If anyone is interested in reading the words of a real statesman, some encouraging words, words filled with wisdom and humility, I highly recommend you read Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address. It’s probably only a few pages long. You won’t be sorry for having done so. That’s from whence the famous phrase “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” comes. Sorry, sometimes I don’t like ending my sentences with a preposition…sometimes. In this address, Jefferson called for unified country, a republican country (lower-case “r”), and a moral country. Do we possess those three attributes today? I’m not sure our country currently collectively possesses a single one of those attributes. Perhaps we are not so far gone however that our country can in fact undergo a renewal. I pray we can. Studying this address might be a good place to start.
What does that famous phrase, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” really mean? First of all, it was a critical transition point in Jefferson’s inaugural address. Immediately prior to saying those famous words, Jefferson did his best to draw attention to the commonality of purpose that both Federalists and Republicans had, despite their deep ideological differences, this election having been hard fought race, a victory in fact dubbed the Revolution of 1800. Jefferson then said that phrase, and launched from an appeal for unity to his vision for the United States.
Jefferson seemed to understand you can’t accomplish the latter, without the former, and even if you could, at what cost? That is to say, you can’t effect real meaningful lasting change through the system in a democratic form of government without unity, without humility, without reaching out to the other side, and without a promise to respect minority rights, which is why he made the appeal in this address “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.” This begs the question, is unity being preached today in this country from the highest echelons of government, or is division? And why is that?
Jefferson, and most of the founding fathers understood that you can’t have a democracy, a republic, a constitutional republic, unless you have a people that if and when they disagree, at least have the capability of recognizing as he said immediately prior to saying “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists”, that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle” and further that “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle”. Democracy ultimately cannot exist without such a recognition. Hence Jefferson’s appeal.
Jefferson understood there would always be deep-seeded differences in a democracy, and that those differences are not what cause a breakdown in representative government. Such differences are to be expected. The manner in which you deal with those differences is what causes the system to work or to stop working, not the existence of that differing opinion.
When you have a total breakdown in trust, a hatred for the other side, when dialogue ceases, when political sabotage ensues at every turn, democracy will eventually cease to exist. War and discord are the ultimate and eventual result, followed by who knows what. Again, it’s why Jefferson said in this address, “Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government.” Again, differences in opinion are normal. This is why Jefferson freely admonished people to in fact follow their own principles. It’s how we deal with those differences that is so important. Again, thus his appeal for unity.
That being said, Thomas Jefferson didn’t mince words on where he stood on the issues. Jefferson once said of Washington and Adams party, the Federalist party, that “An Anglican monarchical, and aristicratical party has sprung up, whose avowed object is to draw over the substance, as they have already done the forms, of the British government…it would give you a fever were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England”.
Jefferson wasn’t a guy who held back on what he thought apparently. But when he had his victory, he didn’t run roughshod over his opposition. If you read his address, he admitted his own imperfections, promised to protect minority rights, and even asked for guidance from the legislative branch in performing his awesome task as President. In short, he actually cared about bringing people together, not as a means to a political end, but as the end itself. Imagine that happening today! The importance of such notions have apparently changed somewhat over time.
Jefferson went on to explain after his call for unity, and after his statement that “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists”, his belief in republicanism, a system of government whereby the people control their own lives and destinies on a more local level, not what he explained as a monarchical system; rather a system where as imperfect as people are, local self-rule would be the order of the day. These ideals eventually came to be accepted and practiced for the next hundred years in the United States, known as Jeffersonian Democracy. He continued:
“I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government cannot be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
That same fight is going on now was going on over 200 years ago, namely, the struggle between an ideology that embraces local self rule, and one that believes that people really can’t govern themselves and are in need of masters, of a strong central government, of politicians who know what we need better than we do, who rule despite public opinion. Jefferson rejected the latter notion. Washington and Adams on the other hand had a more monarchical view of government and its role, one where, ya, people should have some say in governing to be sure, the people need a voice, but where they just can’t really be trusted in the end. A ruling class was needed. One of the people, but of a class more sophisticated and able than the people. Things may change over time, but things sure stay the same in many respects now don’t they?
What the Federalists failed to see, and what Jefferson and people like him rightly recognized, is as much as people can’t be trusted, absolutely true, and as imperfect as people are, absolutely true, letting people govern themselves on a more decentralized level is far superior to a system of centralization. Its far superior to a system where we the people don’t actively and proactively govern, where a political class of people rule over us, thinking they can govern us better than we can govern ourselves, independent of what the people want, and of course for their good, so it is thought.
Jefferson rejected that notion and endorsed republicanism. As seen in the quote above, he said, “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?” This is the eternal question that when asked and answered plainly, logically, and honestly, is that which informs conservatives on what type of government we should have; its form and function. It is the defining element of conservativsm, again, the understanding that as imperfect as people are, people know what’s in their best interest more than other people do, and that peoples ability to act on that ideal is the very definition of freedom. Its the recognition as Ronald Reagan once said that we should never, “abandon (the ideals of) the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Make no mistake, Jefferson believed in “states rights”, in short, in local self rule, but not at the expense of the federal government and the Constitution as is often claimed to be the case whenever such rights are exerted. One of his “essential principles” listed in this address was “the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor”. He believed republicanism was the very bedrock of freedom, and America agreed with him for some time to come. That also has changed somewhat.
For all his faculties however, Jefferson seemed to be a humble individual. He seems to have been a largely moral person, or at least played the part of being such a person. Whether or not he actually was so, I can’t say, but he clearly acknowledged its import to the country and to democracy in many of his writings, particularly in his first inaugural address.
The understanding that a peoples character, their ethics, their morality, and that having a voluntary moral code is which creates and sustains, in fact is the substance of having a civil society, where freedom and democracy are even possible, that notion was accepted as Gospel by the founders of this country, and barely acknowledged today. Today, big government has taken the place of the civil society, where neighbor is expected to help their neighbor, and has crowded it out.
The belief however in the centrality of the civil society by the founders, a moral society that voluntarily largely took care of themselves and their neighbors outside of big government, and its necessity to a free flourishing society is what prompted Benjamin Franklin to say, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious they have more need of masters.” In other words, as people fail to take care of their neighbors or themselves as they should, a bigger government will fill the void in one way or another, and intrinsic to that, to bigger government, is the loss of personal freedom, wherein people become controlled by “masters”. The founders understood there is an inverse relationship between morality and freedom itself because of their acknowledgement that as government grows, freedom decreases.
Jefferson’s morality, his humility, among other moral virtues, is displayed over and over again throughout that address. One such instance is where Jefferson said:
“I repair, then, fellow-citizens, to the post you have assigned me. With experience enough in subordinate offices to have seen the difficulties of this the greatest of all, I have learnt to expect that it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it…I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts. The approbation implied by your suffrage is a great consolation to me for the past, and my future solicitude will be to retain the good opinion of those who have bestowed it in advance, to conciliate that of others by doing them all the good in my power, and to be instrumental to the happiness and freedom of all.”
Can you imagine this kind of humble attitude being expressed today by the President of the United States? I think we’d all be the better for it if it was. I think we’d be a more unified country, a more functional and constructive country. We’d almost certainly be a less hateful and less spite-filled country if there were a more humble attitude on display by more people. I believe its this sort of humility and recognition of ones imperfection that induces not only respect from other people, but also induces the kind of genuine soul-searching constructive toward solving real problems. Humility better prompts people to change course when needs be, that is, when people as a whole realize their own imperfection and humble themselves, not only before each other, but also before God and because of a belief in God.
Jefferson talked about a people “enlightened” by religion, politically incorrect as that might be today, that is, religion “practiced in various forms”, which inculcated “honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.” These are the virtues necessary if a civil society is ever to exist and people are ever truly to be free.
These are principles important enough that Jefferson saw fit to mention them and label them as those things which are the actions of a truly “enlightened” people. Those things, honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man are those things that lead to real and lasting justice and freedom.
Jefferson ended that address with yet another display of humility before his fellow man, and a plea from God for wisdom, that peace and prosperity might ensue:
“Relying, then, on the patronage of your good will, I advance with obedience to the work, ready to retire from it whenever you become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make. And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity. “
May it indeed.