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]


Liberty Has A Country (to Reclaim)

“Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.”

                                 – Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (1757 – 1834)

July 4, 2010 marked the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Each year at this time, we should pause to consider its meaning.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.”

Here is what those words mean to me:

Rights apply to individuals, not groups. In the Federalist Papers, Number 10, James Madison, the principle architect of the U.S. Constitution, addressed the danger of a democracy bringing factions [political parties] into power: “[S]uch democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.”

Rights are inherent in our nature as human beings – endowed by their Creator. Like Thomas Jefferson, one need not believe in a proactive God [Jefferson was a deist] for the meaning of that phrase to be clear: No government gives us our rights, and no government can take them away, (though governments can – and often do – violate them.) In Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America, he wrote that free people claim their rights “as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their Chief Magistrate.” It is, however, the primary purpose of a just and proper government to protect individual rights.

Rights are not entitlements. In a letter to Isaac Tiffany, Jefferson defined liberty as “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”  We may work for the things we want, but we may not expect the government to violate the rights of others to provide us with free lunches – or houses or health care. James Madison declared in Congress, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Rights include the right to property. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. If the government can seize the fruits of your labor, doesn’t that make you a slave? If you are a business owner, with the government regulating virtually every aspect of your enterprise, doesn’t that make you a pawn?

Rights are blind to position or wealth. All men – rich or poor, famous or obscure – are equal with respect to their natural rights. John Adams wrote in A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, “[I]t must be remembered that the rich are people just as well as the poor; that they have rights as well as others; that they have as clear and as sacred a right to their large property as others have to theirs which is smaller; that oppression to them is as possible and as wicked as to others.”  

In my opinion, rights are violated only by force or fraud. Our rights are not violated when someone earns billions betting against the housing market. Our rights are not violated when Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart say things we find offensive. Our rights are not violated when we are not hired or given a raise. Our rights are violated when we are forced by the government to pay or receive wages or benefits different than we would otherwise pay or accept. Our rights are violated when the government seizes our property for sale to others for private development.

Two hundred and thirty-four years after its signing, The Declaration of Independence still stands as history’s most eloquent testament to Liberty. Critically, the future of our nation depends on our understanding and reclaiming the principles upon which it is based. Respectfully, I suggest that we should each read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety; and write out in our own words what it means. Better yet, we should do this with our children or grandchildren. Liberty has a country to reclaim.