Thomas Jefferson: The Indebted Yeoman Farmer

Friday, April 3, 2009

No other figure in American history, except Washington and Lincoln, stands closer to the heart of American national identity than Thomas Jefferson. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and in that Declaration he defined the spirit of the American Revolution as an experiment in Enlightenment politics and philosophy. He was the second American, after Washington, to ascend to the level of the symbol of American liberty. His home in Virginia exists today as a kind of temple for that symbol. Even Abraham Lincoln, who privately deplored Jefferson’s example as a slave owner, felt compelled to genuflect publicly before Jefferson’s example as the most distinguished politician of our history.

The Intellectual

Jefferson was, in addition to being a politician, a man of extraordinary intellectual gifts and tastes. A man who liked to think of himself as simply an American version of the Enlightenment’s rational elite. Almost his entire life was lived in politics, yet he had little love for the practical day to day grind of vote-getting and administration. “Science is my passion, he briefly remarked, politics my duty”. He served as the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809, but he served for more than twice as long as the President of the American Philosophical Society. He claimed in 1812: “when I was young, mathematics was the passion of my life”. And even as President of the United States he dubbed industriously in anthropology, mineralogy, religion and history.

It was Jefferson who sponsored the first great scientific expedition of the New Republic: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s journey from 1804 to 1806 to map the North American continent from the Mississippi river to the Pacific ocean.

When he was asked in 1771 to compose a list of basic books, Jefferson came up with 28 titles which spanned poetry, fiction, politics, history, philosophy and the classics. He recommended Locke on the conduct of the mind and the search for truth, Montesquieu, Franklin of electricity, Seneca, a heavy dose of the Scots, and even a textbook on physics and surgery. Forty years and a lifetime of book-collecting later, Jefferson’s collection of 6000 books became the core around which the Library of Congress was built.

Jefferson even had the mannerisms commonly associated with an intellectual. “Jefferson is a slender man”, wrote William Mclays, who sat in the Federal Congress and who had many opportunities to observe Jefferson at a close range. “He has rather the air of stiffness in is manner. His clothes seem too small for him. He sits in a lounging manner, on one hip commonly, and one of his shoulders elevated much more than the other. His face has a scroungy aspect. His whole figure has a shackling air.” He even added that Jefferson was a poor public speaker. His informal conversation was invariably a revelation. He scattered information wherever he went.

In the largest sense, although Jefferson wrote only one full-length book in 1781, his Notes on the State of Virginia, which appeared anonymously; Jefferson defined a Classical Republican political philosophy, which stood over against the Liberal Republicanism of Alexander Hamilton. It was a philosophy which defined the role of government in the Republic and addressed the question of religion in the Enlightenment political regime. Jefferson’s political philosophy was a force in his day and it remains one in ours.

The Practice of Law

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at the family plantation at Shadwell. Because a fire destroyed Shadwell in 1770 and most of the 27-years-old Jefferson’s papers lighted, painfully little survives of Jefferson’s intellectual coming of age. What we do know, however, is how much of that coming of age was connected to representatives of the Scottish Enlightenment. His first tutor, a Church of England clergyman named William Douglas, was a Scot and a graduate of Glasgow and Edinburg. When Jefferson arrived at William and Mary to begin his collegiate studies in 1760, the college was in the hands of another Scot, William Small, whom Jefferson described as “a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners and an enlarged and liberal mind”.

The most immediate contribution Small made was not philosophical, but legal. He introduced Jefferson to George Wythe. Jefferson proceeded to study law under Wythe tutoring at Williamsburg until he was admitted to the bar in 1767. Two years later, Jefferson is elected to the House of Burgesses. He scored a minor sensation with the publication of a anti-imperial pamphlet in 1774: A Summary View of the Rights of British America. In 1775, he found himself sent to Philadelphia to serve in the Second Continental Congress, a colonial lawyer among other colonial lawyers.

Up until the 18th century, law was hardly a profession at all. Administration of the law was in the hands of appointed magistrates, who only rarely had any formal education in law. Lawyers were, in general, not much more than gentlemen who happened to have an education in law. In fact, in 17th century England, professional lawyering was actually prohibited by statute. However, as the British empire awoke throughout the 18th century for the need to establish new useful laws and practices in the colonies, so did the need for professional lawyers and judges.

Even so, by 1775, there were only 45 practicing attorneys in Massachusetts. One reason for the comparatively small number of lawyers was that law was not terribly lucrative by itself. People who hoped to make money from law hoped really to do it through the opening law gave them to politics, and through politics to patronage and influence.

Another reason why lawyering did not take all at once in popularity was that, in practice, criminal law was largely a matter of punishment for moral or religious offences against the community. It was not terribly involved with the protection of property. The notion of institutional imprisonment for criminal violators will not result in the construction of an American prison until the 1790’s.

Civil law was not much more attractive as a pursuit, for it was preoccupied with matters of inheritance and debt, debt being the one thing which really could get you imprisoned. The laws these lawyers obeyed came from two sources. One was Statute Law, in other words, law created by the colonial legislatures. The other was British Common Law, that big mass of traditional procedure in British law, which judges and magistrates interpreted and applied by their own lights, without consultation with legislatures.

Up until the eve of the Revolution, it was Common Law procedures which governed most of colonial law. Judges and magistrates, not legislatures, decided what was law and what was punishment. The American Revolution changed this. Having thrown off British political rule, Americans wondered if their courts should continue to operate by British Common law or not. Revolutionaries saw no more wisdom in allowing a single man to rule by his own whim as king, than allowing magistrates and judges to rule by their whim in court. And it did not help the reputation of Common Law that the prevailing Common Law textbook of the day, Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, which enjoyed a circulation of nearly 25000 copies in America by 1776; tried to base Common Law on the sovereignty of the king.

If in the new, revolutionary and republican climate, sovereignty resided in the people rather than in the king, then the place where law should be made was in the legislature, and casted in the form of legislative statutes. If Blackstone hoped to make old law into the king’s law, the Americans’ tendency was to limit all law to legislative statutes.

Jefferson never developed any significant law practice of his own. He was involved in only 941 cases over 7 years, and he stopped practicing law altogether by 1776. But the legal problems posed by Common Law, about sovereignty, inheritance, debt and slavery; became the central problems of his life. And no wonder. Jefferson was born into a well-to-do family, but his father died while he was in his teens. The terms of his father’s will put all the power of his inheritance into the hands of the will executors. Even permission to attend William and Mary had to be obtained from his guardian.

Migraines Caused by Debt

He married Martha Wayles in 1772, only to loose her to complications of child birth in 1782, and never remarry. Through his wife, Jefferson inherited some 11000 acres of land and 135 slaves, which added to the 5000 acres and 50 slaves that came to him after the death of his mother in 1773. This made Jefferson one of the biggest land owners in Virginia. By then, he was already well on his way to designing and building that great mountain top home that he dreamt off as his great sanctuary, Monticello.

The problem was that his father-in-law’s state had also arrived burdened with debt. The costs of building Monticello and the costs of the Virginia gentry lifestyle gradually turned from pleasures into inescapable burdens for Thomas Jefferson. Inflation during the Revolution rotted the value of his property. 22 of his slaves ran off to find freedom with the British. By the end of his life, he will be over 100000 dollars in debt.

Those debts enraged him. Indebtedness threatened him with loss of control, and fear of the loss of control triggered staggering bouts of migraine for Jefferson. He could not take the humiliation of constantly bowing the knee to creditors, to money lenders, to the merchants who supplied his books. In Jefferson’s mind, only a nation of those who own enough property to freely support themselves without dependence could create a Republic. When debt-ridden farmers in Western Massachusetts staged an uprising in 1786, Jefferson frankly sympathized with them. “Can history produce an instance where rebellion so honorably conducted?”, Jefferson asked. “God forbid, we should never be 20 years without such a rebellion. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Maybe also with the blood of creditors.

This resentment at the dependence imposed by debt took a more organized form in a letter Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789, where Jefferson was still serving as the American minister to France. Jefferson had enjoyed a front row seat in Paris that summer for the outbreak of the French Revolution. The prospect of the French Revolution excited and appalled him. Clearly, in Jefferson’s mind, the violence of the French Revolution was due entirely to the way an elite of aristocratic families had reduced most of France’s population to debt and loss of land.

In Jefferson’s thinking, creditors could just as easily be bankers and merchants as aristocrats. No creditor, he wrote, can by Natural Right oblige the lands someone occupies, or the person who succeeded in that occupation to the payment of debts contracted by him. By performing a series of calculations, he informed Madison that, by rights, 19 years is the term beyond which neither the representatives of a nation nor even the whole nation itself assembled could stand a debt.

Perhaps it was only coincidental that the 19 years he allotted for the permissible run of debts was just one year shy at the 20 years he allotted for permissible revolutions and the bloody watering of the tree of liberty. It certainly blinded him to the follies of the French Revolution, as that revolution was blowing up around his ears in Paris in 1789.

What To Do With National Debt

The summer of the French Revolution began with Louis XVI yielding to the demand for calling of a national assembly, the Estates General. That in turn resulted in the swift capture of the Estates General’s leadership, by the seizure of the king and by the imposition of a somewhat constitutional monarchy. When the king attempted to escape, he was recaptured, and then trialled and executed. After his death, a reign of revolutionary terror, inspired by Maximilien Robespierre and his party, the Jacobins; swept over Paris and over France.

To all of the butcheries and the terrorism instituted by the Jacobins, Jefferson turned a resolutely blind eye. He praised the Jacobins for their resolution to set fire to the four corners of the kingdom and to perish rather than to relinquish from their plan of total change of government. When Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789 to became the first Secretary of State under President George Washington, his adulation for the French Revolution continued without pause. The Jacobins, he said, were the true revolution spirit of a whole nation. And he founded sickening that uncomprehending Americans, like Washington and Hamilton, called the French robbers and inhumans.

By 1793, Jefferson was compelled to admit a little bit more, that in the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the form of trial, and with them also many innocent ones. But this was simply the collateral damage of revolution. “My own affections had been deeply wounded by some of the murders of this cause, but rather than seeing it fail I would better see the earth desolated.”

What the Jacobins accomplished in France, Jefferson hoped that Statute Law might accomplish peacefully in the United States. His political philosophy seems to have nothing more substantial to it than an expectation that virtuous citizens, by reason of their virtue, could make government almost unnecessary. But instead of the new constitution rendering government unnecessary, Jefferson was infuriated to discover that the old fiscal policies of indebtedness and collection were being reimposed through Statute as designed by the new Secretary of of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

At the end of the Revolution, the United States was catastrophically in debt. First to the French and then to the Dutch, but also to a lot of people. Many of the fiscal crisis during the Revolution had been adverted by individuals stepping forward to lend money to the Continental Congress. One quick way for the new United States to deal with these debts was to repudiate them, and to wish good luck to the Congress’ creditors. But Hamilton was convinced that a repudiation of the revolutionary debts would be a terrible decision.

For one thing, many of the Congress’ creditors were ordinary pensioners, they were patriot souls who now will be ruined if the government repudiated its debts. But at a largest scale, repudiation would be a signal to foreign nations that the United States was an unworthy debtor, and in that case, supplies of foreign credit would dry up. Without that foreign credit, it would be impossible for Americans to overcome a hundred years of economic restriction by the British that had prevented them from developing a commercial manufacturing base.

In a series of three great reports to Congress, Hamilton recommended, with as much persuasive power as he could muster, a commitment by Congress to pay off its revolutionary debts, to build up American manufacture, to establish a national bank to fund commercial development and, in a display of his belief that only the Federal Government could hold all of this off, the assumption by the Federal Government of all of the States’ Revolutionary War’s debts as well. All of this by statute.

Hamilton’s plan captured everything. It was likely to bring one of Jefferson’s famous migraines. It made debt untouchable. It put manufacturing and the money lending that manufacturing required in the driver’s seat of the American economy. It guaranteed that independent farmers would increasingly find themselves forced to bear the burdens, not only of indebtedness enforced by statute, but of the taxes the Federal Government would levee to fund its own debts.

Jefferson and Slavery

Although Jefferson was anything but a typical yeoman farmer, he increasingly spoke as though he was one, and as though Hamilton was trying to create a cash-robbing aristocracy to bring back the British Empire. “Now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and corporations under the guides of their favorite branches of manufacturers, commerce and navigation; ruling over the beggared yeomanry.“

This mistrust led to a massive fracture of the Revolutionary generation into two hostile political parties: the Federalists, who enlisted Washington, Hamilton and John Adams as their figure heads; and the Democratic Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison. In time, this fracture would be more than political, it would come to violence. In 1804, one of Jefferson’s most prominent disciples, Aaron Burr Jr., would maneuver Hamilton into fighting in a duel and kill him.

Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800, partly because the Federalists had quarrelled and divided, but also partly because of slavery. Slavery has always been the dog in Thomas Jefferson’s manger, principally because the author of the proposition that all men are created equal held over human beings in a very unequal state of bondage. But also because, on closer inspection, he actually sold slaves to pay off debts, and conducted a long-term liaison with a female slave, Sally Hemings, who was herself the offspring of an illicit master-slave union, in this case Jefferson’s father-in-law. This actually means that Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s half-sister by blood. He never pretended that he had an excuse for keeping black slaves. In his Notes on the State of Virginia , in the 1780’s, Jefferson admitted that slaves were as fully entitled to liberty as anyone else. But at the same time, Jefferson’s own fragile independence rested squarely on the shoulders of his slaves.

They represented the capital he could liquidate when the creditors came knocking. And they produced the goods that paid the creditors at all other times. Nor, as it turned out, could he had been President without them either. In order to placate the Southern States, the Constitutional Convention in 1787 allowed the seven states to count three fifths of their slaves to work the calculation of their electoral votes. Without those extra electoral votes, Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800. With it, he not only won the Presidency, but installed a democratic Jeffersonian ascendancy which would dominate the American Presidency for the next 60 years.

Had he been more of a practical politician than a political philosopher, Jefferson might had been more successful in dismantling the structures of finance and manufacture created by Hamilton in the 1790’s. Well, it was not for lack of trying, but Hamilton had cannier political instincts, and he had built better than Jefferson could dismantle. Hamilton had as his great second the man who would become Jefferson’s next nemesis, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshal. The manufacturing economy Hamilton constructed was defended by Marshal with a series of major pro-commercial judicial decisions.

After Jefferson’s death, that occurred on the 4th of July 1826, fifty years from the adoption of his Declaration of Independence; Monticello was seized and sold to pay the debts that only Thomas Jefferson’s last breath released him from.