Thomas Jefferson's Political and Economic Vision

Thomas Jefferson’s Ward Republic Model

Thomas Jefferson did not see the American system as the best possible system. In his original draft of The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had blamed the British monarch for allowing the institution of slavery to exist:

“[The present king of Great Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere…”—Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence [in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters

While Jefferson was no abolitionist saint—owning slaves himself and having many other failings—he did recognize the injustice of the institution of slavery and desired its abolition. The failure to abolish slavery was one of America's biggest faults.

The American system, enshrined in the current Constitution, was a mess of compromises with the institution of slavery. In order to get the pro-slavery lot on board with the Constitution, the Founding Fathers had to make a series of compromises, giving us the Electoral College, the Senate, the three-fifths clause, and the Executive Branch—all extremely anti-democratic and anti-republican measures. These compromises were mostly made to ensure that the institution of slavery could not be democratically abolished. We ended up not with a true republic, as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson had hoped for, but rather with a mixed-government as envisioned by John Adams. The original constitution, The Articles of Confederation, was a much better one, but it had to be scrapped in order to compromise with fascists and racists because the Founding Fathers knew that the colonies could not successfully stand up to Britain unless they were all united in their opposition to the crown.

Jefferson saw the United States as a confederation. The states themselves were sovereign nations. And he always referred to himself as a citizen of Virginia, rather than as an American. Jefferson was a republican (an advocate of representative democracy) and he saw the American system, while much better than the previous arrangement, as deeply flawed and in need of reform.

“The purest republican feature in the government of our own State, is the House of Representatives. The Senate is equally so the first year, less the second, and so on. The Executive still less, because not chosen by the people directly. The Judiciary seriously anti-republican, because for life; and the national arm wielded, as you observe, by military leaders, irresponsible but to themselves…. And add, also, that one half of our brethren who fight and pay taxes, are excluded, like Helots, from the rights of representation, as if society were instituted for the soil, and not for the men inhabiting it; or one half of these could dispose of the rights and the will of the other half, without their consent….
“In the General Government, the House of Representatives is mainly republican; the Senate scarcely so at all, as not elected by the people directly, and so long secured even against those who do elect them; the Executive more republican than the Senate, from its shorter term….
“If, then, the control of the people over the organs of their government be the measure of its republicanism, and I confess I know no other measure, it must be agreed that our governments have much less of republicanism than ought to have been expected; in other words, that the people have less regular control over their agents, than their rights and their interests require.”—Thomas Jefferson, The Test of Republicanism, to John Taylor in 1816 [in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters]

Jefferson saw the anti-democratic and anti-republican compromises as deeply problematic. Jefferson had a vision of social order that was much closer to anarchism than to anything else. He wanted government divided into subunits, small enough to allow for direct participation at the local level. This was, more or less, a vision of direct democracy. Representation would come into play only at higher levels of organization, where direct participation is not feasible. At these higher levels of government, representation needs to be equal.

“The question you propose, on equal representation…[my view] coincides with your own. At the birth of our republic, I committed that opinion to the world, in the draught of a constitution annexed to the “Notes on Virginia,” in which a provision was inserted for a representation permanently equal….
“But inequality of representation in both Houses of our legislature, is not the only republican heresy in this first essay of our revolutionary patriots at forming a constitution. For let it be agreed that a government is republican in proportion as every member composing it has his equal voice in the direction of its concerns (not indeed in person, which would be impracticable beyond the limits of a city, or small township, but) by representatives chosen by himself, and responsible to him at short periods, and let us bring to the test of this canon every branch of our constitution.
“In the legislature, the House of Representatives is chosen by less than half the people, and not at all in proportion to those who do choose. The Senate are still more disporortionate, and for long terms of irresponsibility. In the Executive, the Governor is entirely independent of the choice of the people, and of their control; his Council equally so, and at best but a fifth wheel to a wagon. In the Judiciary, the judges of the highest courts are dependent on none but themselves. In England, where judges were named and removable at the will of an hereditary executive, from which branch most misrule was feared, and has flowed, it was a great point gained, by fixing them for life, to make them independent of that executive. But in a government founded on the public will, this principle operates in an opposite direction, and against that will. There, too, they were still removable on a concurrence of the executive and legislative branches. But we have made them independent of the nation itself…. Where then is our republicanism to be found? Not in our constitution certainly, but merely in the spirit of our people. That would oblige even a despot to govern us republicanly. Owing to this spirit, and to nothing in the form of our constitution, all things have gone well. But this fact, so triumphantly misquoted by the enemies of reformation, is not the fruit of our constitution, but has prevailed in spite of it.”—Thomas Jefferson, Reform of the Virginia Constitution, to Samuel Kercheval in 1816 [in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters]

Jefferson also contends that the rights of full citizenship and enfranchisement (i.e. ability to vote) ought to automatically be conferred on anyone who pays taxes or serves in the armed forces. The legislature ought to be a deliberative assembly, where representatives discuss and debate policy issues before voting on them:

“The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management…. Reduce your legislature to a convenient number for full, but orderly discussion. Let every man who fights or pays, exercise his just and equal right in their election. Submit them to approbation or rejection at short intervals.”—Thomas Jefferson, Reform of the Virginia Constitution, to Samuel Kercheval in 1816 [in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters]

Jefferson goes on to advocate a radical form of republicanism that is extremely decentralized and directly democratic at the local level. This Jeffersonian model of radical republicanism resembles the types of systems proposed by left-libertarians and anarchists.

“The organization of our county administrations may be thought more difficult. But follow principle, and the knot unties itself. Divide the counties into wards of such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person. Ascribe to them the government in their wards in all things relating to themselves exclusively. A justice, chosen by themselves, in each, a constable, a military company, a patrol, a school, the care of their own poor, their own portion of the public roads, the choice of one or more jurors to serve in some court, and the delivery, within their own wards, of their own votes for all elective officers of higher sphere, will relieve the county administration of nearly all its business, will have it better done, and by making every citizen an acting member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and its republican constitution. The justices thus chosen by every ward, would constitute the county court, would do its judiciary business, direct roads and bridges, levy county and poor rates, and administer all the matters of common interest to the whole country. These wards, called townships in New England, are the vital principle of their governments, and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation. We should thus marshall our government into, 1, the general federal republic, for all concerns foreign and federal; 2, that of the State, for what relates to our own citizens exclusively; 3, the county republics, for the duties and concerns of the county; and 4, the ward republics, for the small, and yet numerous and interesting concerns of the neighborhood; and in government, as well as in every other business of life, it is by division and subdivision of duties alone, that all matters, great and small, can be managed to perfection. And the whole is cemented by giving to every citizen, personally, a part in the administration of the public affairs.”—Thomas Jefferson, Reform of the Virginia Constitution, to Samuel Kercheval in 1816 [in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters]

The term “anarchism” had not been coined yet, but Jefferson here espouses a ward republicanism that resembles the model proposed by classical anarchism. Many left-libertarians and anarchists have espoused very similar ideas—e.g. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (mutualist anarchism), Mikhail Bakunin (collectivist anarchism); Peter Kropotkin (communist anarchism), Fred Foldvary (cellular democracy), Murray Bookchin (libertarian municipalism), Leopold Kohr (small-cell federalism), and Abdullah Öcalan (democratic confederalism), etc. These thinkers all envisioned a radically decentralized confederation with direct democracy at the local level and delegative/representative democracy for higher spheres of governance. In light of the similarities between Jeffersonian democracy and anarchism, it is easy to see how Benjamin Tucker could remark that “Anarchists are simply unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats.”

While the ideas of Jeffersonian democracy and radical republicanism resemble anarchism, Jefferson’s politics was basically center-left. Thomas Jefferson was a conservative progressive or a radical centrist. He was opposed to insurrectionary violence and unnecessary revolutions. He, like Edmund Burke, valued security, stability, peace, and social order. He would have been no friend to the insurrectionary anarchist.

“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”—Thomas Jefferson, Reform of the Virginia Constitution, to Samuel Kercheval in 1816 [in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters]

Here, in Jefferson’s conservatism, we find something that he got right and that many revolutionaries and radicals have gotten wrong over the years. Revolutions and insurrections are destabilizing and undesirable. People die in every revolution and human lives are irreplaceable. Revolution is only a last resort. Being too conservative or regressive leads to revolution, so ultra-conservatism is self-defeating. Jefferson contended that European rulers’ refusal to change was the real cause of the regular insurrections and revolutions that take place. So, to avoid revolution, we must allow for progress and change. Jefferson’s analysis agrees with that of Edmund Burke, the founder of conservatism. There is a difference of degree, not of principle, here.

“Let us follow no such examples [as those European monarchies that refuse to change], nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs…. And lastly, let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods. What these periods should be, nature herself indicates. By the European table of mortality, of the adults living at any one moment in time, a majority will be dead in about nineteen years. At the end of that period, then, a new majority is come into place; or, in other words, a new generation. Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accomodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself, that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind, that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years, should be provided by the constitution; so that it may be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to generation, to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure…. This corporeal globe, and everything upon it, belong to its present corporeal inhabitants, during their generation. They alone have a right to direct what is the concern of themselves alone, and to declare the law of that direction; and this declaration can only be made by their majority. That majority, then, has a right to depute representatives to a convention, and to make the constitution what they think will be the best for themselves. But how collect their voice? This is the real difficulty. If invited by private authority, or county or district meetings, these divisions are so large that few will attend; and their voice will be imperfectly, or falsely pronounced. Here, then, would be one of the advantages of the ward divisions I have proposed. The mayor of every ward, on a question like the present, would call his ward together, take the simple yea or nay of its members, convey these to the proper general authority; and the voice of the whole people would be thus fairly, fully, and peaceably expressed, discussed, and decided by the common reason of the society. If this avenue be shut to the call of sufferance, it will make itself heard through that of force, and we shall go on, as other nations are doing, in the endless circle of oppressions, rebellions, reformation; and oppression, rebellion, reformation, again; and so on forever.”—Thomas Jefferson, Reform of the Virginia Constitution, to Samuel Kercheval in 1816 [in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters]

Thus, Jefferson envisioned a radical republicanism so democratic as to render revolution permanently unnecessary—insurrections and rebellions would never again occur. His vision was deeply conservative but also very progressive and radical to the core.

Thomas Jefferson’s Political Economy

Jefferson thought that the success of a republic required a good deal of egalitarianism. You cannot allow extreme inequality to exist, otherwise the wealthy will buy politicians and republicanism will give way to plutocracy and oligarchy. Thomas Jefferson envisioned what can best be described as a decentralized, georgist, and distributist form of social democracy—admittedly, these terms (“georgism,” “distributism,” “social democracy”) had not yet been coined, so it is anachronistic to use these terms in reference to Jefferson’s ideas. Nevertheless, these anachronistic terms do give us the most accurate description.

Capitalism is a system in which capital dominates and labor serves. There is private ownership of the means of production, but productive property is monopolized by a relatively small minority of the population—the vast majority own no productive property and, therefore, have no choice but to rent themselves out to the capitalist class as wage-laborers in order to survive. Socialism, or collective ownership of the means of production, seeks to remedy this by eliminating private ownership altogether. Distributism is a third way, between capitalism and socialism, in which all people (or nearly all people) own some productive property. None of these terms were in use when Jefferson was writing, as the terms had yet to be coined, but Jefferson was clearly a distributist. He saw the widespread distribution of property in America as one of its greatest features.

In Jefferson’s day, capitalism had just taken hold in Europe. The United States was not yet capitalistic, as industrialism and wage labor were not yet common. Jefferson observed that this new system in Great Britain was impoverishing the working class and he equated wage labor with slavery.

“A comparison of the conditions of Great Britain & the US. which is the subject of your letter of Aug. 17. would be an interesting theme indeed. to discuss it minutely and demonstratively would be far beyond the limits of a letter. I will give you therefore, in brief only, the result of my reflections on the subject. I agree with you in your facts, and in many of your reflections. my conclusion is without doubt, as I am sure yours will be, when the appeal to your sound judgment is seriously made. The population of England is composed of three descriptions of persons, (for those of minor note are too inconsiderable to affect a general estimate) these are 1. the Aristocracy, comprehending the Nobility, the wealthy commoners, the high grades of priesthood, and the officers of government. 2. the laboring class. 3. the eleemosinary class, or paupers, who are about one fifth of the whole. the Aristocracy, which has the laws and government in their hands, have so managed them as to reduce the 3d description below the means of supporting life, even by labor; and to force the 2d whether employed in agriculture or the arts, to the maximum of labor which the construction of the human body can endure, & to the minimum of food, & of the meanest kind, which will preserve it in life, and in strength sufficient to perform it’s functions. to obtain food enough, and clothing, not only their whole strength must be unremittingly exerted, but the utmost dexterity also which they can acquire; and those of great dexterity only can keep their ground; while those of less must sink into the class of paupers. nor is it manual dexterity alone, but the acutest resources of the mind also which are impressed into this struggle for life; and such as have means a little above the rest, as the master workmen for instance, must strengthen themselves by acquiring as much of the philosophy of their trade as will enable them to compete with their rivals, & keep themselves above ground. hence the industry & manual dexterity of their journeymen & day-laborers, and the science of their master-workmen keep them in the foremost ranks of competition with those of other nations, and the less dexterous individuals, falling into the eleemosinary ranks furnish materials for armies & navies to defend their country, exercise piracy on the ocean, and carry conflagration, plunder and devastation on the shores of all those who endeavor to withstand their aggressions. a society thus constituted possesses certainly the means of defence. but what does it defend? the pauperism of the lowest class, the abject oppression of the laboring, and the luxury, the riot, the domination, & the vicious happiness of the Aristocracy. in their hands, the paupers are used as tools to maintain their own wretchedness, and to keep down the laboring portion by shooting them whenever the desperation produced by the cravings of their stomachs drives them into riots. such is the happiness of scientific England: now let us see the American side of the medal.

“And, first, we have no Paupers. the old and crippled among us, who possess nothing and have no families to take care of them, being too few to merit notice as a separate section of society, or to affect a general estimate. the great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above meer decency, to labor moderately and raise their families. they are not driven to the ultimate resources of dexterity and skill, because their wares will sell, altho’ not quite so nice as those of England. the wealthy, on the other hand, and those at their ease, know nothing of what the Europeans call Luxury. they have only somewhat more of the comforts & decencies of life than those who furnish them. can any condition of society be more desirable than this? Nor in the class of laborers do I mean to withold from the comparison that portion whose color has condemned them, in certain parts of our Union, to a subjection to the will of others. even these are better fed in these states, warmer clothed, & labor less than the journeymen or day laborers of England. they have the comfort too of numerous families, in the midst of whom they live, without want, or the fear of it; a solace which few of the laborers of England possess. they are subject, it is true, to bodily coercion: but are not the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers & seamen subject to the same, without seeing, at the end of their career, & when age & acciden[t] shall have rendered them unequal to labor, the certainty, which the other has, that he will never want? and has not the British seaman, as much as the African been reduced to this bondage by force, in flagrant violation of his own consent, and of his natural right in his own person? and with the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of thei[r] employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman or the slave? but do not mistake me. I am not advocating slavery. I am not justifying the wrongs we have committed on a foreign people, by the example of another nation committing equal wrongs on their own subjects. on the contrary there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity. but I am at present comparing the condition & degree of suffering to which oppression has reduced the man of one color, with the condition and degree of suffering to which oppression has reduced the man of another color; equally condemning both. now let us compute by numbers the sum of happiness of the two countries. in England, happiness is the lot of the Aristocracy only; and what proportion they bear to the laborers & paupers you know better than I do. were I to guess that they are 4. in every hundred, then the happiness of the nation would be to it’s misery as 1. to 25. in the US. it is as 8. millions to Zero, or as all to none.”—Thomas Jefferson, To Thomas Cooper, 10 September 1814 [from]

Jefferson, of course, has exaggerated his case here, but his argument still stands. America, unlike Britain and other places in Europe, had a largely agrarian and distributist economy. Jefferson saw this as America’s virtue. He believed that the preservation of this relatively egalitarian and distributist economy was necessary for the preservation of the republic.

“This little attendrissement, with the solitude of my walk, led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe.

“The property of this country is absolutely concentrated in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downwards. These employ the flower of the country as servants, some of them having as many as 200 domestics, not laboring. They employ also a great number of manufacturers and tradesmen, and lastly the class of laboring husbandmen. But after all there comes the most numerous of all classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work.... I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable, but the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree, is a politic measure and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment, but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land.”—Thomas Jefferson, Property and Natural Right, to James Madison in 1785 [in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters]

Here, Jefferson shines through as both a distributist and a georgist. Like Hilaire Belloc, he advocates a differential tax in order to keep a small group from owning too much of the land and natural resources of the nation. Like Henry George and Thomas Paine, he advocates a land value tax or ground-rent: “who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent.” Elsewhere, more explicitly, he had suggested that ““a land tax supply the means by which the individual States were to contribute their quotas of revenue to the Federal Government.” (Cf. Fred Foldvary, The Ultimate Tax Reform: Public Revenue from Land Rent) Georgism holds that all people are entitled to the product of their own labor, so taxes should be levied only against non-productive or destructive activities. People are entitled to the product of their own labor, not to the value produced by nature and society. Georgism’s land value tax seeks to fund government without taxing productive activity. An added benefit of land value tax is that it also prohibits excessive concentrations of land and natural resources, thereby facilitating a widespread distribution of ownership throughout society. This is why advocates of distributism—like Thomas Jefferson and John Médaille—have also been advocates of georgism. The one is a means to the other. They are complementary.

Jefferson saw the ownership economy, the distributist vision of a society in which most people own some means of production for themselves, as the ideal we ought to strive for. It is upon this economic model that republicanism rests. If ownership becomes concentrated into the hands of the few (capitalism), then republican democracy as a form of government is doomed to fail. Once the wealthy become too powerful, they will use their wealth to subvert democracy. To Thomas Jefferson, geo-distributism (a synthesis of distributism and georgism) is the economic foundation of the republic, the way of preserving republican liberty and allowing democracy to work.

Jefferson also notes that the wards—the most local level of governance, which are to be directly democratic—ought to be responsible for “the care of their own poor.” (Cf. Jefferson, To Samuel Kercheval, 1816) Then, with apparent approval, Jefferson remarks on the role that the parish, as a civil institution, held in colonial Virginia, noting how public revenue was used for welfare purposes:

“The poor, unable to support themselves, are maintained by an assessment on the titheable persons in their parish. This assessment is levied and administered by twelve persons in each parish, called vestrymen, originally chosen by the housekeepers of each parish, but afterwards filling vacancies in their own body by their own choice. These are usually the most discreet farmers, so distributed through their parish, that every part of it may be under the immediate eye of some one of them. They are well acquainted with the details and economy of private life, and they find sufficient inducement to execute their charge well, in their philanthropy, in the approbation of their neighbors, and the distinction which that gives them. The poor who have neither property, friends, nor strength to labour, are boarded in the houses of good farmers, to whom a stipulated sum is annually paid. To those who are able to help themselves a little, or have friends from whom they derive some succours, inadequate however to their full maintenance, supplementary aids are given, which enable them to live comfortably in their own houses, or in the houses of their friends. Vagabonds, without visible property or vocation, are placed in workhouses, where they are well cloathed, fed, lodged, and made to labour. Nearly the same method of providing for the poor prevails through all our States….”—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia [in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters]

We see here a decentralized take on social democracy. Thomas Jefferson, along with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, was also a supporter of an early version of single-payer healthcare and of socialized medicine. In fact, in 1798, the Founding Fathers passed legislation that (1) established a mandatory payroll tax on privately employed sailors, which was to fund health insurance for those sailors, and (2) established government-owned hospitals at port cities. (Cf. Rick Ungar, Congress Passes Socialized Medicine and Mandates Health Insurance - In 1798 and Thomas Jefferson Also Supported Government Run Health Care)

Thomas Jefferson envisioned a confederation of decentralized, geo-distributist, and social democratic municipalities.

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