Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The Founding

Happy Birthday, Mr. Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was born 268 years ago today. The author of our Declaration of Independence, one of the greatest forces behind religious liberty in America, our first Secretary of State, and our third President, the red-haired wonder from Virginia continues to be a useful source of wisdom for us today as we muddle through our present calamities and disagreements-- even if his genius was difficult to interpret. There is much to learn from the fact that he, most wary of executive power among the Founders, ordered the bombing of Tripoli in order to dispel the threat of the Barbary Pirates; that it was he, who pressed most for a strict interpretation of the Constitution, that purchased the Louisiana Territory from France (probably in violation of the Constitution); and that he, our most eloquent spokesman for liberty, could not figure out how to end slavery-- a practice that he, although a slave owner, deemed to be cruel war against human nature itself.

"This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular or previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion." (Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1825)

Though Congress put on a poorly-executed show earlier this year with a reading of the Constitution, it would have done well if they had also read from Mr. Jefferson's eloquent words on Liberty and the American mind in order to place our Constitution, and government in general, within its appropriate context. They are the words that define who we are, and history will long remember our constant struggle to live up to our own principles as enshrined within the Declaration. With such grounding in the first principles of our country, those immortal words of the Founding Father can help us along in our quest to become partisans of the Constitution once more. Happy Birthday, Mr. Jefferson.
Categories > The Founding

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Happy Birthday, indeed. Jefferson's puzzling statesmanship as President can be best accounted for in terms that his friend, James Madison, expressed in The Federalist, No 41: "It is in vain to place constitutional barriers to the impulse of self preservation." He was not the only president who changed his mind when circumstances indicated that that was the prudent thing to do. Madison, McKinley, Wilson, FDR, Johnson, Bush I and II, Clinton and Obama all were reluctant warriors until hard choices had to be made. Polk was not so reluctant.

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