Wednesday, December 9, 2009

An Errant Thought on Thomas Jefferson and Barack Obama

Sorry for the absence. I haven't had much to say, or at least haven't been able to adequately express what I want to say, so I've been spending most of my time reading history books.

I've moved on from the Revolutionary period and into the early days of the Repbulic. Garry Wills' description of the Jefferson presidency in Henry Adams and the Making of America is particularly fascinating to me lately.

In Jefferson, you have a man who was, in the public's view, the "mind of the Revolution". Here was the author of the Declaration of Independence in the White House and in charge of the nation! Imagine the possibilities of fulfilling the promise of the Declaration when its primary author is the most powerful man in the nation, his party firmly in charge of two of the three branches of government. Change came to the United States in 1800, and in a striking parallel to today, Americans quickly discovered it was not the change they were looking for.

Jefferson's presidency was a litany of broken promises, of vows "meeting their expiration date". The man who proclaimed, "A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government" enacted the Embargo Act. The Act crippled the New England economy, and led to uprisings in several places. The man who said "a little revolution every now and then is a good thing" called out the troops.

Jefferson the politician is fascinating and somewhat horrifying to someone who reveres the Founders. I'm not sure how much he reminds me of Barack Obama in terms of specific policies, but I am struck by the similarity of the hopes Americans placed in both men to transform America. Jefferson didn't get his nation of agrarian philosophers, and he nearly crippled the national economy by continuing to take Napoleon's side against England, albeit under the guise of neutrality. A foreign policy blunder eventually led to the War of 1812... a war we didn't need to fight. Jefferson, the man who said, "Conquest is not in our principles. It is inconsistent with our government" approved of organizing the local militias (typically organized for "the common defense") and invading Canada!

Apparently it's tremendously easy to write in defense of freedom, to in fact believe you are working in the cause of freedom, while at the same time appeasing (if not outright siding with) tyrants in foreign lands and unconstitutionally expanding the strength and power of the federal government. The depressing thing is that even though Jefferson was seen as a failure when he left office, he had already succeeded in diminishing the Federalist Party to a permanent back-bench status, which left the party of Jefferson in charge until Andrew Jackson took office in 1828. Jefferson famously said in his first inauguration, "We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists." 203 years later, Barack Obama proclaimed, "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America." Jefferson succeeded in delivering a death blow to Federalists, but I'm not yet ready to believe that the party of Barack Obama will remain in power for the next 28 years.