People remember Thomas Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote in 1776. A few will remember that he served as president from 1801 to 1809, but aside from that, they know almost nothing of his life and work. In actual fact, he lived till 1826, when he died on July 4, fifty years to the day after the ratification of his Declaration.
During those fifty years, Jefferson’s intellectual life bloomed. He was an inventor, a horticulturalist, and especially a philosopher. In fact, he was a brave and excellent philosopher.
As I wrote previously, Jefferson was convinced that he and the other “founders” had blown their shot at freedom. That’s not something that a lot of Americans are comfortable hearing, but it’s true just the same.
In his last years – after a lifetime of learning and experience, Jefferson had one thing preeminently on his mind: the principle of decentralization.
Rather than saying “centralization,” Jefferson used the word “consolidation,” but they mean the same thing. Here’s his core statement on the subject, from his autobiography, written in 1821:
It is not by the consolidation, or concentration, of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected.
This statement put Jefferson at odds with the political leaders of his time and raised difficulties for him, as he writes in a letter to Judge William Johnson in 1823:
I have been blamed for saying, that a prevalence of the doctrines of consolidation would one day call for reformation or revolution.
For the following passage – a letter to William Johnson, written in 1822 – I’ll set Jefferson’s words in italics and my explanation/commentary in plain text:
They [a political party] rally to the point which they think next best, a consolidated government.
Here he points out that political parties tend to favor centralization, which they certainly have since.
Their aim is now, therefore, to break down the rights reserved by the Constitution to the States as a bulwark against that consolidation
This party is trying to steal the power of the individual States and centralize it in one city, and they are willing to alter or bypass the Constitution to do so.
the fear of which produced the whole of the opposition to the Constitution at its birth…
Here Jefferson is saying the Anti-Federalists were right and that the Constitution could not prevent the theft of liberties by the national government.
I trust… that the friends of the real Constitution and Union will prevail against consolidation, as they have done against monarchism.
Notice his phrase, “the real Constitution.” Already in 1822, he needed to make this distinction, because the Constitution was already being twisted, overridden, and bypassed.
In a letter to William T. Barry in 1822, Jefferson writes this:
The foundations are already deeply laid by their [the Supreme Court Justices’] decisions for the annihilation of constitutional State rights, and the removal of every check, every counterpoise to the engulfing power of which themselves are to make a sovereign part.
Jefferson is likely referring to the Marbury v. Madison decision of 1803, a decision that American schoolchildren are taught to revere. Jefferson, however, considered it a disaster, as he explained in a letter to Abigail Adams in 1804.
If ever this vast country is brought under a single government, it will be one of the most extensive corruption, indifferent and incapable of a wholesome care over so wide a spread of surface.
Between Lincoln’s Civil War (which enslaved the states to the national government) and the effective takeover of 1913, the country has been brought under a single government. Washington DC is the seat of the American Empire, and the individual states are minor players. It was supposed to be the other way around.
Here is a fragment from Jefferson’s letter to C.W. Gooch in 1826:
… I have little hope that the torrent of consolidation can be withstood….
And a passage from his letter to William B. Giles, in 1825:
I see… with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States, and the consolidation in itself of all powers, foreign and domestic; and that too, by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power.
If we take Jefferson seriously, we must flatly reject the now-consolidated US government as a corruption.
If we reject Jefferson, we reject his Declaration too, and we also reject the foundations of liberty in America.
A third choice is to put ourselves – purposely – into a sort of mental fog, hoping to avoid the responsibility of seeing and choosing.
There is one final choice: to say that Jefferson was great until 1809, but then he went goofy. That theory, however, would be very difficult to support. The older Jefferson became, the better he became.
So, either we take him seriously, or we don’t.