyone who disagrees with their ideas. If a congressman votes a way they don’t like, they label him a “neocon fascist big government liberty hating traitor”; and if you dare defend said congressman, you are not only characterized similarly, but also by the highly uncreative insults of “sheep” or even worse, “sheeple.”
Along with this form of insult, Libertarians seem to love to invoke Thomas Jefferson as a member of their ranks, the first American Libertarian as it were. Now while I’ll readily admit that Thomas Jefferson was indeed the most Libertarian leaning of our Founders, he was in no way an actual Libertarian, and history itself proves this. But with all this in mind it occurred to me; if Libertarians are going to attack so harshly those whom they disagree with, should not Jefferson himself be held to that same standard?
To prove this, I decided to conduct a small experiment, the results of which I will share shortly; I approached a rational, Jefferson loving, Libertarian friend of mine on a couple of occasions, and asked him whether or not a certain action was in fact “big government”, leaving out (for the purpose of the experiment) that it was Jefferson himself that did these things. Not surprisingly his answers were (as I expected) a condemnation of the actions taken by his favorite Founding Father, our 3rd President; the following is the top four reasons why Libertarians should hate Thomas Jefferson.
- “Economic Interference”
The first time I approached my friend, I talked with him about embargoes and economic interference, asking:
“If an embargo or act was brought up to vote/passed; and it A. prohibited all American vessels from sailing for foreign ports, B. prohibited all foreign vessels from taking out cargoes, and C. made all coasting vessels give bonds to land their cargoes in the U.S., even if all these restrictions were meant to affect commerce of another nation so that they play fairly…would you consider that anti-free trade/ big government?”
His response in part?
“I would consider it an act of big government distorting the natural flow of commerce. Any form of policy intervention into a sect of the market economy, be it on a global or domestic scale, is an effect on that natural commerce. In this case, this could be considered bad to the flow of progress of the global economy…”
My friend then went on to explain to me why embargoes were bad, and did a really good job in doing so; but unfortunately for him he also condemned Thomas Jefferson as an actor of big government in his answer, because Jefferson did this very thing as President of the United States. In his wonderful book, Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, eminent historian Benson J. Lossing explains to us the actions of President Jefferson;
Mr. Jefferson’s administration continued eight years, he having been elected for a second term. The most prominent measures of his administration, were…the embargo on the commerce and ocean-navigation of the United States…The Embargo Act prohibited all American vessels from sailing for foreign ports; all foreign vessels from taking out cargoes; and all coasting vessels were required to give bonds to land their cargoes in the United States. These restrictive measures were intended so to affect the commerce of Great Britain, as to bring that government to a fair treaty of amity and commerce.” (1)
It is important to note that the act that Jefferson signed did exactly what I told my friend it did, and yet he still classified it as big government in action. Now we must ask the question; do we really believe Thomas Jefferson of all people was an agent of big government? Of course not; and yet he signed a law that, among other things, prohibited American citizens from sailing their ships to foreign ports! Where are the Libertarians accusing Jefferson of being a big government, liberty hating, fraud for interfering with the market, not to mention freedom of movement and association?
Now obviously I don’t think Jefferson should be attacked for signing this act; the British, as a result of their continual warring with the French, were abusing American citizens and their ships/commerce; so in order to make the British pay for what they were doing (without getting involved in the war itself) our government imposed the embargo as retribution for their transgressions. So how can I blame Jefferson? He was after all looking to protect Americans from British mistreatment; but while I think Jefferson should be left alone in this case, I do wonder why Libertarians give him a pass on this, when if it were Presidents Bush or Obama who signed the act they would ravish them as the worst kind of traitor.
- “Religious Favoritism”
For part two of the experiment, I approached my friend with a different question; one specifically dealing with federal funds being given to a private, religious cause, asking:
“Out of curiosity, do you think its “Big Government” for the Government to give Federal Funds to missionaries or to build a church for a community?”
So how did my Libertarian friend respond? Exactly how I thought he would:
“Government taking tax money to go towards any personal cause, regardless of how noble it may be, is still big government at work. Especially when tax payers have no say so in where there money is going…”
Once again my friend, without knowing it, actually condemns his favorite Founder as a contributor to big government action; for as we shall soon see, Thomas Jefferson as President of the United States did the exact things that I posed in my question. As I have previously written in “Thomas Jefferson and “Separation of Church and State”:
“In fact he [Jefferson] was so invested in a complete separation that while President he gave federal funds to the construction of a church and the funding of its priest. That’s right, as President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson via treaty gave federal funds to build a church and provide a priest to the Kaskaskia Indians (2)…Along with signing the treaty giving a church and priest to the Kaskaskia tribe, Jefferson also signed federal acts in 1802, 1803, and 1804 which set aside government owned lands to help missionaries propagate the gospel among the Indians. (3) He also directed the secretary of war to give federal funds to build a religious school for the Cherokee Indians (4) and in 1804 he gave assurance to a Christian School in the “Louisiana Territory” that they would be given “the patronage of the government.” These are only some of his actions.” (5)
So even though it was President Jefferson who gave federal funds for missionaries and priests to the Indians, as well as religious schools and a Church; actions my friend label “big government”, the Libertarians again seem to give him a pass in this area; he is apparently still a Libertarian. I mean, perhaps our Libertarian friends simply didn’t know that Jefferson did these things, but since they do now, should they not attack Jefferson for being for big government religious favoritism, as they would Rick Santorum or Michelle Bachmann?
Again, as with the embargo, I think Jefferson does not deserve to be attacked for what he did; if one is to read the words of a majority of the Founders, Jefferson’s actions are in complete agreement and consistency with the country that they set up and the purpose they set forth for it. By giving federal funds towards the propagation of the gospel to the Indians, Jefferson only strengthened the country, and the ties between the government and the Indian tribes. To claim Thomas Jefferson is big government for doing this is completely ridiculous, but if Libertarians want to be consistent, they should in fact focus their vitriol towards our 3rd President.
- Foreign Policy
A while back I wrote an article about America’s first interaction with Islamic terror, and that same topic applies directly to our discussion on Jefferson and Libertarians. I find it really humorous that Libertarians (and to be fair, Liberals as well) always complain about America’s war on terror, claiming it has gone on too long and it hasn’t been a success because “you can’t fight an idea.” Now obviously this is not true, of course you can fight an idea, but I digress; what really makes me laugh at their claims is the fact that they ignore that we have fought a war on Islamic terror before, and that this first war on terror was fought by our Founding Fathers. What I find interesting is that Libertarians complain that the current war on terror has gone on too long, fought by two Presidents over 13+ years (since 9/11); and yet, our Founders fought our first war on terror over a period of four Presidents and 32 years! I can only imagine the complaining Ron Paul would have done if he were alive during that period!
To borrow a passage from my old article:
“In 1784 American ships started to be attacked by the “Barbary Pirates”, now these were no ordinary pirates, these were Muslim pirates; on top of that, these were not the pirates of Peter Pan and Pirates of the Caribbean, those rapscallions who are free from allegiance. On the contrary these pirates were under allegiance to the Barbary States, whose rulers demanded that the United States pay tribute to them immediately, and annually.”
This is where Jefferson comes into the story, for it was future Presidents Adams and Jefferson who approached the Barbary States on a diplomatic mission to find out the cause of the attacks; it was here they learned that the reason was this:
“It was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” (6)
By the time Jefferson had become President, the United States had already been paying an extreme tribute to the Barbary States for years, a practice that did not stop the Pirates, but rather, encouraged them; thus Jefferson decided that enough was enough and that the U.S. would no longer pay off the Islamic nations. When this happened, Tripoli (whose ambassador relayed the above quote) and Algiers declared war on the United States, which led Jefferson to believe that the only way to stop the Pirates was through military action.
What did this military action entail? It certainly wasn’t limited to naval battles against some pirates; it also included invading the Ottoman Empire, capturing the city of Derna, and a planned regime change (this latter part courtesy of the mind of William Eaton, the man who captured Derna). After the cities capture however, the Pasha of Tripoli struck a deal with the United States to end hostilities, and keep his power (an agreement that later proved to be a mistake).
Ironically, this sounds very similar to the course our current war on terror has taken, as both include invasion, capture, and regime change (or at least, planned regime change). The fact that Jefferson even agreed to a regime change at the hands of U.S. Marines is something I can hardly imagine Libertarians condoning, especially considering how they decried it in Afghanistan and Iraq; and I’d be interested to hear the excuses they will come up with to condone Jefferson’s actions.
But why was striking a deal with the Pasha of Tripoli a bad idea? It ended hostilities did it not? Well yes, but not for long; recall how I said America’s first war on terror lasted for 32 years? You see, once Jefferson’s Presidency ended and Madison’s began, the Barbary States decided to war with America again, knowing full well her troops and Navy were tied up fighting the British in the War of 1812. Madison corrected this when the war with the British ended, sending the Navy and the Marines back over to fight the Islamic terrorists. Within two years another peace treaty was signed, thus ending America’s first war on terror; it isn’t hard to imagine however that the second round of attacks against Madison’s America could have been prevented, if Jefferson had only gone through with the original plan of removing the Pasha of Tripoli.
There is an interesting historical side note that should be mentioned about Jefferson and the Barbary Wars; it must be noted that in 1806, under a Jefferson Presidency, the first American version of the Quran was published. Why was it published at that period of time? One of the main reasons was because the U.S. had just been fighting Islamic terrorists for about five years; and one of the best ways for the people to understand who they were fighting was to read the beliefs that motivated their enemies (recall that the ambassador from Tripoli told Jefferson and Adams that the Pirates were motivated by the Quran). How do we know that this original printing of the Quran was meant as a negative towards Islam? According to the introduction found in the Islamic holy book:
“This book is a long conference of God, the angels, and Mahomet, which that false prophet very grossly invented… thou shalt find in this book a multitude of incongruous pieces, and divers repetitions of the same things. It hath been expounded by many Mahometan doctors, their exposition being as ridiculous as the text… Thou wilt wonder that such absurdities have infected the best part of the world, and wilt avouch, that the knowledge of what is contained in this book, will render that law contemptible…” (7)
It is no surprise that this introduction was included in a book printed during the Jefferson administration. Considering what Jefferson knew about Islam based on what the ambassador had told him, his previous study, and the long war on Islamic terror that America had been fighting, it is entirely consistent to believe that Jefferson personally (if not politically) would have believed very similar things; hardly the glowing account of Jefferson and Islam that President Obama gave.
- The Louisiana Purchase
As previously mentioned, Libertarians more often than not seem to react with vitriolic hatred toward anyone who they think has violated the Constitution; and while we should all be against Constitutional violations, you would think that Libertarians would react the same way towards Jefferson’s (supposed) unconstitutional purchase of the Louisiana territory…and yet they don’t. You see, in 1803 the Jefferson administration purchased the Louisiana territory from the French, for what then amounted to $15 million. (8) So where is the problem? In reality there was none, although some people did believe the action was unconstitutional; their intellectual decedents are today’s Libertarians. After all, since the President is not explicitly given the power in the Constitution to purchase land from another country, by their logic it must have been an illegal action. To be fair, Jefferson was concerned about this as well, but fortunately his advisers showed him the folly in his concern:
“The purchase treaty had to be ratified by the end of October, which gave Jefferson and his Cabinet time to deliberate the issues of boundaries and constitutionality. Exact boundaries would have to be negotiated with Spain and England and so would not be set for several years, and Jefferson’s Cabinet members argued that the constitutional amendment he proposed was not necessary. As time for ratification of the purchase treaty grew short, Jefferson accepted his Cabinet’s counsel and rationalized: “It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; and saying to him when of age, I did this for your good.” (9)
Furthermore given that this was a treaty and that the Constitution states: “He (the president) shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur”(10); Jefferson completing this treaty is shown to be no Constitutional crisis at all. I must say that once again I never thought Jefferson committed any wrong doing in regards to the Louisiana Purchase, but I have heard a good number of Libertarians claiming “surprise” that he would do something “so unconstitutional”; and yet, as always, nary an angry word is levied at Jefferson for his perceived sin.
All too often in the course of political debate, the Libertarian masses draw upon the argument of “you can’t force your morality on other people” as a way to reject the important social issue reforms that we Conservatives want to implement. Now this objection is patently false on logical grounds, given that all law is someone’s legislated morality; and so the question becomes, who’s morality do we want to implement; the moral principles our country was founded on, or some other?
But beyond this, even our most Libertarian leaning Founder, Thomas Jefferson, destroyed the idea of no absolute moral standard that people are naturally bound by. Ask Jefferson, and he would hardly claim that everyone has the right to determine their own version of morality, especially as it pertains to politics. We see this in some of his letters; for example, in a letter to James Monroe, Jefferson proclaimed:
“Political interest [can] never be separated in the long run from moral right” (11)
To George Hammond, Jefferson penned:
“A nation, as a society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.” (12)
Writing to George Logan, Jefferson affirmed a universal morality:
“It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately.” (13)
And in separate correspondence with Augustus B. Woodward and John Wayles Eppes, Jefferson answered those Libertarian dissenters of moral policy in government, who do so because of the policy’s “religious basis”, saying:
“[I consider] ethics, as well as religion, as supplements to law in the government of man.” (14)
“Is it the less dishonest to do what is wrong, because not expressly prohibited by written law? Let us hope our moral principles are not yet in that stage of degeneracy.” (15)
So there you have it; the top four (plus bonus) reasons why Libertarians should hate Thomas Jefferson. He most certainly was not a Libertarian and was by their standards, an agent of big government and an enemy of liberty; but then again, since when did Libertarians gain a monopoly on liberty? I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the words of our Founders over Libertarian reasoning any day of the week.
- Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, Benson J. Lossing, p. 180-181
- “The Kaskaskia and Other Tribes,” in American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive of the Congress of the United States, vol.4, 687.
- Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 7th Cong., 1st Sess., 1332, “An Act in Addition to an Act, Entitled, ‘An Act in Addition to an Act Regulating the Grants of Land Appropriated for Military Services, and for the Society of the United Brethren for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen,’” April 26, 1802; Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 7th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1602, “An Act to Revive and Continue in Force An Act in Addition to an Act, Entitled, ‘An Act in Addition to an Act Regulating the Grants of Land Appropriated for Military Services, and for the Society of the United Brethren for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen,’ and for Other Purposes,” March 3, 1803; Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 8th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1279, “An Act Granting Further Time for Locating Military Land Warrants, and for Other Purposes,” March 19, 1804.
- Gideon Blackburn’s Mission to the Cherokees,” Journal of Presbyterian History, 52.
- Thomas Jefferson and the Nuns of the Order of St. Ursula on May 15, 1804,” original on file with the New Orleans Parish.
- City Journal: http://tinyurl.com/2ywgpw
- “The Koran, commonly called the Alcoran of Mahomet,” 1806, https://archive.org/details/korancommonlycal00john
- Our Documents: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=18
- Lipscomb and Bergh, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10:411, http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/louisiana-purchase#9
- S. Constitution, Article 2, Section 2, Clauses 2 and 3: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/tocs/a2_2_2-3.html
- Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1806. FE 8:477: http://tinyurl.com/kuz2eao
- Thomas Jefferson to George Hammond, 1792. ME 16:263: http://famguardian.org/subjects/politics/thomasjefferson/jeff0200.htm
- Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1816. FE 10:68: http://famguardian.org/subjects/politics/thomasjefferson/jeff0200.htm
- Thomas Jefferson to Augustus B. Woodward, 1824. ME 16:19: http://famguardian.org/subjects/politics/thomasjefferson/jeff0200.htm
- Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:360: http://famguardian.org/subjects/politics/thomasjefferson/jeff0200.htm