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Monticello's new Democrat.

First there was Bill Clinton's well-publicized pilgrimage to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's mountain-top estate. Next came his pre-inauguration bus trip, retracing the route Jefferson travelled to his own inauguration in 1801. Finally, in his inaugural address, President Clinton invoked Jefferson by name and paid homage to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as America's founding ideals.

During last year's campaign, Mr. Clinton fashioned himself as the successor to John F. Kennedy, making much of his decision to enter politics after shaking hands with President Kennedy at the White House. But now that he is in office, President Clinton's role model of choice seems to be Thomas Jefferson, the nation's first Democratic president. Since April 1993 marks Jefferson's 250th birthday, Mr. Clinton may be expected to make further appeals to the author of the Declaration of Independence in the days ahead.

There are, in fact, some intriguing parallels between Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton. Both men served as governors of their respective southern states. Both unseated unpopular Yankee-bred presidents who previously had served as vice-presidents. Both survived bruising election campaigns largely dominated by attacks on their personal characters.

"A Wise and Frugal Government"

If the similarities are striking, however, the differences are more so. Jefferson was an unflinching champion of limited government, low taxes, and federalism. Although Mr. Clinton campaigned as a "new Democrat," he has yet to show enthusiasm in office for any of those causes. Still, there may be a glimmer of hope in President Clinton's desire to compare himself to the sage of Monticello. For if there is one former president from whom Mr. Clinton could learn a great deal, it certainly is Jefferson.

Mr. Clinton might start with Jefferson's appreciation for limited government. Despite the president's symbolic attacks on government waste and his pledges to trim the federal bureaucracy by "attrition," his overarching vision of public life remains startlingly paternalistic. Indeed, in his inaugural address, Mr. Clinton expressly employed the metaphor of child-rearing in articulating his agenda. "We must provide for our nation," he said, "the way a family provides for its children."

Jefferson would have recoiled at such a metaphor. In his own first inaugural address, he explained that the one thing needful for "a happy and a prosperous people" is "a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." According to Jefferson, the limited -- albeit crucial -- function of government is to protect people in the exercise of their natural freedoms to speak and act, confined only by the dictates of the moral law. The best way government can do this is by preserving public order; then government should stay out of the way.

Jefferson was wary about government action because he knew that it is a two-edged sword. While government is supposed to be the defender of unalienable rights, it also can turn into their greatest enemy. The ever-present danger is that government will overreach its legitimate boundaries and usurp the people's freedoms, especially through profligate spending, which will eventually require punitive taxes in order to reduce the national debt.

Profusion and Servitude

Liberals, who typically praise Jefferson for his views on civil liberties, usually overlook his views on taxes and spending. What they fail to understand is that, in Jefferson's view, frugal government -- and low taxes -- constitute the most basic preconditions of civil liberty. Citizens cannot be free to criticize the government if they are reduced by heavy taxes to complete dependence upon government largesse. They cannot be free to live their lives in their own way if taxes and confiscatory regulations eliminate the means -- that is, the wealth -- to carry out their choices.

Consequently, liberty and limited government must stand or fall together. As Jefferson wrote to Samuel Kercheval in 1816, the choice is

[B]etween economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude. If we run into such debts, as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and our creeds, as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes....

In such a grim situation, continued Jefferson, Americans would "have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers...."

The "salutary lesson" of all this, concluded Jefferson in the same letter, is

[T]hat private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by private extravagance. And this is the tendency of all human governments. A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, and to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering.

Jefferson's actions as president closely followed his views of government. While he was concerned about the national debt, he recognized that the problem originated with too much spending rather than too few taxes. Accordingly, he promptly slashed government spending upon assuming office. He simultaneously abolished domestic taxes -- all of them -- along with the revenue agents who had been hired to collect them. Only federal import tariffs remained.

In his second inaugural address, Jefferson boasted that "it may be the pleasure and pride of an American to ask, what farmer, what mechanic, what laborer, ever sees a tax-gatherer of the United States?" Due in large part to Jefferson's austerity program -- which was continued by his successor, James Madison -- the national debt was reduced by 42 percent between 1800 and the War of 1812.

Jefferson's view of limited government also contains a warning for those federal politicians who seem, in his words, "at a loss for objects whereon to throw away the supposed fathomless funds of the treasury." While Jefferson acknowledged to a correspondent in 1820 that the people temporarily may join their representatives in "the same phrensy" for new spending, he thought that the heavy taxes ultimately exacted to pay for the spending would "bring both to their sober senses." And when the people came to their senses, they would throw the spendthrift politicians out. President Clinton would do well to recall Jefferson's warning as he seeks to cut the deficit by mandatory "contributions" from the American people.

Bemoaning Federal "Usurpations"

A second lesson the 42nd president could learn from the third president is a healthy respect for federalism. Before President Clinton imposes hundreds of new environmental regulations, proposes national health insurance, and signs off on the Freedom of Choice Act, he might pause to ponder Jefferson's view of the appropriate division of power between the federal government and the states. In an 1823 letter to Supreme Court Justice William Johnson, Jefferson wrote: "I believe the States can best govern our home concerns, and the General Government our foreign ones. I wish, therefore, to see maintained that wholesome distribution of powers established by the constitution for the limitation of both; and never to see all offices transferred to Washington, where, further withdrawn from the eyes of the people, they may more secretly be bought and sold as at market."

Jefferson firmly believed that local government should be under local control, and he would have been appalled at the tangled web of federal mandates and preemptions of state authority enacted during the past 50 years. Even in his own lifetime, he was distressed at what he viewed as "the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States...."

A year before his death, he complained to William Branch Giles that the three federal branches were now crowding in on state prerogatives. "Under the power to regulate commerce, they assume indefinitely that also over agriculture and manufactures," wrote Jefferson. "... [U]nder the authority to establish post roads, they claim that of cutting down mountains for the construction of roads, of digging canals, and aided by a little sophistry on the words `general welfare,' a right to do, not only the acts to effect that, which are specifically enumerated and permitted, but whatsoever they shall think, or pretend will be for the general welfare."

Here, of course, Jefferson was attacking loose constitutional construction as much as he was defending federalism. While favoring constitutional flexibility in the realm of foreign affairs -- defense of the country can be its own law -- Jefferson was certain that when it came to the federal government's ordinary domestic powers, the Constitution should be construed in strict accord with the original intent of those who enacted it. As he advised Justice Johnson in 1823:

On every question of construction, [we should] carry ourselves back to the time when the constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.

Judicial "Sappers and Miners"

While Jefferson's views on the specific constitutional questions of his own time are debatable, his warning about the danger of arbitrary constitutional construction remains disconcertingly relevant, and offers a third important lesson for Mr. Clinton. Modern jurisprudence no longer even pretends to find a constitutional basis for most federal programs, preferring to issue the federal government a blank check. This habit is one that any true Jeffersonian should find deeply troubling.

Unfortunately, Mr. Clinton has yet to appear troubled. His declared standard for Supreme Court nominees is adherence to Roe v. Wade, a decision that even some defenders of legalized abortion acknowledge as a raw exercise in arbitrary judicial interpretation. Without support in either the text or philosophy of the Constitution, the Court in Roe not only used the unlimited approach to constitutional interpretation that Jefferson despised, it also made shambles of the principle of federalism that he held dear. Indeed, the decision gave new meaning to Jefferson's 1820 condemnation of the federal judiciary as "the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric." If President Clinton wishes to adopt a Jeffersonian approach to the courts, he would be well-advised to scrap his litmus test of Roe v. Wade and require that his judicial nominees pledge to uphold the original intent and underlying principles of the Constitution instead.

A Tyrannical Compulsion

A final lesson President Clinton could learn from Jefferson is how to defend political freedom. Mr. Clinton may need special help on this one, if his early record in office is any indication. Only a few days after being sworn in, he rescinded an order requiring unionized employers to notify workers on federal projects that they are not obliged to subsidize union political activities with their dues. The order had enforced the ruling in Communications Workers v. Beck, which held that unions could not coerce employees to pay for union political activities out of their assessments.

Although the Supreme Court in Beck side-stepped the free speech question, the underlying principle at stake remains the one articulated by Jefferson in the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty: "[T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical." President Clinton's action shows just how little he understands the sort of political liberty of which Jefferson spoke. That is unfortunate, given the increasing relevance of the principle. Today many Americans find themselves compelled to support -- through government -- the propagation of an array of opinions that they find objectionable. Whether it is public schools that promote moral relativism, federal art programs that sponsor attacks on Christianity, or public broadcasting stations that broadcast one-sided documentaries, the government now subsidizes political speech in a wide variety of ways, raising significant free speech questions in the process. A true Jeffersonian would recognize in state-subsidized speech the seeds of despotism.

The good news for President Clinton is that if he really aspires to become a second Jefferson -- rather than merely appropriating Jefferson's image -- he should have no difficulty knowing what to do. The major features of a Jeffersonian agenda are not difficult to compile: limited government, reinvigorated federalism, respect for the Constitution, and political liberty. The bad news for the president is that such an agenda would not look anything like what he has been proposing so far.
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Title Annotation:Thomas Jefferson as a role model for Pres. Clinton
Author:West, John G., Jr.
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:How I won.
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