A Jefferson birthday holiday?
by Lowell Ponte
Thomas Jefferson, had he survived, would have been 273 years old on April 13, 2016.
Jefferson’s April 13th birthday should be a national holiday for taxpayers. It should be a day off on which we can fill out whichever of 481 Internal Revenue Service forms are required of us. It should also be a day to re-read the words he authored in our Declaration of Independence, that King George III “has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.” It should be a day to ponder that direct and hidden taxes now devour more than half of the typical working family’s income, a confiscatory burden far heavier than what prompted the American Revolution against King George.
Jefferson wrote the words to America’s song of individual liberty. It was he who insisted that our Constitution include a Bill of Rights. It was Jefferson, as our third president, who terminated the Alien & Sedition Acts under which his predecessor, John Adams, jailed dozens of journalists and three congressmen for the “crime” of criticizing the government. Without Tom’s pen, the American Revolution might have failed. Without his political skill, America might have regressed into a Soviet-like authoritarian state.
He was, by almost every measure, a giant whose Enlightenment ideals continue to light our way. Jefferson, as one historian described him, “could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.”
Jefferson, unlike most whites, declared Native Americans to be the physical, moral, and mental equal of whites, not inferior in any way. Jefferson admired Indians, was friends with many (including Cherokee Chief Little Turtle), and developed lexicons which allowed him to hold basic conversation in 600 Native American languages and dialects. Unlike later Canadians and Americans who deliberately gave Indians blankets infected with deadly smallpox, Jefferson the scientist sent the same early smallpox vaccine given to his family along with Lewis and Clark in an effort to protect the Indians they met from this white man’s disease. From his analysis of Native American language and appearance, Jefferson was the first to deduce that their ancestors likely migrated from Asia.
He was a scholar able to read, write, and speak Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian. He headed the chief scientific society in the new United States. He had patent and copyright protections included in the Constitution. But he refused to patent his own useful inventions, such as a new kind of plow and a “hemp break” for processing cannabis into fiber for cloth, so that all could make and use them without cost or hindrance. President John F. Kennedy was right in 1962 when, addressing a state dinner for a roomful of Nobel Prize winners, he said “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Jefferson was “the education President” who established the University of Virginia and with it the idea of public education available to all—although for him, the purpose of universal literacy was to insure that future generations could read the pamphlets of future Tom Paines. (Freedom, he knew, required a revolution, peaceful or otherwise, in each new generation to constrain government’s inevitable tendency to grow.) And Jefferson was the founding father of environmentalism in his naturalist book, Notes on the State of Virginia. You might think Vice President Al Gore and other liberals would idolize him.
But to the contrary, the Democratic Party that once celebrated Jefferson as its founder now wants him to vanish from our history. In some parts of the country, Democrats no longer hold their traditional “Jefferson and Jackson dinners.” These past presidents both owned slaves, as did George Washington. Andrew Jackson was also brutal towards Native Americans. In a politically correct 21st century, such evil outweighs and erases whatever good these dead white males once represented.
(The national holidays honoring Washington and Abraham Lincoln have been combined into “Presidents Day.” Our only official holiday honoring a person is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Although giving federal employees a day off can cost $6 to $10 billion in lost “productivity,” I would be willing to create 365 such holidays a year. Better to pay them not to harass or regulate us than to have busybody bureaucrats justifying their jobs by bothering us.)
Let us weigh in the balance Thomas Jefferson’s good and bad sides to see whether he merits a national holiday. In the process we can better understand ourselves.
Tom was born in 1743, closer to the Renaissance than our own time, on the far western frontier of the colony of Virginia. His father was a self-made man of Scots–Irish ancestry. His mother was a Randolph, from a family so large and powerful that two decades later, when Tom took his seat in the House of Burgesses, 85 percent of his fellow legislators were his close or distant relatives.
Slavery was the norm in colonial Virginia. Jefferson’s first memory was of being held by a black nanny in a carriage. His parents owned slaves. His father-in-law left Tom yet more slaves, including members of the Hemmings family. Young Sally Hemmings may have been his wife’s half-sister, the woman who most resembled her in all but color. After his wife’s death at an early age, Jefferson included Sally and her brother among the few servants he took to Paris during his years there as diplomat to America’s most important ally. Both returned with Jefferson to a life of slavery in the United States, even though under French law both could have gained freedom instantly by requesting asylum of any policeman.
Did Jefferson love, or sexually exploit, his slave Sally? Did he father one or more of her children? DNA analysis reveals a “Jefferson” family gene in some descendants, although in theory this could have come from any of 23 male relatives, including Tom’s notorious nephews. A recent chronology suggests that, beyond these 23, only Tom might have been present during the days when at least one of Sally’s children was conceived. But historians such as Dumas Malone have argued that Jefferson was a man of honor, and that his daughter was living with him during most of this time. A sexual relationship with Sally, Malone argued, is thus very unlikely. (This issue conveniently was resurrected at precisely the moment Bill Clinton wanted to be seen as no more sexually immoral than other American presidents.)
Whether or not he embraced this one slave, Jefferson owned slaves throughout life, including the very day he wrote in the Declaration 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.” We do not read there Jefferson’s denunciation of King George for the slave trade, because the colonies of Georgia and South Carolina insisted that those words be edited out.
As a lawmaker, Jefferson tried to pass several laws to abolish or phase out slavery, failing in one instance by a single vote. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” his words declare on one wall of the Jefferson Memorial. “Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” The amazing thing about Jefferson, according to historian Douglas Wilson, is not that he owned slaves, but that a person of his background and planter society decided slavery was wrong and fought to abolish it.
So how shall we judge Jefferson, who never freed more than a few of his own 200 slaves, whose lives and labors he expropriated, but who thanks to their sacrifice was empowered to establish words and principles of liberty that eventually freed all slaves?
Was Thomas Jefferson a racist? He certainly believed that blacks were inferior to whites, although he felt unsure whether the reason was nature or nurture, heredity or a paternalistic white dominance that taught black slaves to appear childlike. Such racism is a common and shameful self-justification by any group that enslaves another.
I was once giving a speech before the California legislature’s Rules Committee, advocating the creation of a statewide Jefferson’s Birthday holiday, when one committee member, then-Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, began to scream at me. “Jefferson was a slaveholder!” I fought back my impulse to respond: “So you, Ms. Waters, are not a member of the political party founded by this slaveholder—the party of the plantation owners, of the Confederates, of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow and Bull Connor. You must not be a Democrat but belong to the party of the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln. You must be a Republican, Ms. Waters!” But I held my tongue, and later that day the infinitely smarter Assembly Speaker Willy Brown, also African-American, passed by 63–3 a resolution supporting the Jefferson Birthday Holiday. It then returned to the political sausage-making process and vanished, like so many of Jefferson’s attempts to abolish slavery.
Now-Congresswoman Maxine Waters has never opposed slavery—so long as it is Marxist slavery. In her game, red always trumps black and white. She has been among the loudest Clintonoid voices demanding that six-year-old Elian Gonzalez be chained and shipped back to a Castro dictatorship that officially defines Cubans as “possessions” of the government, requires parents and teachers to raise children with a “Communist personality,” and outlaws exposing children to “influences contrary to Communist development.” As part of the “Progressive Caucus” in Congress, Rep. Waters aims to remake American society in Cuba’s socialist image. And she justifies her form of slavery by declaring capitalists evil and morally inferior to herself.
Just as today’s liberal Democrats want to erase the Confederate flag, a symbol of far more than slavery, so too these liberals denounce Jefferson as a slaveowner as a way of re-writing history to delete all the other things he believed and symbolizes. They hate and fear Jefferson not because he was a slaveholder—but because he has been the greatest foe of the government slavery they wish to impose on all of us.
Jefferson wanted government to be “frugal and simple” and very, very small. Like the Confederacy, so named because it aimed to restore the decentralized Articles of Confederation that preceded the Constitution, Jefferson favored States’ rights and a weak central government.
Jefferson, in a deal with Alexander Hamilton he later called one of his worst mistakes, selected the site of Washington, D.C., to be our capital. He also directed the layout of the new city. But he despised the centralized power it represented. “Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap,” he wrote, “we should soon want bread.”
Jefferson wanted to keep power as close to the people in their states and localities as possible. As author of the Kentucky Resolutions, he advanced the idea that the states had created the central government and were therefore its superiors and could nullify its legal excesses within their borders. As president, he cut government spending and deficits in half and abolished the whiskey tax. His proudest boast was that during his presidency the ordinary American never anymore saw a tax collector.
“If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy,” said Jefferson in a State of the Union message. Compare this to Bill Clinton’s last State of the Union speech, promising government giveaways at $8 billion for every minute he spoke—and proposing government expenditures that would cost the average working family more than $11,000 in higher taxes. Jefferson undoubtedly would today repudiate the Big Government enthusiasts who call themselves Democrats.
But Jefferson’s America was not to last. On the day Abraham Lincoln became president, one American in seven was a slave. By the time Lincoln was done, the chains had been forged to make all Americans slaves. Lincoln abolished the right of habeas corpus, jailed journalists and others for criticizing the government as Adams had done, implemented our first income tax in violation of the Constitution, and for the first time in effect declared citizens to be state property subject to military conscription.
When southern states began exercising what they deemed their right to secede from the Union—a right some such as Jefferson’s Virginia, in its constitution, had spelled out as its belief when joining the United States—Lincoln militarily invaded and occupied them. His repression murdered 620,000 Americans.
The victors (who always write the history books slanted in their favor) declared Lincoln a saint and martyr and the war between the states a “Civil War,” which means that the Confederate states never actually seceded. But if the Confederate states never left, why did the Union conduct ceremonies to re-admit its conquered provinces? And how could Lincoln’s congress function with so many legitimate members absent at quorum calls? It’s no coincidence that the leader of the Confederacy was named Jefferson Davis. As H. L. Mencken observed, Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” was a masterpiece of rhetoric but also a lie; government “of, by, and for the people” was precisely what Lincoln destroyed when he crushed the self-determination and independence of the states. In the Second American Revolution, the king won and freedom lost.
So Jefferson and his values were on the losing side of history. No wonder a powerful centralized government banished his image to the $2 bill. No wonder that liberals in New Jersey today have blocked state legislative attempts to require a reading of the opening of his Declaration of Independence at the start of class in public schools. Today, as ever, it is a radical document with the potential to undermine Big Government.
Jefferson today is invoked by liberals only to justify “separation of church and state,” a phrase from one of his personal letters. But notice how conveniently and cunningly liberals refuse to embrace the rest of his libertarian political values?
What today’s leftists hold as their syllogism is “Church and State must be separate. The Socialist state must be everywhere and control everything. Therefore religion must be eradicated from the public square.” Jefferson, a deist who edited the Bible to his own taste (not unlike today’s “cafeteria Christians,” who pick and choose what Biblical rules they will obey), held a very different view. Church and state must be separate, reasoned Tom, but the government must remain very, very, very small and confined to a distant tiny corner of the public square. And religion is welcome everyplace the state is not, i.e., almost everywhere in small-government society.
This was a bold view in an age when church and state were one, when in New England Baptists, Catholics, Jews, and agnostics were taxed to support the official established state Congregational Church. “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical,” wrote Jefferson in his Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. I recall these words every time I witness my taxes used to promulgate socialist propaganda via PBS, National Public Radio, or politically correct state universities.
This statute was one of only three accomplishments that Jefferson wanted inscribed on his tombstone at the home he designed. The other two were his founding of the University of Virginia and his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. What he deemed insignificant was that he had also been a member of the Continental Congress, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, ambassador to France, vice president of the United States, and for two terms president of the United States. Jefferson averred that he wished to be remembered not for what the People had done for him, but for what he had done for the People.
Upon leaving the presidency, as Washington had done after two terms, Jefferson declared that this was a promotion from being a servant of the People to again being part of the People. If a remnant of freedom survives in America today, it is only because ours is a nation founded by giants such as Jefferson.
A saying from the 1960s is that when little men cast large shadows, you know the sun is setting. No President has ever been smaller in moral stature than William Jefferson Clinton, but he has striven to cast a shadow big and dark enough to blot out all the sunlight of liberty Thomas Jefferson established as our birthright. If Jefferson’s spirit reawakens in America, the tyranny and chains locked down on us link by link for the past 140 years could yet be broken.
That is why the liberals want Tom buried and forgotten, a stake driven through his heart, and his politically incorrect ideas torn out of their Orwellian school books. If the spirit of Jefferson revives in America, their Big Government schemes and apparatus will come toppling down.
This Wednesday, April 13, light a candle to celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Help your friends and children rediscover, remember, and explore his profound ideas. Meditate on the fact that one of his first acts as President was to dispatch the warship U.S.S. Maryland to Europe to bring back Tom Paine, to help ignite a new revolution to restore human liberty in an America where, by 1801, it was already being lost. Start thinking of fresh ways you can help kindle the revolution America needs today if it is to be free. Happy Birthday, Tom.
Lowell Ponte is the co-author of We Have Seen The Future and It Looks Like Baltimore: American Dream vs. Progressive Dream. For a free copy of the book, please call 1-800-630-1494 and mention The Schilling Show offer.