Happy Birthday, Mr. Jefferson!

Originally Published in eFlourishing Issue 12, April 19, 2010

OK, I’m late to the party.

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743. That I missed Mr. Jefferson’s birthday is more than an oversight. It is an injustice. Thomas Jefferson’s birthday should be a bold, red-numbered day, just as Washington’s and Lincoln’s once were, and should be again. Washington was the father of his country, Lincoln its savior, and Thomas Jefferson was, in a very real sense, the author of America.

Like America itself, Thomas Jefferson was, first and foremost, a product of The Age of Enlightenment. In that age and in Jefferson’s mind, Reason was paramount:

“Fix Reason firmly to her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion . . . Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error”

In that spirit, he directed his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1787:

“Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, he must more approve the homage of Reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

These were not just pretty words. Jefferson honored his Enlightenment philosophy through his own intellectual and productive achievements. Intellectual and productive independence were and are essential to a flourishing and happy life:

“If you always lean on your master, you will never be able to proceed without him. It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate . . .to surmount every difficulty . . . Americans are obliged to invent and to execute; to find the means within ourselves, and not to lean on others.”

As the key author of the Declaration of Independence and a strong supporter of James Madison’s Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson, as much as anyone, defined our rights as citizens of the United States of America. His theory of government, so eloquently summarized in the Declaration of Independence,  was that every person possesses by nature certain “unalienable rights,” among which are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”He did not say, nor does our Constitution say, that all men have the right to health care or houses, to be provided by others through the forced redistribution of wealth.

Importantly, and on the contrary, Jefferson said:

“Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated [in the Constitution].”

Even more to the point, Jefferson wrote in a letter to a friend, Joseph Milligan:

“To take from one because it is thought his own industry . . . has acquired too much, in order to spare others who . . . have not exercised equal industry and skill is to violate the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”

Jefferson understood, as so few do today, that individual rights and enlightened self-interest are essential to the harmony of human pursuits; that forced redistribution of wealth – whether by the government or a gang of thugs (Did I just repeat myself?) – is by definition a conflict of individual interests and an abrogation of human rights.

Thanks to Thomas Jefferson, for the first time in human history, we have words on paper – in our nation’s founding documents – that guarantee each person’s right to live for his own happiness and flourishing, rather than as a pawn of the government. It is now our responsibility to reclaim those words and give them back their true meaning.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Jefferson… and Thank You!

[For more on the life of Thomas Jefferson, see In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., Ballantine Books, 1988. Available in paperback from Amazon for $13.50]