Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom 9

Similarly, he opposed political parties, on principle, because he believed that organized political machines generated arbitrary power, power for partisan groups—selfish, power-hungry cliques, which inevitably violated the public interest. It was therefore logical for him to declare, after the bitter presidential election of 1800, that “we are all republicans; we are all federalists,” since he could only think of the Federalist Party not as a legitimate ruling body that dif¬fered from the Republicans on matters of policy, but as a malevolent junta (a “herd of traitors,” he called them) who dreamed of “a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and moneyed incorporations … riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.” Once the Fed¬eralist leaders were driven from office, their followers would naturally, Jefferson believed, join the national—that is, Republican—majority. But parties survived, and for that Jefferson himself was largely responsible. To destroy the Federalist Party he had had no choice but to create his own, more effective party, with devoted cadres, good organization, and an articulated program. In the process he did much, modern historians agree, “to engrain into American political life the party system, to make party government acceptable, to make party machinery a normal part of political activity, [and] to make party and patronage inseparable.”
His hatred of poverty, too, was rooted in his elemental fear of arbitrary power. If he had not known from history that ignorant, idle, impoverished people were always the helpless tools of dema¬gogues, he would have discovered it in his years in Europe. In gen¬eral, his experiences there confirmed his ideological commitments, and none more than his belief that economic debasement and polit¬ical tyranny go hand in hand.
He was horrified by the poverty he saw in France. A casual encounter with a beggar woman outside Fontainebleau, her tears of gratitude for the few coins he gave her, touched off “a train of reflec¬tions on [the] unequal division of property.” The wealth of France, he wrote Madison, “is absolutely concentrated in a very few hands.” The grandees employ “the flower of the country as servants,” leav¬ing the masses unemployed—begging and desperate—while vast lands are set aside as game preserves. He was well aware, he wrote, “that an equal division of property is impracticable,” but the stag¬gering inequality he was witnessing created such misery that, for the preservation of freedom if not for simple justice, every effort must be made legally to subdivide inherited property and to distribute it equally among descendants.
It had been for that reason in 1776 that he had written the law abolishing primogeniture and entail in Virginia, and in his draft con¬stitution for the state he had stipulated that “every person of full age” who did not own fifty acres of land would be entitled to that amount from the public domain. The earth, he said again and again, by natural right belongs to the living and not to the dead or to their priv¬ileged descendants. Where, as in France, huge territories owned by the few are left wild while masses starve, natural right is violated, and in time those deprived of that right may well lay claim to it in ways no responsible person would favor. Poverty, Jefferson believed, was thus a political as well as a social curse; it was the foundation of an unjust concentration of political power, and led inevitably to the destruction of freedom. But he had no program for preventing the growth of poverty or for abolishing it where it existed. And he was repeatedly attacked for promoting policies that depressed the economic well¬being of whole regions, chief among them his embargo of 1807-8.
That policy was devised and sustained by his idealistic passion for rational solutions to international conflicts, but it proved to profit the rich and the unscrupulous while sacrificing the welfare of the poor. His critics were relentless. New England and the middle states, they charged, deprived of commerce and overseas markets, were devas¬tated, but at least they could find partial relief in manufactures for a protected home market. The South, however, and Jefferson’s own state in particular, had no such means of relief. “Tobacco was worth¬less,” Henry Adams would write, relishing the irony of Jefferson’s presidency in a brilliant passage of his History,
but four hundred thousand negro slaves must be clothed and fed, great establishments must be kept up, [and] the social scale of liv¬ing could not be reduced … With astonishing rapidity Virginia succumbed to ruin, while continuing to support the system that was draining her strengths No episode in American history was more touching than the generous devotion with which Virginia clung to the embargo, and drained the poison which her own Pres¬ident held obstinately to her lips … The old society of Virginia could never be restored. Amid the harsh warnings of John Ran¬dolph it saw its agonies approach; and its last representative, heir to all its honors and dignities, President Jefferson himself woke from his long dream of power only to find his own fortunes buried in the ruin he had made.
Fearing concentrations of power, and arbitrary power of any kind, convinced that America’s experimental achievements in free¬dom were beset by forces that would destroy them—but endowed, himself, with an instinct for power and with exceptional political and administrative skills, and blessed with many years of active life in pol¬itics—Jefferson, more than any other of the Revolution’s original leaders, explored the ambiguities of freedom. If the principles that had emerged in the great struggle with Britain before 1776 had not been so clear, so luminous and compelling, in his mind; or if he had remained on the sidelines, commenting like a Greek chorus on the great events of the day, the world would have been simpler for him, the ambiguities less painful, and his reputation less complicated. As it was, he remained throughout his long career the clear voice of America’s Revolutionary ideology, its purest conscience, its most bril¬liant expositor, while struggling to deal with the intractable mass of the developing nation’s everyday problems. In this double role— ideologist and practical politician, theorist and pragmatist—he sought to realize the Revolution’s glittering promise, and as he did so he discovered the inner complexities and ambiguities of these ideals as well as their strengths, and left a legacy of compromise and incompleteness which his critics would forever assail.
It was an endless struggle. He never ceased to fear that the great experiment might fail, that the United States might be torn apart by its internal divisions or overwhelmed by the pressures of the outside world and, like so many other nations, in the end forfeit its freedom for a specious security. But he did not despair. He hoped, with increasing confidence, that the common sense of the people and their innate idealism would overcome the obstacles and somehow resolve the ambiguities, and that America would fulfill its destiny— which was, he believed, to preserve, and to extend to other regions of the earth, “the sacred fire of freedom and self-government,” and to liberate the human mind from every form of tyranny.

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