On President's Day, Remembering the Admirable President Jefferson
This Presidents Day, Americans need to take a realistic look at the Founding Fathers, in particular, Thomas Jefferson. The third president of the U.S. has recently come under attack and has been maligned by the political left, after a long period of national admiration and respect. Let’s not forget that honorary dinners, streets, schools, a landmark memorial, and even a president has been named after him (William Jefferson Clinton). It's a recognition of his many great accomplishments, including the writing the Declaration of Independence, America’s founding document, and its moral compass.
Abraham Lincoln said in 1859: “All honor to Jefferson -- to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document and abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times...”
Although Jefferson had flaws, this article is not going to dwell on his personal life, especially since there is no definitive answer to some of the details of what he supposedly did.
Historian John B. Boles who wrote "Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty," told American Thinker in describing the man, that: “We all know about the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase, which are enough to put any person at the top of any list of historic achievements. But he also laid the groundwork for religious freedom, now embodied in the First Amendment, was primarily responsible for founding the University of Virginia, and he helped unify the country after the contentious Adams presidency. We all know he owned slaves, which is impossible to reconcile with his beliefs about freedom and tolerance. However, it was the way the economy was organized in Virginia in his lifetime. That is why several of the early presidents were also slave owners. It is an undeniable black mark on an otherwise great life, but should not change the good he accomplished. This included at the end of his first term the lowering of taxes, reducing the size of the government’s workforce, and greatly paying down the Federal debt.”
As an outspoken opponent of slavery, Jefferson, more than any other Founding Father, spoke out against slavery. In the Declaration of Independence, he wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Historian Sally Cabot Gunning, who wrote the historical novel, "Monticello," told of a little-known fact: In the Declaration of Independence’s draft, Jefferson wrote, “Slavery is a cruel war against human nature itself.” Unfortunately, others deleted it, and then Jefferson insisted that if there were to be universal emancipation, it must come through legislation.
Having participated in legislation that would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery, Jefferson was also influential, in the 1780s, in having Virginia ban the importation of slaves. By 1808, every state except South Carolina had imposed that ban. In his 1806 message to Congress, Jefferson denounced the international slave trade and requested that Congress make it a federal crime, stating that a law was needed to “withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights ... which the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe." Congress complied and the “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves” was signed into law on March 2, 1807.
The American ideal of religious freedom came about thanks, in part, to Jefferson, who played a decisive role. He had a profound dislike for government-backed religion, but also believed in the exercise of faith, and that religion was a personal choice that should be free from governmental interference. When Virginia decided to reform its laws to reflect the United States of America's newly declared independence, Jefferson introduced the “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” in 1779, which declared that the state government could not tell people what to believe. The law alsoo made it illegal for the state to tax citizens to support religion.
Historian Ron Chernow in his book, "Washington: A Life," wrote that Jefferson believed in limited federal power and the importance of states’ rights, with the need to defer to the wisdom of the common person. Jefferson’s political philosophy was based on faith in the common people, calling it a natural aristocracy centering on virtues and talents, rather than wealth and birth. Historian Boles told American Thinker: “Jefferson is considered the champion of the ‘little man.’ If you believe in maximizing democracy, elections, and anti-monarchial politics Jefferson should be your hero.”
A very relevant subject to today is how Jefferson confronted four Muslim powers (Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco) regarding their piracy of U.S. ships on the high seas. When negotiation proved impossible, Jefferson decided it was time to stand up to the intimidation from these tyrannical powers by sending the U.S. Navy and Marines to blockade Tripoli. This action showed the world that America would defend its interests, earning it international respect. Jefferson's act also initiated the emergence of the U.S. Navy as a force to be reckoned with.
People should not forget that Jefferson lived in an era that reflected a different culture and different values. Today, there seems to be a tendency to put 21st century values into earlier eras instead of attempt to understand the times. Americans need to remember its third president’s greatest accomplishments as evidenced by the words on his tombstone:
AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.
If for nothing else, Americans need to be grateful to him for giving us the language and values of liberty and freedom.
Elise Cooper is a contributor to American Thinker. She has done interviews and written book reviews as well as national security, political, and foreign policy articles.