To whom does Jefferson belong in today’s political debates? The reality, it seems, is everyone. Quotes can be found on almost any topic expressing virtually any sentiment, in large measure because unlike so many others of his day, Jefferson saved everything.
That’s why I am rarely bothered by either side of the political spectrum quoting him. What does bother me, though, is when people who ought to know better think they can claim Jefferson, exclusively, enlisting his pen in their ideological causes.
Richard Eskrow ought to know better. Most of the time he tries to avoid ad hominem. Entering the world of Anti-Koch politics, he has left his better judgment behind.
The embarrassment of a better nature seeps through his prose. He decries the sin of “judging the person rather than the deeds,” but unable to restrain himself, he reaches for a very strange fig leaf: “So let’s turn the question,” he writes, “to an unimpeachable authority: Thomas Jefferson.”
Is he being ironic?
A more serious Eskrow must know this is absurd. Jefferson is arguably the most complex character of the Founding bar none. Eskrow is palpably uncomfortable here. The active subject of the sentence changes from the personal to the contracted “let’s” because embarrassment loves the anonymity of “us,” as opposed to just “me.” But let’s assume he is serious.
Jefferson, he claims, has been misquoted by Charles Koch, or rather, quoted out of context. Strictly speaking, no historical quote brought into present debate, can be anything other than “out of context.” The question is, has Koch egregiously misapplied its meaning or violently distorted it? The quotation in question comes from a letter written by Jefferson to Edward Carrington on May 27, 1788.
Let “us” have a look at the whole opening paragraph, shall “we?” Settle in.
—I have received with great pleasure your friendly letter of Apr. 24. It has come to hand after I had written my letters for the present  conveiance, and just in time to add this to them. I learn with great pleasure the progress of the new Constitution. Indeed I have presumed it would gain on the public mind, as I confess it has on my own. At first, tho’ I saw that the great mass and ground work was good, I disliked many appendages. Reflection and discussion have cleared off most of these. You have satisfied me as to the query I had put to you about the right of direct taxation. My first wish was that 9 States would adopt it in order to ensure what was good in it, that the others might, by holding off, produce the necessary amendments. But the plan of Massachusetts is far preferable, and will I hope be followed by those who are yet to decide. There are two amendments only which I am anxious for. 1. A bill of rights, which it is so much the interest of all to have, that I conceive it must be yielded. The 1st amendment proposed by Massachusetts will in some degree answer this end, but not so well. It will do too much in some instances too little in others. It will cripple the federal government in some cases where it ought to be free, and not restrain it in some others where restraint would be right. The 2d amendment which appears to me essential is the restoring the principle of necessary rotation, particularly to the Senate and Presidency: but most of all to the last. Re-eligibility makes him an officer for life, and the disastors inseparable from an elective monarchy, render it preferable, if we cannot tread back that step, that we should go forward & take refuge in an hereditary one. Of the correction of this Article however I entertain no present hope, because I find it has scarcely excited an objection in America. And if it does not take place ere long, it assuredly never will. The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, & government to gain ground. As yet our spirits are free. Our jealousy is only put to sleep by the unlimited confidence we all repose in the person to whom we all look as our president. After him inferior characters may perhaps succeed and awaken us to the danger which his merit has led us into. For the present however, the general adoption is to be prayed for; and I wait with great anxiety for the news from Maryland S. Carolina which have decided before this, and with that Virginia, now in session, may give the 9th vote of approbation. There could then be no doubt of N. Carolina, N. York, New Hampshire, but what do you propose to do with Rhode island? As long as there is hope, we should give her time. I cannot conceive but that she will come to rights in the long run. Force, in whatever form, would be a dangerous precedent.
Context is critical here as anyone from any corner of the political spectrum can see. Jefferson is concerned with an overly simplistic notion of an elected executive branch. He was well aware of the problems of elective despotism, having written about it in his Notes on the State of Virginia, and he compared its similarities to, and differences from, a hereditary monarchy.
Jefferson was also calling for amendments to limit what The People might freely and democratically choose to do, if allowed by the Constitution: Create a president for life. He chose his words carefully in this debate, not to warn about a cabal of capitalist interests, but the cult of personality. He wanted people to be aware of the powers of an elected president, and just because Washington was so rightly esteemed, we must be awake “to the danger which his merit has led us into.”
Should we lose sight of this threat, and allow for successive terms of office? No, said Jefferson: “Re-eligibility makes him an officer for life, and the disastors inseparable from an elective monarchy, render it preferable, if we cannot tread back that step, that we should go forward & take refuge in an hereditary one.” My goodness—Jefferson would have thought a hereditary executive better than…FDR? So what then of Koch’s use of the particular sentence, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, government to gain ground”?
Eskrow writes that government growth has nothing to do with the taking of personal liberty for Jefferson. Really? Then why worry about placing limits on what a government can do, most especially an elected one? Because he didn’t want hereditary rulership, retorts Eskrow. Clever choice of wording, but we have the full quote. Jefferson was distinguishing between elective and hereditary monarchy, and while he disparaged both, he thought the first type actually worse! So who is playing fast and loose with terms now?
The reality, especially when set within the wider context of other letters, becomes even more interesting. All of that discussion about graduated taxation, for example, was raised during Jefferson’s time in France where he saw the obscenely large hunting grounds of the French aristocracy. But such taxation was not meant for America.
A shortage of uncultivated and monopolized lands with masses of unemployed was the result of a special hereditary aristocracy in control of government that had ground the French peasantry under centuries of artificial restrictions. For America he advocated elimination of primogeniture for intestacy, but the right to own property remained essential to republicanism. Thus he wrote to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816: “The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management.”
And if we want to understand his view of merchants, well let’s look at letters to Albert Gallatin where he writes on July 12, 1803: “It is material to the safety of Republicanism to detach the mercantile interests from its enemies and incorporate them into the body of its friends. A merchant is naturally a Republican, and can be otherwise only from a vitiated state of things.”
There are innumerable other letters and addresses to which we could look to clarify these points further. Perhaps the best one is from his Notes which Madison cited at length in Federalist 48:
An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.
Koch’s use of the Jefferson quotation is better than Eskrow’s construction, because it is closer to Jefferson’s actual meaning. Jefferson used government, very deliberately to mean political powers in general. To contain those powers, he would place limits through amendments—the whole point of his letter—to limit the popular will to operating within a regime of law, and not simply to prevent the rise of an elective kingship.
If Eskrow wants to argue about the viability of Jefferson’s intentions today and the efficacy of his politics, that would be an interesting debate to have, but he has anticipated that response, and tries to stack the deck: He disparages the scholarship that makes that debate possible by insinuating that it has been tainted through “decades of Koch-like infiltration of the legal, academic, journalistic and political professions.”
Alas, the real object of Eskrow’s post is not to engage in an academic debate over textual meanings. Nor is it to uphold the unimpeachable authority of Thomas Jefferson. It was simply to sling verbal mud at whatever he dislikes from behind a cardboard Jefferson cut out.