Thomas Jefferson Forever

By Dave Kopel

July 1999, Chronicles magazine. More by Kopel on U.S. Founding Era.

The greatest writer of the early American republic, and the greatest exponent of natural rights and the dangers of government power was Thomas Jefferson. It is no wonder then, that Jefferson has been so aggressively vilified by the partisans of political correctness. Jefferson was likewise disdained by many in the 19th and early 20th century who, quite correctly, saw his ideas as an obstacle to the large national regime they wished to build.

How sad it is to that the current occupant of the White House bears the middle name "Jefferson"--even though the real Jefferson taught his nephew Peter Carr: "Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming an untruth, by an injustice…It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth."

Thomas Jefferson would not be surprised at the degenerate character of the childish man who currently disgraces the Jefferson name. For "There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual, he tells lies without attending to it…This falsehood of tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions."

But this column is about another Jeffersonian virtue which William Jefferson Clinton has attempted to destroy: the virtue of arms, and all that it entails about the relationship between the people and their government.

In the same 1785 letter to nephew Peter Carr (who was also Jefferson’s ward), Jefferson advised the fifteen-year-old about building character through the shooting sports: "A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore by the constant companion of your walks."

Jefferson’s views on the importance of arms for youth remained strong two decades later, as expressed in his 1818 Report of the Commissioners or the University of Virginia: "the manual exercise, military maneuvers, and tactics generally, should be the frequent exercise of the students, in their hours of recreation."

It might not have surprised Jefferson to learn that a people who never learned to hunt while growing up, and whose main connection with sports was watching them as passive spectators through a passive medium (television), might not develop the boldness and independence of mind to want real independence and responsibility in their own lives. Instead, they would prefer the comfortable servitude of a nanny state run by people like the Clintons.

Of course the benefits of early training in arms extended to more than good character. As Jefferson pointed out to Giovanni Fabbroni in1778, the Americans had a lower; casualty rate than the Redcoats. "This difference is ascribed to our superiority in taking aim when we fire; every soldier in our army having been intimate with his gun from his infancy."

Even so, Americans were not as well-armed as Jefferson wished. The only book Jefferson ever wrote was Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), in which he explained the arms shortage that had developed during the Revolutionary War:

"The law requires every militia-man to provide himself with arms usual in the regular service. But this injunction was always indifferently complied with, and the arms they had have been so frequently called to arm the regulars, that in the lower parts of the country they are entirely disarmed."

So as President, Jefferson successfully urged Congress to appropriate federal funds to provide firearms to state militiamen who did not own their own guns. Congress complied, and during Jefferson’s second term and Madison’s first, "public arms" were supplied at federal expense to state militias all over the nation.

The militia was intended to prevent the conquest of America by a foreign power, but it was also intended to prevent the conquest of America by a central national government and its standing army. At his first inaugural, Jefferson explained that "a well-disciplined militia" is "our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them" and also a guarantee of "the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; [and] economy in the public expense."

As Jefferson understood, there was an intimate connection between sovereignty and the possession of arms. As long the people were armed, the people would rule.

In an 1811 letter to Destutt de Tracy, Jefferson acknowledged that demagogues could arise. But while the force of a demagogue "may paralyze the single State in which it happens to be encamped, sixteen other, spread over a country of two thousand miles diameter, rise up on every side, ready organized for deliberation by a constitutional legislature, and for action by their governor, constitutionally, the commander of the militia of the State, that is to say, of every man in it able to bear arms; and that militia, too, regularly formed into regiments and battalions, into infantry, cavalry and artillery, trained under officers general and subordinate, legally appointed, always in readiness, and to whom they are already in habits of obedience."

In France, thought Jefferson, the republicans fell because there were no local centers to resist national control. "But with us, sixteen out of seventeen States rising in mass, under regular organization, and legal commanders, united in object and action by their Congress, or, if that be in duresse, by a special convention, presents such obstacles to an usurper as forever to stifle ambition the first conception of that object."

Without arms, the weak were the prey to the strong, as in the feudal system of Europe, where the largest and the strongest made quasi-slaves of the rest of the society. But as Jefferson explained in his famous October 1813 letter to John Adams, the proliferation of firearms had allowed an aristocracy of virtue and talent to supplant the aristocracy of brute force:

"For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent. Formerly, bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, the politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground for distinction."

Because arms and sovereignty were so bound together, Jefferson argued that property ownership should not be the sole basis for voting rights. Anyone who served in the militia deserved the vote: "Let every man who fights or pays, exercise his just and equal right in their election." (Letter to Samuel Kercheval. July 12, 1816.)

Indeed, as Chilton Williamson detailed in his 1960 book American Suffrage from Property to Democracy 1760-1860, arguments like Jefferson’s were used throughout the United States to broaden suffrage; property-owner or not, anyone who bore the burden of militia service ought to belong to the polity.

And what of those excluded from the polity? Jefferson recognized that if the slaves were ever armed, then slavery would end. As he wrote to Edward Coles in 1814: "Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time. It will come; and whether brought on by the generous energy of our own minds; or by the bloody process of St Domingo, excited and conducted by the power of our present enemy [England], if once stationed permanently within our Country, and offering asylum and arms to the oppressed, is a leaf which our history not yet turned over."

Modern gun prohibition advocates sometimes assert that while guns might have been alright in Jefferson’s time, there is too much gun misuse today for people to be allowed to have weapons. The most sophisticated version of this theory is developed by Indiana University law professor David Williams in articles in the Yale, Cornell, and New York University law reviews. Since Americans today are no longer virtuous and united, they are no longer "the people" envisioned by the Second Amendment, Williams writes; accordingly, the Second Amendment right to arms has disappeared.

Jefferson would not have agreed, for he well familiar with frequent misuse of guns. Writing to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, he emphasized the necessity "of never entering into dispute or argument with another. I never saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument. I have seen many, on their getting warm, becoming rude, & shooting one another."

If the widespread presence of guns in Jefferson’s Virginia led to needless deaths over petty arguments (just as it would on the 19th century American frontier, or in the 20th century inner city), how could Jefferson still champion a right to arms?

Because he recognized that a disarmed people would not, in the long run, remain an independent, responsible, and free people. The price of trying to save fools from their folly would be the liberty of all.

Back in June 1776, three weeks before the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s draft constitution for Virginia set forth been the first constitutional proposal in human history to provide for a right to arms. (The 1689 English Bill of Rights included an arms right, but that measure was only a statute.) Jefferson’s proposal "No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms within his own lands or tenements" was not adopted that year by Virginia.

The Jeffersonian intellectual revolution, however, was only beginning. When writing in 1824 to the great English Whig John Cartwright, Jefferson could observe: "The constitutions of most of our States assert, that all power is inherent in the people;… that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed…"

A few days before his death on July 4, 1826--the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence--Jefferson could see that the revolution he had helped to spark was burning throughout the world: "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are the grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them…"

This Fourth of July, take some time out from the baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet, and ponder what the holiday really commemorates: The American Passover, the beginning of a long national journey toward freedom, founded on the truth that God created man to be free. What will you do to nurture the legacy of freedom and responsibility bequeathed to you by the great Thomas Jefferson?

All items quoted in this article can be found in The Portable Thomas Jefferson (Viking, 1975) Dave Kopel is Research Director of the Independence Institute.

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