Daniel Hannan MEP: Thomas Jefferson, Anglosphere hero
Daniel Hannan is an MEP for the South East and blogs for the Daily Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter. He is pictured above at Monticello last week speaking to the Fund for American Studies
When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he included a wistful line that was excised by the other signatories: ‘We might have been a great and free people together’.
Until that moment, the idea that Americans were engaged in a war against a foreign power would have struck Patriots and Loyalists alike as bizarre. Jefferson, like other Virginia radicals, saw himself as a British Whig, heir to the tradition of Edward Coke (1552–1634), John Hampden (1595–1643) and Algernon Sidney (1623–1683). He did not believe he was laying claim to any new rights; rather, he was defending the liberties that he assumed he had been born with as an Englishman. Right up to the end, he had hoped that such liberties might flourish under the Crown, but George III dashed his ambition. We sense Jefferson’s bitterness in the Declaration’s telling complaint about the king ‘transporting hither foreign mercenaries’. Foreign! How historians have glossed over the significance of that word. In sending his Hessian hirelings against Britons, the Hanoverian monarch was in effect annulling their nationality.
The American Revolution is now described with anachronistic terminology. History books and tour guides talk about how, in 1775, minutemen and militias swarmed to resist ‘the British’ – language that no one would or could have used at the time. Everyone involved was British, and public opinion in the British Isles was divided in exactly the same way as in the colonies. The American conflict was, in truth, a settlement by force of the ancient Tory–Whig dispute which, at least in New England, had passed the point of peaceful resolution. What we now call the American War of Independence would more accurately be termed the Second Anglosphere Civil War – the First having been fought across England, Scotland, Ireland and America in the 1640s.
For all that, though, we can’t fail to admire the fellow. We gape at the range of his intellectual accomplishments: architect, historian, inventor, naturalist, legal theorist, agronomist, master of six languages. We thrill to his rhetoric: ‘The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them!’
One of Jefferson’s biographers wrote that visiting Monticello is the closest we can come to having a conversation with the great man. It’s true. Washington’s frugal home, Mount Vernon, bespeaks the humility of a soldier who renounced supreme power for the sake of his republican principles. Ronald Reagan’s two-bedroom ranch in California tells us of a man too true to himself to be turned by power, a man longing to complete the task which had brought him into public life and retire, as Cincinnatus to the plough.
Monticello, by contrast, is filled by the agitated spirit of its architect: Jefferson the inexhaustible host, Jefferson the constant experimenter, Jefferson the restless polymath – and, yes, Jefferson the English Whig. On the parlour wall are portraits of the three men he venerated above all others: Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke. Jefferson read voraciously in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin and Greek. He knew that enlightened freedom, as he conceived it, was a peculiar characteristic of the English-speaking peoples.
I can’t help feeling that the third president would sob with despair if he could see how the constitution of the republic he founded has been prejudiced. Read this passage from the inauguration speech at the start of his first presidency in 1801 and, as you read, ponder the present state of affairs:
Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.
I was in Monticello as a guest of the Fund for American Studies, which seeks to pass on to students the values of the Founders. Such acts of transmission make a nation: they turn what would otherwise be a random aggregation of individuals who happen to live under one jurisdiction into inheritors of a common patrimony. I spoke, accordingly, about what Jeffersonian principles meant in practice.
Curiously enough, one man who would have disputed my premise was Jefferson himself. Where Edmund Burke defined society as a partnership between the dead, the living and the unborn, his radical contemporary took a markedly different view:
"I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living".
On this question, at least, Jefferson is plain wrong. Such thinking is partly responsible for our debt crisis: the present generation is quite content to sustain a standard of living which it cannot afford by borrowing from posterity.
All the more reason for the Anglosphere peoples to remember who they are. Ours is the civilization that invented limited government. We, uniquely in the world, found mechanisms to hold our leaders to account, to ensure that the law was above the government rather than the other way around, to make the state our servant rather than our master. That tradition – the Whig tradition, for want of a better shorthand – culminated in Jefferson and his contemporaries.
For a century and a half following the American Revolution, Jeffersonian principles made the English-speaking peoples the wealthiest, freest and best-governed on Earth. Power was dispersed, legislators were elected and decisions were taken as closely as possible to the people they affected.
The decline of the Anglosphere precisely matches the decline of those precepts. Government has grown larger and more remote; taxes and spending have risen to levels which English-speakers would have revolted over as recently as a century ago; elected representatives have ceded power to standing bureaucracies. How Jefferson’s shade would groan to look upon our present age. We might have been a great and free people together.