I admit it’s a stretch. Attempts to claim the Founding Fathers for some modern position are always dubious. Nevertheless, in reading American Sphinx, Joseph Ellis’ biography of Thomas Jefferson, I saw it clearly: Jefferson was the original Tea Partier.
Like today’s Tea Partiers, Jefferson loved grand words like “liberty” and “democracy,” but only gave himself and his allies credit for understanding them. Like the Tea Partiers, he saw those who differed from him (John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and even George Washington) as scoundrels eager to sell out the American people. Most of all, like the Tea Partiers he hated federal taxes and feared the federal government’s power. Jefferson was the original “small government” man.
He despised the American Constitution. His difference on this point with the Tea Party is ironic. Jefferson had been in Paris when the Constitution was written. He regarded it as a betrayal of the American Revolution because it strengthened the federal government. Those who had remained in America knew that a “states’ rights government” didn’t work—that’s why they wrote a new constitution, to bring the states into a single union. Jefferson never understood this. I’m not sure Tea Partiers do either—they wouldn’t heap reverence on the Constitution if they grasped its fundamental goal of restricting states’ rights.
Jefferson became President in 1800, after a very nasty campaign. He found himself in an anomalous position: head of a government he didn’t believe in. Ellis writes that his driving ambition was to downsize government, and he largely succeeded. By stopping expenditures on the military and eliminating taxation on ordinary citizens, he managed to make the federal government all but invisible. He stopped investment in roads and canals and cut staff in all departments. He strove hard to eliminate the national debt, and at first seemed likely to succeed,
Freed from taxes and regulation, the economy thrived.
Jefferson was wildly popular in his first term, not so much in his second term. When Britain and France went back to war, it turned out that “small government” had made American shipping vulnerable. Jefferson had all but disbanded the Navy, so British and French vessels could kidnap American merchant sailors and appropriate cargo at will. Jefferson countered by closing down all trade. It was a bad miscalculation. The embargo was massively disregarded, and federal agents who tried to enforce it became “big government” very quickly. (Consider the parallel to today’s border patrols and “war on drugs.”) When the economy tanked, Jefferson lost his popularity very quickly. It’s amazing how Americans will turn against a president who presides over an economic downturn.
America’s experience with Jefferson’s Tea Party suggests that real events tend to confound ideology from whichever side. Tea-party government can work, to a point—it’s certainly not the end of life as we know it. Jefferson’s first term confirmed that. But no formula for governing works well under all conditions. Small government is great, except when it isn’t so great—as it wasn’t in Jefferson’s second term.
Our current political polarization, in which both sides think they have all the answers, their opponents are villains, and the fate of the nation depends on winning the next election, sheds much more heat than light.