Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom 7

But if that was the case, had not Hamilton’s economic policies, which Jefferson had so passionately denounced, been correct from the start? He struggled to square his evolving economic views with the original principles of the Revolution that continued to dominate his thought. So he accepted manufactures; they had become neces-sary—but let it be household manufactures, he said, to keep the units small. An expanded economic role of government? Yes, but let it be chiefly the governments of the states, and the federal government only by constitutional amendment. A national bank? Perhaps: as Madison had seen when he chartered the Second United States Bank, cumulative precedent and popular usage over the years had given the bank a sanction that could not be ignored. But let it issue, not paper currency—which was “only the ghost of money,” Jefferson said, “and not money itself” and which would breed speculative crazes and devastating inflation—but bills of credit and Treasury notes that would be quickly redeemed.
A highly pragmatic, tough-minded, and successful politician, Jef¬ferson never abandoned the ideals he had so brilliantly expressed in the years before independence, and he struggled endlessly with the ambiguities they posed. Testing, probing constantly, he sought in every way he could to contain the real world in the embrace of his utopian ideals.
The press, he eloquently insisted, must always be free. On this he could not have been more flatly assertive, more unambiguously clear. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press,” he wrote, “and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Again: “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” And again, most famously: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” But were there no limits to the freedom of the press? Yes, in fact, there were. Drawing unquestioningly on the received, libertarian tradition of the early eighteenth century, which was bound into the ideology of the Revolution, he assumed that while one could print anything one wanted to print, one was liable to legal prosecution “for false facts printed and published.” But the question, he discov¬ered in his years in power, was what, in matters of political opinion, is true and what is false. Who is to judge, and by what criteria? Why did not the “overt acts” doctrine of his Act for Establishing Reli¬gious Freedom apply in secular matters? Why would not his ene¬mies’ political falsehoods be as certainly defeated by truth as he had said false religious beliefs would be? Jefferson, reacting furiously to political attacks, adhered to his original view, which criminalized false statements, only to find himself forced to question his own basic premises. In the heat of party struggles he could only doubt, despondently, that truth could ever emerge from the contest between what he took to be an utterly ruthless, lying, scurrilous opposition press and his own right-minded publicists. At the end of his presidency he wrote that outright suppression of the press would be no more injurious to the public good than the newspapers’ “abandoned prostitution to falsehood.”
This was not, of course, his normal stance. He truly wished for free speech and a free press; but the complexity of these liberal goals, their inner ambiguities in application, came to him only gradually.
In the mid 1780s, recognizing the weakness and inefficiency of the federal government, he shared the view that the Articles of Confed¬eration would have to be strengthened, but only in a few specified ways. His immediate reaction to the new Constitution when it reached him in Paris was strongly negative: its far-reaching provi¬sions “stagger all my dispositions to subscribe” to it. “All the good of this new constitution,” he wrote, “might have been couched in three or four new articles to be added to the good, old, and venerable fab- rick, which should have been preserved even as a religious relique.” Fearing, ever, the possible re-creation of monarchy in a new guise, he was certain that a president who could be re-elected repeatedly, would be, and the result would be “a bad edition of a Polish king.” Madi¬son, who had worried through every clause and phrase of the Con¬stitution in the most critical way possible, wrote Jefferson, on October 24, 1787, a long, searching analysis of the drafting and char¬acter of the Constitution. In it Madison argued that an increase in the size of a republic, far from endangering freedom by requiring an excess of power to keep order and to enforce the laws, would in fact protect freedom by dissipating animosities and multiplying factions to the point that no one interest could control the government. But Jefferson, in his reply, did not comment on, if he grasped, this coun¬terintuitive idea; he reverted to the traditional fear of monarchy, elective or hereditary. Think of the Roman emperors, he wrote Madison in commenting on presidential power, think of the popes, the German emperors, the deys of the Ottoman dependencies, the Polish kings- -all of them elective in some sense. “An incapacity to be elected [president] a second time would have been the only effective preventative,” he said. “The king of Poland is removable every day by the Diet, yet he is never removed.”

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