Thomas Jefferson on Liberty
by Jeff Thomas: Revisiting
it occurred to me that Thomas Jefferson has not been interviewed
for some time on the state of things and that, as his comments are
invariably insightful, there couldn't be a better time to seek his
advice. Despite the fact that Tom has not been alive since 1826,
he was very gracious in granting an interview in late 2010, in which
we discussed The
Proper Role of Government.
I sought a second interview to discuss his views on Debt
and Entitlement, as US debt had risen dramatically
to pay for continued and growing entitlements, becoming a primary
concern in the present economic crisis.
I was in Williamsburg Virginia, where Tom was staying at the home
of his old friend, mentor and law teacher, George Wythe. I went
by for a visit one evening. Tom got out the sherry decanter and
we sat down for a chat.
Thomas: It's good to see you again. Looking around at all
the papers here on the desk, I see you've been busy. What's been
on your mind?
Jefferson: The issue is the same today as it has been throughout
all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be
ruled by a small elite.
Well, I couldn't disagree with you on that. The presence of those
who regard themselves as a ruling elite has never been more prevalent.
I can't remember a time when so many people feared the loss of their
The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and for government
to gain ground.
That seems to be so. There's no doubt that it's a progression that
we're seeing throughout the First World. It's not just here in America.
Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic and will
be alike influenced by the same causes.
Isn't that the truth. It seems that, politically, in every country,
worldwide, there's a liberal party and a conservative party, but
no matter who's in power, the liberties of the public are continuously
In every country, these two parties exist ... Call them therefore
Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats,
or by whatever name you please. They are the same parties still
and pursue the same object.
Do you think any one party has a better answer than the other?
I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of
any party of men ... where I was capable of thinking for myself.
Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.
But doesn't it seem expedient to side with a party if you agree
with them in general? I think we grasp the idea that both parties
are corrupt, but doesn't affiliation with one party give us some
sort of edge?
If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there
So, do we, in effect, have a one-party system? Is
the outcome the same no matter which we align ourselves with?
Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people
alone. The people themselves are, therefore, its only safe depositories.
Well, I wanted to ask you about that. You've always been deeply
suspicious of the concept of democracy stating that rule by the
majority may endanger the rights of the individual.
A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent
of the people may take away the rights of the other forty nine.
You've said that before. The original concept of the United States
was that it was to be a republic; which is to say that the rights
of the individual come before the rights of the many. That spirit
seems to have been lost over time.
Bear in mind this sacred principle ... that the minority possesses
their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate
would be oppression.
And as to the right of others to disagree?
I tolerate with utmost latitude the right of others to differ with
me in opinion without imputing to them criminality. I know too well
all the weaknesses and uncertainty of human reason to wonder at
its different results.
We seem to be having a renewed problem with that principle lately.
I don't know if you've been following the civil unrest that's been
growing. The demonstrators are quite disorganised and often don't
even agree with each other on their concerns. In many ways, they
are such a nuisance that ...
God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.
Wouldn't it at least be reasonable to expect them to be quiet until
they can get together on what they are objecting to?
The people cannot be all, and always, well-informed. If they remain
quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner
of death to the public liberty. And what country can preserve its
liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this
people preserve the spirit of resistance?
I just meant that ...
Liberty is to the collective body what health is to every individual
body. Without liberty, no happiness can be enjoyed by society.
Well, at least for the moment, the majority seem to want to be sure
that the police maintain control of demonstrators.
The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses
its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest, breaks
up the foundations of society.
It's certainly true that control seems to be the greatest goal of
government today. I don't know if you've heard, but Congress has
passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which some believe
declares the entire US a battlefield. I don't know if many people
have figured it out yet, but, essentially, that means that all Americans
are classified as "suspected enemy combatants" and can be treated
accordingly by the military. That means that the Fourth Amendment
that you drafted is out the window.
I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always
oppressive ... Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according
to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of
others. I do not add "within the limits of the law," because law
is often but the tyrants' will, and always so when it violates the
rights of the individual.
And here we are back to the concept of a republic You
and the other Founding Fathers defined individual rights as
No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights
of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain
him ... I hold that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good
thing. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.
I think that the American people are divided on that perception.
I would guess that all Americans would want greater freedom, but
not at the cost of not feeling safe.
A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will
lose both and deserve neither ... We are not to expect to be translated
from despotism to liberty in a feather bed.
I'm not sure if Americans presently see their leaders as despots.
They were elected, after all, and ...
An elective despotism was not what we fought for, but one which
should not only be founded on true free principles, but in which
the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among
general bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their
legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by
And yet that very system of checks and balances seems to be collapsing
... It's been said that the natural and historical progression of
any nation is that it rises out of bondage during a period of great
courage to a state of liberty. The liberty creates a collective
consciousness of hard work, resulting in abundance. The abundance
eventually gives way to selfishness, which, in turn, gives way to
complacency, then to apathy. The period of apathy is always followed
again by a state of bondage. It's certainly true that this is the
path that America has followed. All that is yet unfulfilled is the
final stage bondage. But how can it be? Although America is now
deteriorating rapidly, not long ago, it was the greatest country
in the world. In my belief, that was due to the fact that, back
in the 18th century, you produced a near-perfect republic.
Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic, but will they keep
it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of
I'd have to admit that America seems to have lost its character
along the way, having supplanted traditional values with a reverence
for material abundance. Is this not reconcilable?
Material abundance without character is the path of destruction.
So, history seems to tell us. From the fall of Rome until the present
day, each nation seems to have a shelf life its day in the sun.
To date, no nation has ever turned the process around at the last
minute. The baton is invariably passed to whatever nation is waiting
in the wings that is on its upward swing.
Note: All of the views stated above by Thomas Jefferson have been
taken from his writings and re-presented in this interview format.
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Man with permission.
Thomas [send him mail]
is British and resides in the Caribbean. The son of an economist
and historian, he learned early to be distrustful of governments
as a general principle. He began his study of economics around 1990,
learning initially from Sir John Templeton, then Harry Schulz and
Doug Casey and later others of an Austrian persuasion.
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