Thomas Jefferson, the Original Tea Partier

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.

Advertisements

Tags: , , ,

5 Responses to “Thomas Jefferson, the Original Tea Partier”

  1. sfornerette1776 Says:

    Reblogged this on Sfornerette1776's Blog.

  2. Clay Knick Says:

    Add Patrick Henry to this list, too.

  3. Doug Webb Says:

    Hi Tim, About your article on the Tea Party and Jefferson: as a Tea Party sympathizer I think you have your view of the current Tea Party a bit skewed. What the Tea Party wants is smaller government not small government, they also want more state’s rights not total state’s rights, they also want to reduce spending and debt not totally stop government spending, they also are big fans of a strong defense and would have nothing to do with reducing vital defense spending or in reducing the government’s role in fighting terrorism. The Tea party is a response to recent extremes in growing government and national debt. The Tea party did not exist until very recently when the growth of government and national debt seemed to them to be set on a course that in a few years would turn the USA into Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy or Ireland i. e., a failed European Socialist State.

  4. chosenrebel Says:

    Tim,

    Great post though I agree with what Doug has pushed back with. Today’s Tea Party is about smaller, not invisible and do nothing government. [Though there are some odd balls out there whose rhetoric is more extreme). I love in particular, your last few sentences. They are spot on.

    “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.” (Tim Stafford)

    Arrogance always shuts minds, both right and left, to truth. God spare us from another four years of pride — on both sides of the aisle.

  5. Leadership Freak; Using Christmas; Thomas Jefferson; Alvin Plantinga; Star Parker and more « ChosenRebel's Blog Says:

    […] do the rich have that is taxable?  (NPR) Was Thomas Jefferson the first Tea Partier (Tim […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: