Thomas Jefferson

December 1, 2012


Always happy to see historical mythology debunked.  An Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes today describes Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, as a creepy, brutal hypocrite. A fine addition to the line of research brought to the general public in 1996 by Connor Cruise O’Brien in this article.  Racist under his elevated egalitarian rhetoric, futile tinkerer and failed farmer under the veneer of a scientific gentleman of leisure, and not even willing to free his slaves upon his death, as did many other conflicted critics of the institution among the Founding Fathers, such corrective pieces are still much in need.

Tom Paine, Libertarian. NOT!

April 5, 2008

Poor Tom Paine! He was all for the French Revolution, and travelled to Paris to support it, but was nearly guillotined for his trouble! In his own land, with the post-revolution religious revival under way, he was reviled as a free-thinking atheist, though he was a Deist who denouced as wrongheaded those who denied the existence of a Supreme Creator (I beg to differ…) And today? He is the favorite of right wing libertarians, many of which can be found spouting off here and there around the Internet.

When I hear so-called “conservatives” say that they are against people being “forcibly taxed” to support things that some others have decided is a public good, I am reminded of Lenin’s characterization of anarchists as “infantile.” Not that I’m a Leninist, but he had a point – and these libertarians are similarly situated on the maturation-politico spectrum. In other words, like so many of us, they want something for nothing, though they will not admit it.

The excerpt below is from an essay Tom Paine wrote for the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1782. Would that it were read more widely by students of American politics and history (emphasis added):

It is a pity but some other word beside taxation had been devised for so noble and extraordinary an occasion, as the protection of liberty and the establishment of an independent world. We have given to a popular subject an unpopular name, and injured the service by a wrong assemblage of ideas.A man would be ashamed to be told that he signed a petition praying that he might pay less than his share of the public expense, or that those who had trusted the public might never receive their money; yet he does the same thing when petitions against taxation, and the only difference, that by taking shelter under the name, he seems to conceal the meanness he would otherwise blush at.Is it popular to pay our debts, to do justice, to defend an injured and insulted country, to protect the aged and the infant, and to give to Liberty a land to live in? then must taxation, as the means by which those things are to be done, be popular likewise.

…Why has the back country been ravaged by the repeated incursions of the enemy..but from the inability of the revenue to provide means for their protection?And yet the inhabitants of those countries were among the first to petition against taxation.In so doing, they eventually prayed for their own destruction, and, unhappily, for them, their prayer was answered.Their quota of taxes would have been trifling, compared with their losses, and, what is still worse, their domestic sorrows.

Two Toms: Jefferson and Paine

March 8, 2005

No, I’m not talking about that neighborhood restaurant in Brooklyn (“Two Toms” on 3rd Avenue – get ready for LARGE portions) but our own Odd Couple of the Founding Fathers. I link these two because they were friends, and in the latter part of their lives, when Tom Paine was reviled at home and in England as a vicious, revolutionary atheist, denounced as a traitor to liberty in France, where he narrowly avoided the guillotine because of his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI, Thomas Jefferson stood by him, made sure he was allowed to return home to the USA, and publicly treated him as a friend. A rare display of strong principle by Jefferson, a man who was known by his supporters and enemies to be as emotionally and intellectually slippery as an eel.

Paine is often treated as a bit of a crank, something of a fanatic, perhaps a dangerous, incendiary character, while Jefferson, as we know, is the epitome of enlightened statesmanship and open-minded rationality. True? As far as T. Paine goes, the received wisdom is way off the mark, that’s for certain. He was not at all an atheist as charged, but subscribed to the straightforward deism of his day. He thought that the universe itself was evidence of a divine creator, but he knew that the creator had no truck with ordinary affairs of men and matter. I beg to differ, atheist that I am, but he was marvelously clear in his expositions. What put him on the wrong side of the righteous Christians was his argument in The Age of Reason that revealed religion has no factual or intellectual basis. Sacred texts, sacred prophets, miracles, he would have none of it, whether from the Christians, the Jews, the Moslems, or anyone else. He was committed to his principles, and they were good ones:  freedom, liberty, abolition of slavery, and secular government. He railed against his countrymen when they embraced unrealistic platforms, such as opposition to all federal taxes, the occasion of his wonderful essay, The Necessity of Taxation.”

TJ, on the other hand, with his hypocrisy regarding slavery, his puerile enthusiasm for blood in the streets in Paris, [ a strange feature of contemporary politics, that we have ultra-reactionaries using the rhetoric of the 60s counterculture – didn’t Newt Gingrich often sound like a rebel without a cause?] his political chicanery, his willingness to go for the jugular, seems like the political fanatic at times. Connor Cruise O’Brien has suggested that he is the intellectual grandfather of our militia movements. Perhaps he is the prototype for the modern political intellectual, the one’s who find sound, logical reasons for watering the soil with the blood of traitors (a few million or so) every few years. Reading him, and about him, you certainly get the feeling that politics was for him, as perhaps for some dangerous political leaders we know about, the working out of something intensely personal. First principle of good, democratic, politics:  don’t let their problems become our problems.