Posts tagged with: Thomas Jefferson

jeff20th Century historian Dumas Malone praised Thomas Jefferson as the exemplar of liberty. “To all who cherish freedom and abhor tyranny in any form, [Jefferson] is an abiding hope that springs eternal,” declared Malone. Jefferson crafted our creed as Americans and once wrote, “Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

In the April issue of Carolina Journal, I review Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson. You can read the review on page 20 of the issue in PDF form. The book, which is a biography of Dumas Malone, was an enlightening read on a scholar who spent decades studying Thomas Jefferson. His six-volume biography of the author of the Declaration of Independence, titled Jefferson and His Times, spanned from 1948-1981. Malone received the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

While I haven’t read all of Malone’s volumes, the biography piqued my interest because of the complexity of studying Jefferson and the lengthy duration Malone spent on one man. One of the points I made at the end of the review was the stark contrast Malone provides to an American society that is becoming increasingly ignorant of not just its history, but the meaning and nature of our rights. Studying Jefferson is essential. It’s a great introduction into the whole ethos of the limiting of state power and especially elevating an important truth, that governments gain their legitimacy by their ability to protect the rights that predate government.

justice is blindIn a rather snarky piece in The Atlantic, author Anthony Murray questions whether or not a Supreme Court justice who believes in “natural law” (quotations marks are Murray’s) can make sound rulings. Murray is especially worried about cases involving the HHS mandate such as Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Secretary, etc. and Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., et al. v. Sibelius.

Murray misunderstand natural law. He believes it to be religious, and frantically scrambles through the words of Thomas Jefferson in order to prove his point. Rather, he says, the framers of the Constitution rely on “positive law:”

If natural law were regarded as simply a religious creed, it would not conflict with the positive laws embedded in our Constitution and laws. The threat lies in the use of natural law by courts in judicial decisions. Invoking it in construing the Constitution and statutes raises an obvious question: If natural law exists, what is in it? Is it a blank slate on which anyone may write subjective beliefs? Does it include religious dogmas? If so, of what religions? (more…)

Jeffersons-TombstonePerhaps it’s because we Americans are still getting over Christmas, or talking about the Super Bowl, but National Religious Freedom Day doesn’t get a lot of press. But indeed: January 16 is National Religious Freedom Day, adopted originally by the state of Virginia and now remembered annually by the White House. Penned by Thomas Jefferson, the Statute for Religious Freedom reads, in part:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

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ursuline_nuns_1727_landing_01It’s easy to read that headline and think, “Wha…?” What in the world do Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, Catholic Sisters and our present day health laws have to do with each other? I’m glad you asked.

More than 200 years ago, the Ursuline Sisters of France were fleeing the French Revolution and seeking a new home in New Orleans. They planned to open schools, hospitals and orphanages, but wanted to make sure that the U.S. government, now in control of New Orleans, would not meddle in their plans – separation of church and state, you see. They wrote to President Thomas Jefferson with their concerns; Jefferson’s response? (more…)

coolidgeEach Independence Day, I make a point of re-reading President Calvin Coolidge’s speech given on the 150th anniversary Declaration of Independence. I’d encourage you to do the same.

Coolidge has a deep understanding of American history, and after contemplating what led the founders to write what they wrote, and what inclined Americans to follow their lead, he ultimately concludes that it was their spiritual inclinations, and the moral and spiritual orientation of the American people, that played the most important role:

Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand [the founders’] conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.

Although Christians have exhibited an unfortunate tendency to oversimplify and overamplify the various impacts of particular religious beliefs on the American founding, Coolidge’s point is a bit more basic and overarching. (more…)

Is Christianity and the Christian worldview the path to a free society? Chinese bloggers are asking that question. Many believe the fascination with American politics and democracy is at an all time high in China. Technology and internet access is surely responsible for much of the trend. From one report,

Obama’s inauguration was a top trending topic on Sina Weibo, China’s massive microblogging site, with over 25 million posts on Jan. 21. Of these, one comment by a Weibo user by the name Wugou1975 was forwarded over 2,000 times, garnering over 500 comments. The blogger posted a photo of Obama taking the presidential oath with Supreme Court Justice John Roberts:

‘Some Chinese find it unbelievable that this secular country’s democratically elected president was sworn in with his hand on a Bible, not the Constitution, and facing a court justice, not Congress. But actually, this is the secret of America’s constitutional democracy: It’s not just the Constitution or the government’s “separation of powers.” Above that is natural law, guarded by a grand justice. And below is a community of Christians, unified by their belief.’

Undeniably, there has been and continues to be a systematic attack upon the Christian roots of the West and this nation. Marcello Pera, who teaches at the Pontifical Council in Rome, sums it up well:

“With its words, liberal secularism preaches freedom, tolerance, and democracy, but with its deeds it attacks precisely that Christian religion which prevents freedom from deteriorating into license, tolerance into indifference, democracy into anarchy.”

There is a level of irony in Chinese bloggers recognizing the significance of the religious foundations of democracy, while many Western scholars have abandoned or even attacked such notions. America’s religious heritage is vibrant and was a unifying factor promoting shared values and purpose throughout its history. The American framers knew religious vibrancy was required for ordered liberty and virtue to reign and prosper throughout society. Alexis de Tocqueville praised these characteristics and noted it was the foundations of America’s freedom and strength of its people. When it comes to the basis of our rights and foundations of government, Jefferson asked,

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”

Jefferson_Memorial_StatueIf we asked many of our fellow Americans today “What is the purpose of government?,” undoubtedly, we might be barraged with some vexing or comical answers. But I’m not one to believe that a good deal of our citizens can’t answer this question quite intelligibly. Still, I don’t think it would be enough to embody a healthy republic. It is time for our country to ask these basic questions again. It seems as if the looming chaos of our current national mismanagement demands it.

It was a common belief among the American framers that the purpose of government is simply to secure our rights from God. Unfortunately, I think this is largely forgotten now. That much is evident, given the legislative demands we see today, especially in our nation’s capital. Government overreach is the rule, not the exception. Today we see action taken by the government more oriented toward curtailing our liberties. Instead of natural law, we are inundated with legal positivism, especially when characterized by executive orders contrary to our Constitution. Attacks on the Bill of Rights and the current attacks we are seeing on the 2nd Amendment, is really a fundamental argument against the idea of self-government. In his first Presidential Inaugural Address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson declared,

Sometimes it is said that man can not 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.

The idea that humans can govern themselves was a radical notion in 1776. Jefferson eloquently stated,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .

President Ronald Reagan in 1981, would echo Jefferson’s articulation of self government in his Inaugural Address, while facing the monuments to America’s Founders:

From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

We as a people need to again ask those fundamental questions about our capability for self government. When it comes to the 2nd Amendment or the entirety of our Bill of Rights, should we trust a government that is already hedging and placing limits on trusting us, when in fact, it was entirely meant to be the other way around?

Florida Governor Rick Scott

Florida Governor Rick Scott

Florida Governor Rick Scott recently declared that his state would not comply with President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In blatant defiance of the federal government, Florida will not expand its Medicare program or implement any of the other changes that “Obamacare” requires. While a flat-out refusal to comply with federal law on the part of a lower authority is relatively uncommon, it is by no means unprecedented. The history of the United States is filled with individuals and groups who have decided to obey their consciences in the face of laws that they believed to be illegal or immoral, or both. In fact, our country’s very founding began with an act of civil disobedience against the unjust and illegal actions of England’s King George III.

Even before our nation was formally established, adherence to true justice and the natural law, rather than to the whims of tyrants, was a hallmark of the American spirit. Witness the turmoil that took place in the American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s over the actions of England, including the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” (more…)

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Friday, February 3, 2012

James Madison has rightfully been forever identified as father of the U.S. Constitution, author of the Bill of Rights and coauthor of the Federalist Papers. In his new biography of America’s fourth president, Richard Brookhiser introduces us to Madison the politician. In many ways, Madison is the father of modern American politics, with all its partisanship, wheeling and dealing, vote getting, partisan media, and popular opinion polling.

Brookhiser helps us to see the early framers as they were, brilliant men, who more often than not, waded into petty partisan squabbling. They were not afraid to roll up their sleeves and unleash a sharp pen to advance power and their party’s ideas. Madison, who was quick to understand that political contention would reign in the new Republic, organized political coalitions and allies for the purpose of power.

Madison is also the architect of hyper partisan newspapers like the National Gazette in New York City. A publication that soon begins to slam Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and even Madison’s fellow Virginian George Washington. Like Jefferson, he was a Francophile to the extreme. Hamilton would counter that Jefferson and Madison “had a womanly attachment to France.” Jefferson and Madison would often write letters to their revolutionary heroes in France, and by the time those letters crossed the Atlantic, the intended recipients were already victims of the guillotine.

Over his political life, Madison could also be quick to change course, especially when it benefited him and his presidential administration. Long an opponent of many Federalist policies, when the nation needed sound fiscal policy and a strong military because of war, he simply reversed course, and implemented ideas he had once fervently opposed. At times, he favored a strong centralized government, and especially when Federalists were in power, he favored strong state governments.

Because of poor health, Madison had a premonition that he would die as a young man, but he outlived almost all of his contemporaries (1751-1836). Madison as elder statesmen spoke out strongly against nullification, an issue that has been resurrected today because of ObamaCare and other federal power grabs. He did not believe a single state could nullify a federal law. At the same time, he also made strong arguments for strict constructionist views of constitutional interpretation. He vetoed a transportation bill that would have funded roads and canals because it was not specifically enumerated and did not fall under the commerce clause. The U.S. Supreme Court would later declare that it did fall under the clause within Madison’s lifetime. Madison believed such legislation “would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation.”

Later in life he also worried that political parties were becoming too regional. “Parties . . . must always be expected in a government as free as ours. When the individuals belonging to them are intermingled in every part of the whole country, they strengthen the union of the whole, while they divide every part,” said Madison. He easily foresaw that the Missouri Compromise was spiraling toward dangerous disunion. Madison owned over 100 slaves and Brookhiser points out that unlike Jefferson, he did not offer lofty rhetoric concerning the evils of slavery. And unlike Washington, he did not free his slaves upon death. Later in life, Madison declared the whole bible to be against slavery and toyed with the idea of moving slaves to Liberia or out West, but offered no real feasible solutions on the issue.

His strict interpretive views of the Constitution made him an early opponent of the need for a Bill of Rights. Madison feared that listing rights in the Constitution might ultimately void the rights that were not specifically mentioned. Ultimately, he would be a champion of the Bill of Rights and had already heavily influenced them in his previous work in drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Madison challenged George Mason who wanted a clause about tolerating religion. Brookhiser wonderfully explains Madison’s contribution to religious liberty:

Madison, half Mason’s age, improved his language, proposing a crucial change to the clause on religious liberty. Mason’s draft, reflecting a hundred years of liberal thought going back to John Locke, called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” Yet this did not seem liberal enough for Madison. Toleration implies those who tolerate: superiors who grant freedom to others. But who can be trusted to pass judgments, even if the judgment is to live and let live? Judges may change their minds. The Anglican establishment of Virginia, compared with established churches in other colonies, had been fairly tolerant – except when it hadn’t, and then it made water in Baptists’ faces. So Madison prepared an amendment. “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. No one could be said to allow men to worship as they wished; they worshipped as they wished because it was their right as men. Madison’s language shifted the ground of religious liberty from a tolerant society or state, to human nature, and lifted the Declaration of Rights from an event in Virginia history to a landmark of world intellectual history (23, 24).

For much of Madison’s political career he plotted behind the scenes with his friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson to destroy their political rivals. Madison often carried out the dirtier work of politics so Jefferson could appear above the fray as a man of the people. He was instrumental in creating a young republic that was ruled by Virginians in Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe. Republicans accused Federalists of trying to create a ruling faction, but the Virginian statesmen were even more adept in creating a political dynasty. But Brookhiser also helps to bring to life a snippet of the beautiful correspondence between two lifelong friends and Virginians in Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson also entrusted Madison as the guardian of his legacy in America and as an overseer of the continued flourishing of the University of Virginia.

While this book is a good introduction to Madison, it is perhaps woefully short at 250 pages for a complete study of the fourth president and founding statesmen. Brookhiser’s strength lies in deconstructing Madison and unveiling his flaws and partisanship, and his political genius as well.

Some on the political right or some classical liberals say we need to go back to the Founding period or we need to follow America’s Founders as if they were all of one accord. They forget even the Founders trampled on the constitution with measures like the Alien and Sedition Acts or the Louisiana Purchase when it suited them. Brookhiser concludes that while politics has changed, it has not to the degree that “would make it unrecognizable” to Madison.

“His intelligence and his knowledge of history showed him how this tension between different political spheres could be built into the Constitution as a bulwark of liberty, though he came to believe that appealing to popular opinion through the arts of argument and politics was a bulwark at least as strong.” says Brookhiser. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” said Madison. That we do have a government that has lasted for 225 years is a testament to this great man. And he would be the first to say it could be improved and fight for that improvement.

In my commentary this week, I reflect on the unemployment rate of many newly separated military veterans of our Armed Forces. The grim jobs outlook affects our reservists and National Guard forces too. As You Were, a book I reviewed on the PowerBlog in late 2009, touched on this topic quite a bit.

My first job out of college was working on veterans issues for former Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) I was able to meet and get to know combat veterans from battles like Okinawa, the Chosin Reservoir and Khe Sanh. It was a rewarding and educational experience.

I suspect we will hear more from Washington about how to solve this problem with additional centralized government action. But we already have real commitments and promises to veterans that must be honored and a debt of $15 trillion and growing that is staring down at us. My commentary is printed below in its entirety.

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Playing Politics with Unemployed Veterans

Getting the U.S. economy back on a path to solid growth and the job creation engine jumpstarted is dominating the headlines, talk shows and policy debates in Washington right now. Many of the legislative prescriptions focus on the dismal unemployment woes of newly separated military veterans, whose rates outpace the civilian population. The troubling figures reveal a persistently bleak and stagnant economy.

National unemployment currently hovers around 9 percent, while unemployment for veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is more than 13 percent. Veterans in the age group of 18-24 are worse off, with an unemployment rate of 30 percent. Dead last in the Union is Michigan, where 30 percent of all former service members are unemployed.

These numbers may only get more discouraging as defense budget cuts push more and more from the active duty ranks into a weak job market.

Federal legislation passed at the end of last year seeks to address the problem with tax credits for companies who hire veterans. The measure could help some, but tax incentives like these generally offer no substantial improvement for removing people from the unemployment rolls.

Better immediate solutions would be omitting special licenses and training required by states to work in certain fields. There is no reason a combat medic in Iraq should not be able to work as an emergency medical technician. Many already have more training than their civilian counterparts do.

In his election-year State of the Union address, President Barack Obama painted a vision of a post-WWII society where triumphant veterans came back and created the strongest economy in the world. In his words, they understood that they were “part of something larger.” Part of that “something larger” after the defeat of fascism was a growing free economy, but they also faced a long twilight struggle against the spread of communism.

To restore prosperity today, President Obama called for a “common purpose” to rally behind. But the obvious common purpose, the reduction of the staggering national debt, was largely ignored by the commander-in-chief during his address. For the unemployed, all Americans, and a free economy, the debt is the largest obstacle to restoring prosperity and reawakening the most expansive economy the world has ever seen. The failure of the American government to live within its means threatens to eviscerate the promises made to America’s veterans. It is a classic case of one moral failing leading to another.

The “something larger” greeting veterans when they come home today is a national debt of more than $15 trillion and an economy burdened by more and more regulations. The White House has already requested a debt ceiling increase to a whopping $16.4 trillion dollars. So great is the obstacle, and so serious is the threat, Indiana’s governor Mitch Daniels dubbed it “the new Red Menace.”

The threat to veterans is substantial. Although veterans’ benefits are justly generous, the government’s fiscal crisis has put those guarantees at risk. Last year, for the first time, some in Washington talked about the necessity of trimming promised pensions and health benefits for military retirees. Politicians are playing politics with veterans when they talk of reducing promised benefits with one side of their mouth and say they are creating jobs for veterans with the other.

Older military retirees can remember a time when they counted on the promise of free health care for life. Many sacrificed more lucrative private sector careers, nonpayment for overtime, and additional time with their family because of patriotism and promised security. Now they pay premiums for their care.

Thomas Jefferson warned of the moral pitfalls and decay of debt when he said, “The earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation.” Profligate spending in the past undermines our capacity to honor present commitments.

With their skills, work ethic, and patriotism, veterans have the ability to overcome the challenges confronting them. Most businesses and companies want to hire veterans. All they need is some assurance that their prospects going forward will not be dimmed by burdensome regulation or economic instability stemming from federal fiscal irresponsibility.

Washington does not understand there is little to be done in terms of a prescriptive policy to cure veteran unemployment. The oft forgotten Calvin Coolidge once warned, “Unsound economic conditions are not conducive to sound legislation.”

The best cure is still a market unleashed from needless regulation and spending policies that reflect a moral and rational resolve. In the end, a federal government that is broke can do little for veterans who earned and are entitled to benefits already promised.