Thomas Jefferson – one of my long-time heroes – was convinced that he and his friends blew the chance they had to establish freedom in America. I know that a hundred thousand self-praising textbooks, speeches, pundits and songs claim that Jefferson and the rest established freedom, but that’s not what Jefferson thought, and it’s not what he said.
Nearly fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, he was of the opinion that the founders didn’t fully live up to the moment presented to them.
Here is a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Cartwright on June 5th, 1824. Jefferson’s words are in plain text and my modern paraphrasing of the lines are in italics:
Our Revolution presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased. Yet we did not avail ourselves of all the advantages of our position.
The Revolution gave us a shot at real liberty, but we blew it.
We had never been permitted to exercise self-government. When forced to assume it, we were novices in its science. Its principles and forms had little entered into our former education. We established, however, some (but not all) of its important principles…
We weren’t prepared for what we had to do.
We think experience has proved the benefit of subjecting questions to two separate bodies of deliberants. But in constituting these bodies, [we have] been mistaken, making one of these bodies, and in some cases both, the representatives of property instead of persons.
We thought our legislative structure would protect us, but they were bought-off right away.
This double deliberation might be obtained just as well without any violation of true principle, either by requiring a greater age in one of the bodies, or by electing a proper number of representatives of persons, or by dividing them by lots into two chambers, and renewing the division at frequent intervals, in order to break up all cabals.
What we really needed was something that would break up parties and factions.
George Washington said almost the same thing about parties, by the way. Here is a section from his Farewell Address of September 17, 1796, with my paraphrasing again:
All combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character…are of a fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction; to give them an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party.
All political groups are fatally dangerous. They gain inappropriate force and displace the will of the people.
A small but artful and enterprising minority of the community, and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans, digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
Small groups of clever and dedicated men will corrupt the actions of government, making it serve their own ends.
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then address popular ends, they are likely to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to usurp for themselves the reins of government.
No matter if these groups do some good things, they will still take over government.
I think history says that Washington was right; parties did destroy the public good, and continue to do so.
And here’s what Samuel Adams thought about the citizens allowing small groups of men (like parties) to choose candidates for them:
I hope the great Business of Elections will never be left by the many, to be done by the few; for before we are aware of it, that few may become the Engine of Corruption–the Tool of a Junta.–Heaven forbid!
And to confirm the corruption of Congress that Thomas Jefferson mentioned, here is a passage from a letter that Samuel Adams wrote to his friend Richard Henry Lee on January 15th, 1781:
Is there not Reason to think that even those who are opposed to our Cause may steal into Places of the highest Trust? I need not remind you that Men of this Character have had Seats in Congress from the beginning.
And just to add one more voice, here is what Benjamin Franklin said to the Constitutional Convention on June 28, 1787:
I believe, farther, that this [constitution] is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.
There is more that could be said on this subject, but it is almost superfluous. What matters is that we get the primary point:
The best of the American Founders were fully convinced
that their shot at freedom would fail or had failed.
So, what does this say about all those fancy speeches and songs about “the land of the free”?
And if we don’t have freedom, what is it that we do have?