A “little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” is one of the better-known quotes of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson was born this week in 1743. It’s not hard to imagine which side he would take in today’s battles over the increased centralization of power in government.
Were he alive today, would Jefferson side with the Tea Party movement and others objecting to President Barack Obama’s health care bill, stimulus programs and increased spending and debt?
“Yes,” Jack Pitney says. Pitney is a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Jefferson was deeply suspicious of the centralization of power. He was also suspicious of elites, even though he belonged to the educated and social elite of his time.”
Pitney added that Jefferson was “sometimes prone to populist rhetoric. And by today’s standards, his opponents would accuse him of inciting violence” — as shown by the quote at the beginning of this editorial.
Jefferson — the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president — also is relevant to another controversy of our times: nullification, in which states say they won’t follow federal laws. Although sometimes identified solely with the antebellum South and South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun, nullification also was practiced by Northern states objecting to the U.S. government using fugitive slave laws to capture slaves.
In 1798, during the administration of President John Adams, Jefferson took the lead in opposing the new Alien and Sedition Acts, which made illegal criticism of the federal government. Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions, which stipulated, “(B)ut, where powers are assumed (by the federal government) which have not been delegated (by the Constitution), a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact … to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits.”
Jefferson “believed that as soon as government went beyond the delegated powers listed in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, government would essentially become a vehicle for legalized plunder,” said Thomas DiLorenzo, an economics professor at Loyola University Maryland and author most recently of “Hamilton’s Curse,” a book critical of Jefferson’s arch-nemesis, Alexander Hamilton.
Jefferson, DiLorenzo added, “was the founding father of the states’ rights philosophies of nullification and secession as remedies to tyrannical government.” And, he said, Jefferson “opposed Hamilton’s Bank of the United States and corporate welfare.” So it’s not hard to see what position Jefferson would take in the ongoing federal bailouts of large banks.
Jefferson also would have collapsed if someone would have told him the federal government he headed from 1801-09 would, by 2010, have run up a current national debt, according to the National Debt Clock (www.brillig.com/debt_clock/), of $12,797,152,120,610.24.
Our wise founder warned, “Loading up the nation with debt and leaving it for the following generations to pay is morally irresponsible. Excessive debt is a means by which governments oppress the people and waste their substance.”
But, despite our departure from Jefferson’s counsel, we have his wisdom to guide America back to fiscal and political health. As he showed during the bloody years of the Revolution and the difficult years that followed, it just takes his immortal principles of liberty — and the bravery to fight for them.