Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Review of Jon Meacham, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"

By: Tony Williams

Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable statesman from early in the American Revolution through the American founding to the early decades of the new nation. His lifetime of public service included the Virginia Assembly, the Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, the Confederation Congress, minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and finally President for two terms.  This incredible record places him among the highest ranks of founding fathers. 

For a long time, Jefferson has been seen as an idealistic visionary who had a wholly optimistic view of human nature and trusted ordinary Americans to govern themselves as yeoman farmers in his agricultural republic.  Moreover, he advocated consistently throughout his life for rights of mankind.  Never was Jefferson more idealistic than in his nearly uncritical support for the French Revolution that sought to bring radical French Enlightenment to life.  Of course, scholars recognized that the “sage of Monticello” played hard in the rough-and-tumble fierce partisan politics of the 1790s and early 1800s, but our vision of him was deeply rooted in loftier vocations and avocations. 

In his recent book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, 2012), journalist and biographer, Jon Meacham, challenges this traditional view of Jefferson.  Meacham’s Jefferson is a statesman who was a pragmatist who knew how to wield political power behind the scenes and cut deals to get things done.  The author argues: “Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic.  To realize his vision, he compromised and improvised . . . . his creative flexibility made him a transformative leader.”  Meacham continues to delineate his thesis, stating that, “Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver.  Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously.  Such is the art of power.”  Jefferson is still the genius sitting atop his mountaintop, but he is also the consummate politician bringing his vision to life. 

With a smooth and inviting narrative, Meacham gets much about Jefferson correct.  The early chapters narrate the early life in the rising Virginia gentry, his classical education, and his study of the law under George Wythe and the practice of it.  Meacham then weaves together the personal life of his subject and the introduction to politics in the milieu of resistance to British tyranny as an eloquent writer proclaiming the rights of man but also witnessing the performance of the great orators who made persuasive speeches and the politicians won people over to their points of view in the taverns of Williamsburg or Philadelphia. 

Meacham buys into some fashionable interpretations of the American Revolution, calling it a “rich man’s revolution” and a “shrewd economic choice.”  Yet Meacham cannot avoid the fact that, for Jefferson, it was a revolution of ideas and natural rights as he penned some of the most eloquent statements of rights in the American Revolution beginning with the Summary View of the Rights of British America – which he states “moved [Jefferson] toward the front ranks of the cause” – the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms in the Second Continental Congress, and the penultimate statement of rights and self-government in the Declaration of Independence.  Whatever Meacham’s strained attempts to paint the latter as a practical document, the three great statements of rights and the purposes of government as well as his silence on the floor of the Continental Congress reveals Jefferson in the traditional way: a philosophical and eloquent writer and statesman rather than a political operator. 

The next stage of his life does perhaps even less to prove Meacham’s main contention.  Jefferson helped to revise the legal code of Virginia, served as a weak and ineffectual governor who controversially fled from the British, a congressman who achieved little, and then the minister to France who had few concrete achievements besides developing a profound loathing of monarchy and aristocracy as well as contributing to the French declaration of rights once their revolution began.  Even his famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was an articulation of a free mind and conscience.  Moreover, Jefferson was frustrated and settled for the idea of praying for Patrick Henry’s death while his friend and political ally, James Madison, was responsible for clever maneuvering to nullify Henry’s influence and securing passage of the bill in the assembly.  As for his time in France, Meacham labels Jefferson an enlightened “Man of the World,” which hardly supports the idea of a pragmatic politician.  Moreover, his letters are filled with idealistic, radical notions that debts, property, laws, and constitutions cannot be transferred to future generations, while infamously praising the spilling of blood in revolutions. 

Increasingly, during the 1790s, as Secretary of State in the Washington administration, Jefferson undoubtedly became fiercely partisan as he battled his nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, and helped to create the first political parties despite the universal antipathy towards factions.  For Meacham, this period is Jefferson’s most pragmatic by teaching Americans that “in his defense of republicanism – then tactical flexibility can be a virtue.”  Here is where Meacham is most wrong on his subject.  Jefferson was hardly a pragmatic statesman who engaged in compromise and set aside partisanship as he worked for the common good of the country.  Jefferson constantly expressed an unalloyed fear that monarchism was springing up all over the land, complaining to President Washington on numerous occasions and leading to a presidential rebuke that there weren’t more than a handful of monarchists in republican America.  Additionally, at times Jefferson acted as little more than a party hack, establishing an anti-administration, partisan newspaper in his office and callously sought to discredit his political opponents personally and politically. 

Vice-President Thomas Jefferson was no better as a pragmatic politician as he assiduously worked behind the scenes to oppose President John Adams, most notably with the Kentucky Resolutions arguing for nullification of the Alien and Sedition Acts.  His presidency was moreover ideologically democratic but marked with a strong Hamiltonian strain of a powerful executive who acted according to a broad construction of the Constitution, whether in the Louisiana Purchase or the Embargo Act.  One might well argue that Jefferson was acting pragmatically but one might also chalk up Jefferson’s exercise of presidential power as an example of his earlier naïveté and idealism that he contradicted once he actually came to the nation’s highest office.    

Meacham has written an admirable biography on a grand, enigmatic subject not easily explained.  However, his thesis simply is not supported by the evidence.  As I read the book, I kept thinking of the incredible statesmanship of James Madison who was indeed the pragmatic, compromising politician of the deliberative Constitutional Convention, Ratification debate, and First Congress that Thomas Jefferson was decidedly not. 

Tony Williams is the Program Director for the WJMI and has written four books including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.  He also recently edited a collection of primary sources on Thomas Jefferson for an upcoming WJMI roundtable discussion for teachers. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Thomas Jefferson as Neighbor and Friend

By: J. David Gowdy

Much has been written about Thomas Jefferson as a revolutionary leader, President, and statesman, etc., but what was he like at home – as a neighbor, and as a friend?  “Jefferson was remarkably persistent in his efforts to consolidate a ‘society of friends and neighbors’ near Monticello. As early as the 1760s, he tried to convince friends of the necessity of proximity for the enjoyment of ‘philosophical evenings.’ To render such evenings more palatable, Jefferson helped introduce Italian wines and vegetables to the neighborhood in 1773 by giving Phillip Mazzei 193 acres of land contiguous to Monticello and subscribing to his ‘Wine Company.’ Mazzei named his farm ‘Colle,’ and purchased about 700 more acres by 1778. Francis Alberti, Jefferson's violin teacher in Williamsburg, also moved to Albemarle County at Jefferson's urging and taught music as well as dancing to family members and local youth, including James Madison.” (“Monticello Neighborhood,” at

In 1786, while away from his beloved Monticello in Paris, Thomas Jefferson wrote his feelings about the duties and blessings of friendship to a dear new acquaintance and friend:

A friend dies or leaves us: we feel as if a limb was cut off. He is sick: we must watch over him, & participate of his pains. His fortune is shipwrecked; ours must be laid under contribution. He loses a child, a parent, or a partner: we must mourn the loss as if it were our own…

And what more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven hath smitten! To watch over the bed of sickness, & to beguile its tedious & its painful moments! To share our bread with one to whom misfortune has left none! This world abounds indeed with misery: to lighten its [burden] we must divide it with one another…

For assuredly nobody will care for him who cares for nobody. But friendship is precious, not only in the shade but in the sunshine of life; and thanks to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine. (Letter to Maria Cosway, 1786)

Later in life, he wrote about his daily routine that included time each evening for his neighbors and friends: “My mornings are devoted to correspondence, from breakfast to dinner I am in my shops, my garden, or on horseback among my farms. From dinner to dark I give to society and recreation with my neighbors and friends, and from candlelight to early bedtime, I read…I talk of ploughs and harrows, of seeding and harvesting, with my neighbors, and of politics, too, if they choose, with as little reserve as the rest of my fellow citizens, and feel, at length, the blessing of being free to say and do what I please, without being responsible for it to any mortal. A part of my occupation, and by no means the least pleasing, is the direction of the studies of such young men as ask it. They place themselves in the neighboring village, and have the use of my library and counsel, and make a part of my society.” (Letter to Thaddeus Kosciusko, Feb. 2, 1810).

Two of Thomas Jefferson’s closest friends were James Madison and John Adams. Jefferson and Madsion probably met in May 1776 while serving together in the Virginia House of Delegates. Becoming probably Jefferson’s closest friends, James and his wife Dolley, had their own guest room, the “Madsion room,” at Monticello to accommodate their regular visits.  Their home at Montpelier was only 28 miles away – a day’s journey in the 18th century.  Jefferson and Madsion’s common passion for human equality and liberty was shared and nurtured between them, to the benefit of our young nation, the rest of their lives. Their joint collaboration produced the landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, as well as the establishment of the University of Virginia.

The close friendship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams began when they met at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia. “Although different in many ways down to their appearance, the two developed a strong respect and liking for one another. In 1776, they worked together on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, and in 1784, Jefferson joined Adams in France on diplomatic service. While Jefferson remained in Paris, Adams served primarily in London, from where, Jefferson wrote Abigail Adams, he considered her "as my neighbor." …Through their work and play, Jefferson and the Adamses became close friends. Jefferson revealed his affection to James Madison, writing that Adams "is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him." Mrs. Adams once called Jefferson "one of the choice ones of the earth," and Mr. Adams wrote Jefferson that "intimate Correspondence with you . . . is one of the most agreeable Events in my Life." (“John Adams,” at

Jefferson and Adams became alienated through the political strife of party politics and the Presidential election of Jefferson in 1801. However, ten years later in 1811 their friendship was renewed through the efforts of their mutual friend, Benjamin Rush.  This significant occasion evidences the capacity of Jefferson’s heart for forgiveness and his willingness to set aside the “baneful spirit of party.” Adams may have been alluded to by Jefferson in this letter to Benjamin Rush, “I find friendship to be like wine, raw when new, ripened with age, the true old man's milk and restorative cordial.” (Letter to Benjamin Rush, August 17, 1811).  Their letters constitute a great treasure of political thought and practical wisdom (see: After fifteen years of resumed friendship and correspondence, on July 4, 1826, Jefferson and Adams died within hours of each other. Unaware that his friend had died hours earlier, Adams' family later recalled that his last spoken words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives.” 

Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s eldest grandson, wrote this tribute to his grandfather’s character, including his loyalty as a friend: “His moral courage [was of] of the highest order – his will firm and inflexible --- it was remarked of him that he never abandoned a plan, a principle, or a friend.” (quoted in Sarah N. Randolph, “The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson” (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1872), p. 338).  In addition to his role as an American Founding Father, Jefferson’s legacy as a good neighbor and loyal friend provides an example worthy of reflection and emulation.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident"

By: Paul Aron

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, following the instructions of the Virginia Convention, introduced a resolution at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”  The Continental Congress adopted Lee’s resolution and then appointed a committee of five – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert Livingston – to turn the resolution into a declaration of independence.  Adams took charge and promptly assigned Jefferson to write a draft. 

Jefferson did not want to do it.  He watched Lee depart for home and longed to follow him.  He was convinced that what was going on in Williamsburg, where the Convention’s delegates were drafting a constitution for the newly independent commonwealth, mattered more than what was going on in Philadelphia.  Jefferson had even written a draft constitution that he hoped the Convention would adopt. 

Jefferson suggested Adams should draft the Declaration himself.  Adams declined, giving several reasons:

One.  That he was a Virginian and I a Massachusettensian.  Two.  That he was a southern man and I a northern one.  Three.  That I had been so obnoxious for my early and constant zeal in promoting the measure, that any draft of mine, would undergo a more severe scrutiny and criticism in Congress, than one of his composition.  Fourthly and lastly that would be reason enough if there were no other, I had a great opinion of the elegance of his pen and none at all of my own. 

Adams' arguments, Jefferson had to admit, made sense.  Jefferson went to work and, a day or two later, produced a draft of what would become the Declaration of Independence. 

How he managed to write, in a matter of a day or two, the words that more than any others made America has been the subject of much debate.  Part of the answer is he didn’t start from scratch.  He had with him in Philadelphia, and he clearly drew from, his own previous writings, including his 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America, his 1775 “Declaration . . . Setting forth the Causes and Necessity of their taking up Arms,” and his draft of a constitution for Virginia.  He also had others’ recent works at hand, most notably a draft of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which was written by George Mason and adopted with amendments in the Virginia Convention.  Mason’s declaration opened by stating: “That all men hare born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”  Jefferson’s most famous words were clearly derived from Mason’s.

Jefferson also drew from works that he did not have at his side in Philadelphia.  He was familiar with the writings of seventeenth-century English writers, including John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and above all, John Locke, who set forth a doctrine of natural rights in his Second Treatise of Government.  He may also have drawn from Scottish philosophers, especially Francis Hutcheson. 

Jefferson submitted his draft to Adams and Franklin, who made a few changes, among them that the rights Jefferson had declared to be “sacred and undeniable” were instead “self-evident.”  The committee then sent the document on to the Congress, which made a total of eighty-six changes.  Most involved cutting (about a quarter of Jefferson’s text was eliminated), but the Congress also played with Jefferson’s language, for example changing “inherent and inalienable rights” to “certain inalienable rights.”  “Inalienable” later became “unalienable,” probably when the Declaration was printed.  Thus, the words in their most familiar form: “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.” 

But – with so many sources and so many editors – was the Declaration truly Jefferson’s? 

Adams, who was admittedly jealous of Jefferson, later wrote that there was “not an idea in it, but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before.”  Jefferson denied he had copied any other writing: “I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it,” he insisted in an 1823 letter to James Madison.  Jefferson did not deny, however, that the words of others, past and present, were on his mind.  Indeed, it would hardly have been possible to secure Congress’s support for independence had Jefferson’s words not been, as he put it in an 1825 letter to Henry Lee, “an expression of the American mind.” His purpose, he explained to Lee, had been “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.”  The Declaration’s authority, Jefferson rightly added, “rests . . . on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” 

To later generations of Americans, the most important principle pledged in the Declaration was that of equality.  Most famously, in his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln looked back four score and seven years ago to 1776, the year “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

Paul Aron is senior editor and writer for Colonial Williamsburg.  This essay is excerpted from We Hold These Truths and Other Words that Made America published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., in association with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2008, and used with permission. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Hamiltonian Presidency of Thomas Jefferson

The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute is excited to be launching a symposium on Thomas Jefferson this month.  We have invited many different brilliant historians and scholars to participate by contributing an original brief essay on founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Please enjoy the essays as they are published and continue the civic conversation about the principles and documents of the American founding, in this case, related to Thomas Jefferson, by sharing and discussing with your friends.  The following inaugural essay of the series, "The Hamiltonian Presidency of Thomas Jefferson," was written by Stephen F. Knott.

Thomas Jefferson characterized his election to the presidency as the “revolution of 1800,” an event that was “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of [17]76.” Twelve years of Federalist (or in the case of John Adams, neo-Federalist) government had betrayed the American Revolution with policies designed to favor British interests abroad and apply British governing principles at home. Jefferson promised to restore the spirit of 1776, prompting fears among the Federalists that Jefferson would destroy the fragile national institutions created since the adoption of the Constitution.

One prominent Federalist leader dissented from this view and predicted that Jefferson’s administration would be characterized by moderation and restraint. “If there be a man in the world I ought to hate it is Jefferson,” Alexander Hamilton noted, but he went on to urge Federalist members of Congress to support Jefferson’s selection over Aaron Burr in the disputed election of 1800. Jefferson, Hamilton believed, was far more principled than Burr, and would not dismantle the institutions built by the Federalists. According to Hamilton, Jefferson would act in a restrained manner as chief executive. This restraint was rooted in a calculation – a cold, political calculation – that caution, not zealotry, would be the key to maintaining his popularity. In Hamilton’s view, Jefferson was not “zealot enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity or his interest.  He is as likely as any man I know to temporize, to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which, being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it.”

Hamilton’s assessment of Jefferson turned out to be accurate, for Jefferson left Hamilton’s financial system in place, including the hated national bank of the United States. Much to the distress of the Old Republicans including die-hards such as John Randolph of Roanoke, Jefferson did not attempt to overturn the Judiciary Act of 1789, nor did he disband the navy, a move supported by the Old Republicans since navies were seen as tools of imperialism.  Jefferson appointed relatively moderate jurists to the Supreme Court and did not push for constitutional amendments limiting the power of judicial review or restricting the ability of the federal government to invoke “implied” constitutional powers to expand their authority.

In one important sense, however, Hamilton underestimated Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson’s rhetoric suggested that he would defer to the people and to their elected representatives in Congress, President Jefferson was very much an “energetic executive” of the type Hamilton celebrated in The Federalist Papers. This was particularly true in the arena of foreign and defense policy. The newly elected president went out of his way to appear to be acceding to the demands of Congress, all the while manipulating the legislature through his “hidden hand presidency.” One can see this at work in his celebrated Louisiana Purchase, and in his war with the Barbary Pirates, where the Sage of Monticello aggressively pursued these “nests of banditti” in the Mediterranean, providing great leeway to his naval commanders to take the offensive while assuring Congress that the navy was operating in a restrained, defensive manner. Jefferson even authorized the first covert operation designed to overthrow a foreign head of state (the Pasha of Tripoli) again with limited and at times disingenuous information provided to Congress. Jefferson spent unappropriated funds during the war scare with Great Britain in 1807 after the confrontation between the HMS Leopard and the USS Chesapeake, and he responded to the foremost national security crisis of his second term, the embargo of 1807-1809, in a “more draconian [manner] than anything attempted by British authorities throughout the years leading up to the American Revolution.”  Jefferson wanted to “crush” those American citizens who dared violate his embargo by running contraband across the border with Canada.

Jefferson’s presidency, ironically, presents a classic example of an energetic executive who formulated and implemented American foreign policy with little congressional input and no judicial involvement. Jefferson even went so far as to endorse the controversial notion of executive prerogative power in a manner that would have made Alexander Hamilton blush. Jefferson argued that in times of emergency the president could act where the law was silent, or in extreme cases, act against the law in the name of necessity. Jefferson noted in 1807, “on great occasions every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of the law,” and he added that there were “extreme cases where the laws become inadequate to their own preservation, and where the universal recourse is a dictator, or martial law.” For Jefferson, “a strict observance” of the rule of law was “one of the high duties of a good citizen” but it was not the highest duty. “The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of a higher obligation.” And, he added, in a lesson lost in our increasing legalistic, process obsessed nation, “to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.”

Thomas Jefferson was an assertive president; the very type prescribed by Hamilton in The Federalist Papers. Granted, this fact is concealed beneath layers of Jeffersonian rhetoric, and obscured by the mythological accounts of Jefferson’s presidency promoted by historians with an agenda. The fact remains that despite their deep disagreement on many issues of their day, Jefferson and Hamilton shared a firm belief in the importance of an energetic executive.  

Stephen F. Knott is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and the author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (2002).

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Alexander Hamilton, Natural Rights, and the Purposes of American Government

By: Tony Williams

In 1825, near the end of his life (which, of course, occurred on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence), Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Henry Lee regarding the intent and sources of the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson freely admitted that his lasting contribution to explaining the causes of separation and defining the purposes of American government was not entirely original. 

      This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. …[1]

Jefferson was correct: many patriots were expressing the same argument for natural rights from God and republican self-government based upon the consent of the governed.  One such essay was written in 1775 by a precocious young New York college student who had recently emigrated from the West Indies and immediately joined the patriot cause especially after the Boston Tea Party and repressive Coercive Acts that violated the liberties of New Englanders. 

Tory Anglican minister, Rev. Samuel Seabury, of New York, printed a scathing attack on the Continental Congress and questioned the legality of its continental association which banned imports from Great Britain as Americans had repeatedly done for a decade to protest British tyranny.  He called the Congress “a venomous brood of scorpions” who threatened to “sting us to death.”[2]

The young man, Alexander Hamilton, immediately took up his pen and responded to Seabury with a couple of lengthy pamphlets entitled A Full Vindication of Congress and Farmer Refuted.  Farmer Refuted was an essay that demonstrated the veracity of Jefferson’s claim that the principles he laid out in the Declaration of Independence were circulating among patriots throughout the American colonies.

Hamilton begins his argument by refuting Seabury’s contention that Hamilton’s state of nature (imaging the nature of man before government existed) would be a Hobbesian world free of moral restraint and be a “war of all against all.”  Contrarily, Hamilton argues that God created a natural moral law that was “an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind.”  He quotes Blackstone (and, indirectly, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others) for support that, “No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this.”    

So, Hamilton contends that there is a fabric of morality sown into human nature.  He also maintains that human beings are endowed by their Creator with reason to discover this moral law as well as with natural rights built into their natures.
Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind: the Supreme Being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beautifying that existence.  He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which to discern and pursue such things . . . and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty and personal safety.[3]

         In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that, “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.”[4]  Hamilton makes the same argument for God-given rights with an eloquence rivaling Jefferson:

The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records.  They are written, as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.

       In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also stated that republican self-government was based upon a social contract (from John Locke) with the purpose of protecting natural rights.  “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  Hamilton agrees, quoting Blackstone again, that the “principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature . . . the first and primary end of human laws is to maintain and regulate these absolute rights of individuals.”  In his own words, Hamilton strongly agrees with the consensual origins of government and its purpose to protect individual rights. 

The origin of all civil government, justly established, must be a voluntary compact between the rulers and ruled, and must be liable to such limitations as are necessary for the security of the absolute rights of the latter; for what original title can any man, or set of men, have to govern others, except their own consent?

Hamilton and Jefferson agreed that a tyrannical government was defined by stripping the people of their natural rights, thereby violating the very purpose for which it was created.  It broke the social contract, and the people had the right to disobey its laws and rebel.  Jefferson stated, “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government . . . as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”  In Farmer Refuted, Hamilton also contends that there is a right of rebellion against tyrannical government. 

To usurp dominion over a people in their own despite, or to grasp at a more extensive power than they are willing to intrust, is to violate the law of nature which gives every man a right to his personal liberty, and can therefore confer no obligation of obedience.

The Lockean ideas that God endowed all humans with natural rights embedded into their humanity and that government was a social compact established to protect those rights but forfeited its right to popular obedience when it failed to fulfill this purpose was at the philosophical foundations of the creation of the American republic in 1776.  These principles found their most popular and well-known expression in the Declaration of Independence, but they had been stated by numerous others including the pamphlets of James Otis and Richard Bland, George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and an essay written in 1775 by a young genius who embraced the principles of the glorious cause for liberty. 

In his later defense of the Constitution as Publius in Federalist #84, Hamilton wrote that, “The Constitution is itself, in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, a BILL OF RIGHTS.”[5]  What he meant is that the proposed Constitution was a written framework of government established in a social contract of the sovereign people through deliberation with the very purpose of protecting natural rights.  Thereby, he weaved the seamless ideals of Farmer Refuted (and the Declaration of Independence) to the Constitution into a single garment of American self-government. 

Or, as Abraham Lincoln put it so poetically, the Constitution created a republican government to protect the natural rights in the Declaration of Independence. 

The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple–not the apple for the picture.  So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute, which is hosting a seminar on Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution to commemorate Constitution Day. 

[2] Quoted in Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004). 
[3] This, and all other quotes from Farmer Refuted, can be found in Richard B. Vernier, The Revolutionary Writings of Alexander Hamilton (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008); the Ashbrook Center on-line document library at; and the forthcoming WJMI primary source reader with commentary, J.David Gowdy and Tony Williams, Alexander Hamilton and American Constitutionalism. 
[5] Federalist #84 can be found at, and Gowdy and Williams, Alexander Hamilton and American Constitutionalism. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” and American Founding Principles

By: Tony Williams, WJMI Program Director

Fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of some 250,000 black and white Americans, many clergy, and other supporters of civil rights. Every school child has heard of this epic speech, but usually swept away by the soaring oratory and pathos of the speech rather than understanding its principles. King’s speech is profoundly important in its understanding of American founding principles of liberty, natural rights, and self-government.

 From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King immediately struck a very Lincolnian note when he stated, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves one hundred years before on January 1, 1863.

Five score years ago. The phrasing of course evokes the other great document of 1863, Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which begins, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” So, King appeals to both of those great documents of liberty, which Lincoln applied to all human beings.

With those four short words – “Five score years ago” – King brilliantly appeals not only to the Gettysburg Address but especially the Declaration of Independence which was adopted four score and seven years before the Gettysburg Address. Both documents pronounce that all men have liberty and equality as they were created by God endowed with inalienable natural rights. “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.”

Next, King offers high praise for the founding fathers. He says that the “architects of our republic” wrote the “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” This is highly significant in light of the current popular belief disseminated in schools and colleges that Thomas Jefferson and the other founders were rich, white, Protestant, property-owning, misogynistic, males who did not include blacks, women, the poor, and other groups in their idea that “all men are created equal.” But, in King’s view, Jefferson expressed a belief in universal rights embedded in the very nature of human beings by God. He does not call Jefferson a racist and a hypocrite for then King would simply tell the demonstrators that America is based upon lie and urge them to go home.

King takes America to task for the ensuing one hundred years of racism since 1863 as ample proof that black Americans were not actually enjoying their God-given rights. Indeed, he subtly changes the wording of the equality principle in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. For Thomas Jefferson, the idea that all men are born equal was a “self-evident truth” and a principle that was axiomatic and did not need proof. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln, even though he agreed with Jefferson that it was a true principle, altered equality to a “proposition,” a proposal that needed to be proven because it was being challenged by the Confederates who denied that blacks were meant to be included in the Declaration.

For his part, King labels the equality principle a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the ‘Unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Again, King argues that Jefferson meant all humans, but he used the term “promissory note” because black Americans were not enjoying the rights they had by nature. King, like Lincoln, believed that equality was a true principle, but racism caused it to be an unfulfilled promise. “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” Still, King did not give up on America and shared the faith of Jefferson and Lincoln in American principles. “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

King initiates his parallel construction of repeating “I Have a Dream” by indicating that his dream is “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” In yet another reference to the Declaration of Independence, he had a dream that, “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’” The same truths were evident, King says, in the patriotic songs celebrating the founding of America that every schoolchild knew: “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring!”

The master orator builds up to a crescendo, finishing his speech with an appeal to universal freedom of all humans by saying, “And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” In other words, black Americans had finally won the right to enjoy their inalienable, God-given rights as a universal principle declared nine score and seven years before.

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is richly steeped in the tradition of natural rights principles of the American republic. He reached deep into the founding of America and its greatest documents of liberty to craft his own historic appeal to the rights of mankind. That is why we recognize Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as one of the greatest American speeches on its fiftieth anniversary.

The documents referenced in this essay can all be found at the excellent document library of the Teaching American History website at the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

One hundred fifty years ago, on July 1-3, 1863, the most important battle of the American Civil War was fought.  

"General Robert E. Lee concentrated his full strength [leading the Army of Northern Virginia] against Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac at the crossroads county seat of Gettysburg at what would come to be known as the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 1st, Confederate forces converged on the town from west and north, driving Union defenders back through the streets to Cemetery Hill. During the night, reinforcements arrived for both sides. On July 2nd, Lee attempted to envelop the Federals, first striking the Union left flank at the Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Round Tops with Longstreet’s and Hill’s divisions, and then attacking the Union right at Culp’s and East Cemetery Hills with Ewell’s divisions. By evening, the Federals retained Little Round Top and had repulsed most of Ewell’s men."

"Late in the afternoon of July 2, 1863, on a boulder-strewn hillside on the left flank of the Union line, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain dashed headlong into history, leading his 20th Maine Regiment in perhaps the most famous counterattack of the Civil War. The regiment’s sudden, desperate bayonet charge blunted the Confederate assault on Little Round Top and has been credited with saving Major General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac."

"During the morning of July 3rd, the Confederate infantry were driven from their last toe-hold on Culp’s Hill. In the afternoon, after a preliminary artillery bombardment, Lee attacked the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. The Pickett-Pettigrew assault (more popularly, “Pickett’s Charge”) momentarily pierced the Union line but was driven back with severe casualties. Stuart’s cavalry attempted to gain the Union rear but was repulsed."

The assault line of Pickett's Charge, comprised of approximately 12,500 Confederate soldiers engaged in the attack, extended a half-mile in width. "The hapless attackers were required to advance one mile through an open field and over a stone fence before they could engage their enemy. The majority of this distance was covered at a rank-and-file walk while Union troops poured deadly cannon and rifle fire upon them. The Confederates could not fire back. The Union troops, however, maintained a murderous hail of rifle fire by organizing themselves into efficient lines of four soldiers. After the first in line fired, he would move to the back of the line to reload his weapon while the next in line fired."

"The impact of this efficient killing machine on the approaching Confederates was devastating. As their comrades fell, their units would reorganize and tighten their ranks. Smoke from the cannonade from both sides soon drifted over the field dramatically reducing visibility. The noise was deafening. As they approached within a a few feet of the Union line, the Confederates charged. Some were able to scale the low stone wall separating them from their enemy, but the devastating fire from the Union troops forced a retreat. The battle was over."

Approximately 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died over three bloody days at Gettysburg, while another roughly 30,000 were wounded.

"Gettysburg holds significance for many reasons:

• It was a turning point in the war, ensuring the preservation of the nation [under the Constitution].
• Four months later, it was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, where he described his vision for a “new birth of freedom” for America. It was what many consider the best summation in our nation’s history of the meaning and price of freedom.
• In the decades following the battle, it became a symbol of reconciliation, as soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy returned to the battlefield to shake hands across the fence lines."

“The world …can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

--Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address