HomeThe Forgotten Essentials of Jefferson's PhilosophyEducationAtlas University
No items found.
The Forgotten Essentials of Jefferson's Philosophy

The Forgotten Essentials of Jefferson's Philosophy

10 Mins
June 23, 2010

"The twentieth-century statesman whom the Thomas Jefferson of January 1793 would have admired most is Pol Pot," head of the totalitarian Cambodian government that killed nearly half his country's eight million people. Such is the dramatic charge in The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, a recent book by the left-wing Irish litterateur Conor Cruise O'Brien.

But how can he say such a thing? Is he just some eccentric and naive amateur historian?

Perhaps so. But he is not alone in his judgment. Examining O'Brien's book for National Review, Forrest McDonald, a leading conservative historian of the American revolution, maintained that O'Brien was "right on target." And columnist Richard Grenier of the conservative Washington Times, drawing on the material in O'Brien's book, compared Jefferson to Heinrich Himmler—to Jefferson's disadvantage.

What is going on? How can these writers of high repute, leftist and conservative alike, maintain that a man whose name is synonymous with human freedom would have felt anything but abhorrence for the genocidal Pol Pot and Heinrich Himmler?


Thomas Jefferson has long been a stumbling block for U.S. politicians and political thinkers. As author of the Declaration of Independence, he is unavoidably the man who defined America's meaning. Yet the Jeffersonian philosophy is clearly one of reason, individualism, liberty, and limited government—all of which are, in different ways, anathema to modern liberals and conservatives. How to resolve this conflict? For the most part, the answer has been to celebrate parts of Jefferson's philosophy and ignore others.

The liberal view of Jefferson is epitomized by the Jefferson Memorial, dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 13, 1943—the bicentennial of Jefferson's birth. Looking at many of the inscriptions on the walls within the Jefferson Memorial, a student of Jefferson's thought can see that they were selected to serve as propaganda for the New Deal. Thus, Jefferson's description of a "wise and frugal" federal government as one having "a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants" does not appear. Instead, there is a quotation in which Jefferson, advocating frequent constitutional change, admonished that as circumstances alter, "laws and institutions ... must advance to keep pace with the times." The words are Jefferson's, but the Jeffersonian philosophy is missing. In a sense, the memorial symbolized Jefferson's apotheosis: with its dedication, he joined Washington and Lincoln in the American pantheon and, in the process, was transformed from philosopher to cultural icon. Gone were his ideas favoring limited government; to liberals, he became simply the "father of American democracy."

The conservative attempt to co-opt Jefferson has generally been much truer to his political thought. For example, in 1938, Samuel Pettengill, a conservative Democratic congressman who was appalled by Roosevelt's New Deal, wrote a book called Jefferson the Forgotten Man, which showed how far Roosevelt Democrats had departed from the party's Jeffersonian roots. The "forgotten" Jefferson in Pettengill's book was indeed the Thomas Jefferson of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Jefferson who profoundly believed in individual liberty and limited government. Most important, Pettengill's Jefferson took seriously the constraints that the Constitution placed on the powers of the federal government. Pettengill closed his book by quoting one of Jefferson's most famous strictures about constitutional interpretation: "To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition." "A boundless field of power," Pettengill observed, was precisely what the socialist, communist, and fascist governments of Europe had in 1938. Unfortunately, Pettengill's valiant effort to restore the true political Jefferson—and the principles of the American Revolution—failed, and the modern welfare state was established.

But even conservatives, and especially conservative intellectuals, have never been comfortable with the whole of Jefferson's philosophy. He is too much a man of the Enlightenment: rational, focused on the natural world rather than the supernatural world, and more on man than God. Thus, in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, John Adams represents the American founders. And defending Jefferson in a recent issue of National Review, Richard Brookhiser nevertheless felt compelled to concede that Jefferson was a fanatic and a dilettante.

Over the past several decades, these liberal and conservative stances have become so frozen that no major new study of Jefferson (except my own, The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson [Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994]) has focused on the substance of Jefferson's thought. Instead, modern Jefferson scholarship has become obsessed with exploring Jefferson's character and the circumstances of his life. For example, Andrew Burstein's The Inner Jefferson sees the man as a profoundly sentimental person, a "grieving optimist," in the words of the book's subtitle. Herbert Sloan's Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt downplays the significance of philosophical principles in Jefferson's political opposition to such Hamiltonian programs as the national debt, arguing instead that the critical determinants were Jefferson's private problems with indebtedness. Joseph Ellis's American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson is a more complicated study that also downplays the significance of ideas, reducing Jefferson's political philosophy to a product of his "character." To Ellis, Jefferson remains an enigma—the "American Sphinx" of his book title—an interpretation essentially in accord with that offered by filmmaker Ken Burns in his new television documentary, "Thomas Jefferson."


This intellectual poverty in recent Jefferson scholarship explains the considerable attention generated by O'Brien's book. In contrast to other contemporary studies, it does attempt to shift the focus back to Jefferson's ideas. The "long affair" of the book's title was Jefferson's enthusiastic early embrace of the French Revolution, which O'Brien sees as sinister. He finds particularly revealing a letter Jefferson wrote his protégé, William Short, in January 1793. Discounting Short's reports of mounting revolutionary violence, Jefferson says he would "rather ... have seen half the earth desolated" than to see the Revolution fail: "Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it is now." O'Brien seizes upon this bit of hyperbole, which is typical of Jefferson's private letters to friends; he then notes that the accused Oklahoma City bomber was seen wearing a T-shirt displaying another example of Jeffersonian rhetoric—"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," Jefferson's blithe reaction to the 1787 Shay's Rebellion in Massachusetts.

O'Brien's indictment thus resurrects attacks Jefferson faced in the 1790s, when his Federalist political enemies charged him with "Jacobinism" for supporting the French Revolution (and Jefferson accused them of being monarchists for opposing it). The controversy deepened with Jefferson's endorsement of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, written in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Today, like the Federalists in the 1790s, O'Brien is clearly uncomfortable with Jefferson's libertarian enthusiasm; he echoes Burke when accusing Jefferson of being "intoxicated with 'the wild gas' of liberty." And it is in this context that O'Brien hypothesizes Jefferson's admiration for Pol Pot.

But what is so awful about Jefferson's Adam-and-Eve remark—when considered in its historical context? Philosophers now know what Jefferson did not know: that the French Revolution had significantly different intellectual roots than those of the American Revolution. Had Jefferson been factually correct about the French Revolution, and its connection to human liberty, his principle would not appear so wild. For what is wrong about a people fighting to the last man and woman, if they are fighting for freedom? Winston Churchill was not anticipating Pol Pot when he declared, after Dunkirk: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

Like many critical studies of historical figures written by non-historians, O'Brien's diatribe is fundamentally flawed because of its "presentism." By taking Jefferson's statements out of context and judging him by present-day standards, O'Brien effectively hides the real Jefferson under a mask of caricature.


One might therefore dismiss O'Brien's book as an amateur's work, flawed by his presentist perspective. But one cannot so easily explain the reaction that the book has drawn from professional historians. Liberals, predictably, have reacted with outrage at O'Brien's attack and have sought to defend Jefferson's continuing place in the American pantheon with blanket denials of Jefferson's ties to militia groups and other "right-wing extremists." Echoing the dominant theme in modern Jefferson scholarship, they have maintained that Jefferson's legacy ought not be his particular views on political questions but rather his belief in certain vague ideas, such as democracy and equality, ideas that are conveniently congruent with the modern welfare state.

Conservative reaction has presented a far more interesting case. Rather than defend Jefferson's anti-statist politics while deploring his Enlightenment thought, as they generally did in the past, conservatives have gleefully jumped on O'Brien's bandwagon. Specifically, they have taken the opportunity to reassert the fundamental conservative proposition that, without religious faith, a free society will collapse into anarchy and tyranny, an idea once stated poetically by T.S. Eliot: "If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler and Stalin." That is why McDonald calls O'Brien "right on target" in identifying Jefferson's "bloodlust." And that is why it is altogether appropriate that McDonald's essay should appear in National Review, where, just forty years earlier, Whittaker Chambers declared that he heard in Atlas Shrugged a voice commanding: "To a gas chamber—go!" A journal that can hear echoes of Hitler in Ayn Rand will, by precisely the same logic, hear echoes of Pol Pot in Thomas Jefferson.

Thus, the controversy stirred up by O'Brien is of more than historical interest to Objectivists. If a philosophy needs to defend its heroes, and it does, Objectivism needs to defend Thomas Jefferson—for at least three reasons. First, as a man of towering intellect, committed to reason and the practical applications of reason, Jefferson exemplified important Objectivist virtues. Secondly, of all America's Founding Fathers, he is the one whose philosophical views most closely accord with Ayn Rand's. Lastly, because his magnificent formulations of Enlightenment ideals continue to resonate with Americans, his works provide implicit testimony to the potential appeal of Objectivism.

Inevitably, Objectivists will wish that Jefferson had not said or done this or that. Obvious examples are his hypocrisy in being a slaveowner and his failure later in life to denounce slavery, despite his early efforts to abolish the institution that he understood to violate natural rights. However, it is not in his character but in his essential ideas—the truth of which transcends the particular circumstances of his life and times—that, to quote John Adams's famous last words, "Jefferson still lives."


As a Deist, Jefferson rejected the concept of a supernatural God; he accepted the primacy of existence and regarded reason as man's "only oracle." As he once advised his nephew Peter Carr, "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear." When Jefferson sought in his draft of the Declaration of Independence to place before "all mankind" the reasons for American independence "in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent," he did not invoke divine law but grounded his philosophy of natural rights in man's nature. To prove his statements, he cited the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God"—what we would call the laws of science. Such were the metaphysical and epistemological foundations of Jeffersonianism.

Turning to ethics, Jefferson would probably have agreed with Ayn Rand's description of rights as "conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper survival." He also regarded reason as man's essential attribute; it was reason—or, strictly speaking, the capacity to reason—that provided the basis of natural rights. The three fundamental, "inalienable" rights Jefferson mentioned in the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness— really were different ways of expressing the same basic "right," in Rand's sense: recognition that humans are individuals.

In politics, Jefferson was by no means an anarchist, as his enemies alleged. But, far more than his Federalist political opponents (and many modern conservatives), he had confidence in the ability of individuals to govern themselves. The "essence of a republic," he wrote, is a system in which individuals "reserve to themselves personally the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent," delegating other powers to their "representatives, chosen immediately, and removable by themselves." Shortly after becoming president, he wrote Joseph Priestley that he envisioned Americans as acting "under the unrestrained and unperverted operation of their own understandings," thus proving to the world "the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members."

Because government is, as Jefferson stated in the Declaration, "instituted among men" for the express purpose of "securing" natural rights, it was a fundamental principle of Jefferson's political philosophy that no government could legitimately transgress those rights. For law to be binding, it must not only proceed from the will of properly authorized legislators but also be "reasonable, that is, not violative of first principles, natural rights, and the dictates of the sense of justice."

In an 1816 letter, Jefferson observed: "No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him; and, no man having a natural right to be the judge between himself and another, it is his natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third." He added, "when the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions, and the idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right." Two years later, in a report he prepared as chairman of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, Jefferson included in his syllabus of the basic principles of government, "a sound spirit of legislation, which, banishing all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another."

Equally fundamental to Jefferson's political philosophy was his constitutionalism. Realizing that "the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground," Jefferson stressed the importance of written constitutions, scrupulously adhered to, as well as popular participation and vigilance over government to keep its power from being abused. To do so peaceably, without recourse to revolution, it was vital to maintain what Jefferson called the "chains of the Constitution"—such devices as federalism, the separation of powers, bills of rights, and provisions for amendment—"to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power."

In political economy, Jefferson's thought began with the right to property, which he understood to be part of the natural right to pursue happiness. As he put it in 1816, the right to property is founded "in our natural wants, in the means by which we are endowed to satisfy those wants, and the right to what we acquire by those means without violating the equal rights" of others. He argued that extra taxation of the wealthy would transgress natural right: "To take from one, because it is thought that his industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry or skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it."

Jefferson's views on political economy are especially interesting, for they changed over time in a way that rebuts the conservative charge: that a Jeffersonian, believing in reason and nature, would naturally drift toward coercion and collectivism. In fact, Jefferson moved toward an ever more consistent philosophy of liberty. Abandoning his early, classical agrarianism (the naive belief that farmers are the only productive and "virtuous" members of society), he came to support market capitalism as a derivative of his theory of rights.

Specifically, he embraced the fairly thoroughgoing free-market ideas found in the Treatise on Political Economy, written by the French anti-mercantilist philosopher Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy. De Tracy made clear that the productive value of the trader or manufacturer is equal to that of the farmer. He also defended the right of industrious persons to seek profits as "rewards for their talents," and viewed commerce generally as the "fabric" of society. Jefferson was so enthusiastic about this treatise that he undertook the task of translating it into English, so that it could be used as the basic economics text in American universities.


In many areas of his thought other than politics, Jefferson could be quite unsystematic. In ethics, for example, he believed in an innate "moral sense" that guided persons to be benevolent—a naive and idealistic assumption about human nature that may, in part, explain Jefferson's trust in the capacity of individuals to govern themselves. But in his political philosophy, in his advocacy of limited government and eternal vigilance to keep its power safely in check, Jefferson was remarkably consistent throughout his public life—from the time of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the time of his death on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years later. Significantly, in his last letter he wrote of the document's importance: "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government."

The Declaration of Independence can be that—but only if we, its rightful heirs, keep the philosophy of the Declaration from being forgotten and traduced.

David N. Mayer
About the author:
David N. Mayer
Law / Rights / Governance
Political Philosophy