Thomas Jefferson – a disorientated land reformer

38 Jefferson pic2

By Karl Williams

“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.”

“Wherever in any country there are idle lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.”

“If for the encouragement of industry we allow [land] to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation.”

Thomas Jefferson – author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, third president of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia – voiced the aspirations of a young and idealistic America as no other individual of his era. As public official, historian and philosopher, he served his country for over five decades.

His father was a successful planter and surveyor and his mother a member of one of Virginia’s most distinguished families. Having inherited a considerable landed estate, he also inherited something that was to go directly against the grain of his professed ideals and, indeed, cast a shadow over the clarity of his thinking in other areas. For Jefferson inherited slaves and in a typical year owned about 200, almost half of them under the age of sixteen. This, from the celebrated advocate of human liberty!

Jefferson practiced law and served in local government as a magistrate, county lieutenant, and member of the House of Burgesses in his early professional life. As a member of the Continental Congress, he was chosen in 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence, which has been regarded ever since as a charter of American and universal liberties. The document proclaims that all men are equal in rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, and that the government is the servant, not the master, of the people.

In years following he labored to make its words a reality in Virginia. After he left Congress in 1776, he returned to Virginia and served in the legislature. Elected governor from 1779 to 1781, he most notably wrote a bill establishing religious freedom, enacted in 1786.

In 1784, he entered public service again, in France, first as trade commissioner and then as Benjamin Franklin’s successor as minister to France in 1785. During this period, he avidly studied European culture, sending home books, seeds and plants, statues, architectural drawings and scientific instruments.

Sharp political conflict developed back home, and two separate parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, began to form. Jefferson gradually assumed leadership of the Republicans, who sympathized with the revolutionary cause in France. Attacking Federalist policies, he opposed a strong centralized Government and championed the rights of states.
When Jefferson assumed the Presidency in 1801, the crisis in France had passed. He slashed army and navy expenditures, cut the budget, eliminated the tax on whiskey so unpopular in the West, yet still reduced the national debt by a third. Jefferson was also chiefly responsible for the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803.

His second term (1805-09) was a time when he encountered more difficulties on both the domestic and foreign fronts, and is most remembered for his efforts to maintain neutrality in the midst of the conflict between Britain and France – alas, his efforts did not avert war with Britain in 1812. Jefferson embarked on his last great public service at the age of 76, with the founding of the prestigious University of Virginia.

In religion as in politics, Jefferson’s bedrock principle was to leave independent men with the liberty to decide for themselves. Thus, the separation of church and state was a first principle. Over time, the tide of revolution began to work in this direction, and priorities of state began to take precedence over the prerogatives of the church. The first major step in this direction occurred when all Anglican clergy were removed from the government payroll.

It must be admitted that his quotes featured above are not representative of his economic outlook. He massive output of writings and correspondence testify to his wish to wisely guide a new nation, but they also are testament to his many inconsistencies and downright conflicts (“don’t mention the slaves!”). Like a true geoist, he was fundamentally a libertarian, but where he deviates badly off course is his frequent confusion between land and capital. Whereas geoists declare everybody has the right to equal opportunity through equal access to land and natural resources, Jefferson formed a somewhat shaky base for his economic principles with countless vague assertions such as “A right to property is founded in our natural wants, in the means with which we are endowed to satisfy these wants, and the right to what we acquire by those means without violating the similar rights of other sensible beings.” Well, yeah – but what do you mean by “property”, Tom?

He became more discriminating when he started to write about the different rights people had to moveable and immoveable property, but then again lost the plot when he wrote how government should allow people the right to own their land as long as they were working it … “but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it.” It gets even worse with silly utterances such as “Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society.”

Look, there are too many American readers for me to continue bagging their national icon – let’s just say that the confusing tax circumstances of a nation ready for war (“War requires every resource of taxation and credit”) led to him taking his eye off the geoist ball.