On April 13th every American should raise a Champagne glass high to toast the farmer, architect, scholar, revolutionary, and American president born that spring day in 1743: Thomas Jefferson. One of our greatest Founding Fathers, Jefferson lovingly carved much of the government and character of his precious gem, America.
He penned numerous documents extolling the revolutionary ideas of his time, including the stirring words on the parchment that is the soul of America, "The Declaration of Independence." Yet how many of our current citizens—and elected officials—truly understand its meaning?
The Declaration launched the first country in history based on the principle that every individual possesses certain "unalienable" rights. According to Jefferson's writings, "free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their Chief Magistrate." No tyrant can violate the rights of man, nor can any majority vote in Congress. "[T]he majority, oppressing an individual," says Jefferson, "is guilty of a crime … and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society."
Our rights belong to us as individuals, with each of us possessing the same rights. There are no "rights" of groups to any special favors or privileges. It is inappropriate, for example, for pizza eaters to lobby Congress for a "right" to a free pizza every Thursday. If Congress grants their wish, out of concern for their nourishment or their votes, it acts outside of its proper function. According to Jefferson, "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare but only those specifically enumerated [in the Constitution]."
Our rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness are rights to take action; they are not entitlements to the goods and services of others. Jefferson defined liberty as "unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others." This means we may act in our own behalf, for example, to earn money and buy a house, but we may not expect the government to tax others to provide us with a house for free. Life requires productive work and effort to sustain it, a fact that Jefferson considered to be our glory. When his Monticello farm fell on hard times, he began producing nails, and did so proudly because "every honest employment is deemed honorable [in America]…. My new trade of nail-making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility … [is] in Europe." He scorned the "idleness" of the European aristocracy, calling their courts "the weakest and worst part of mankind." What would he think of our current government's grants and handouts to countless special interest groups, a practice that rewards people for non-effort?
Our right to property means we have the right to keep the things we acquire. Does a rich person have less of a right to property than a poor person? According to Jefferson: "To take from one because it is thought his own industry … has acquired too much, in order to spare others who … have not exercised equal industry and skill is to violate the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it." What would he think of the persistent cries of today's politicians to "tax the rich," thereby depriving them of their property and the pursuit of their happiness?
Jefferson ardently championed the spiritual and intellectual independence of the individual. He was so proud of authoring the "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" in Virginia that he had this fact etched on his tombstone. The bill ended the practice of paying the clergy with public funds because "to compel a man to furnish … money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical." Jefferson believed that religion was a completely private matter and fought for a "wall of separation between church and state." He was "against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another"; and he swore "eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." What would he think of today's faith-based initiatives, which allocate public funds to religious organizations, and the attempts by religious lobbyists and elected officials to dictate public policy based on their faith?
Because we possess rights, governments are instituted. Wise government, explains Jefferson, "shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." Government acts only to protect us from acts of force or fraud, apprehending perpetrators who pick our pockets or break our legs; otherwise, it does not regulate or control our lives in any way. Jefferson was "for a government rigorously frugal and simple … and not for a multiplication of officers and salaries merely to make partisans … " What would he think of the 150,000-page Code of Federal Regulations and the swarms of agencies, commissions, and departments that today swallow 40 percent of our national income?
Jefferson believed citizens to be capable of self-sufficiency because they possess reason. "Fix reason firmly to her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion." He expected people to use their minds to overcome obstacles and control their own lives. He gently chastised his 15 year-old daughter when she had difficulty reading an ancient text on Roman history without the aid of her teacher. "If you always lean on your master, you will never be able to proceed without him. It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate—to surmount every difficulty … " Americans, he continued, "are obliged to invent and to execute; to find the means within ourselves, and not to lean on others." To do otherwise, his daughter would be "thought a very helpless animal, and less esteemed." What would he think of today's entitlement programs, which destroy a person's capacity to think and act for himself, and transform him into a helpless dependent?
Within a mere page in the calendar of history, the powerful doctrine of individual rights led to the abolition of slavery, the suffrage of women, and the spread of freedom to many countries around the globe. It all began with the founding of America. Jefferson fought for a country in which the government had no power to encroach on the mind, the life, the liberty, or the property of the individual. He fought for a country in which the individual was unshackled for the first time in history and could live for the pursuit of his own happiness, instead of being a pawn in the hands of the state. The way to pay tribute to Jefferson—and to ourselves—is to protest the hammering of our rights by officials who can't tell a diamond from a rhinestone, to hold dear the jewel that is America, to polish the ideals for which Jefferson in the Declaration pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor.
Genevieve (Gen) LaGreca holds a master's degree in philosophy from Columbia University and is the author of “Noble Vision” a ForeWord magazine Book-of-the-Year award-winning novel about liberty. Copyright © 2007 by Genevieve LaGreca.
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