JOHN CHUCKMAN COMMENT: JEFFERSON AND THE CATO INSTITUTE   Leave a comment

JOHN CHUCKMAN
 
POSTED RESPONSE TO A COLUMN BY CLIVE CROOK IN THE FINANCIAL TIMES

The Cato Institute is an American think-tank, which is the same thing as saying a well-financed propaganda mill posing as something of an academic institution.

The distinguishing fact comes down to purpose: outfits like Cato – whose biggest financial backer in the past was Koch Oil – have an agenda; academic institutions do not.

So I take every publication from these people with a grain of salt, something experience warrants.

“Whereas Jefferson trusted decentralization and wanted diffuse communities making political decisions, Hamilton looked to a strong central authority to guide the nation.”

This misrepresents and even distorts the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson. It is the kind of common view often found in local newspapers, but scholars should do better than that.

Jefferson definitely had a dark side, and there are views of his which border on what we might expect from Pol Pot.

He did not believe in industry. He believed in the sturdy yeoman farmer.

He of course spoke of liberty, but as the great Dr. Johnson pointed out it was outrageous for the “drivers of negroes” to speak of liberty.

Johnson also had Jefferson in mind when he called patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels.

Jefferson owned about two hundred slaves to his dying day, and never even wavered in embracing the institution. It was the way he had the leisure to follow his interests. He still managed to die a bankrupt, his tastes so outran his ability to earn.

Jefferson wrote bluntly in his Notes on Virginia about black inferiority, and he never recanted those views.

Indeed, when the slaves of Haiti rebelled against the French, Jefferson supported the French, and strongly. He assisted Napoleon in his efforts to re-conquer the poor slaves.

Jefferson was totally inconsistent on liberty versus centralism also. He put in place an embargo against Britain that bankrupted hundreds of small businesses and merchants in New England. He used very heavy-handed measures. There was an atmosphere for a while that smelled of Stalinism.

And there was the bitter irony that in an earlier embargo when he was not in office and building Monticello, he bought British-made custom windows for his dream house, deliberately breaking the embargo. The legitimacy of rules for Jefferson very much depended upon whether they hurt his interests or the interests of others.

Jefferson also exceeded his then-understood Constitutional authority by purchasing the Louisiana territory from his friend Napoleon. He knew this himself, but never hesitated because it was what he wanted.

The dark and anti-liberty side of Jefferson’s character is displayed in his vicious vendetta against Aaron Burr, a man he hated because he almost won the presidency instead of Jefferson, the inadequate election rules of the time making it possible for a man who ran nominally for vice-president to be elected as president.

Jefferson was a vicious dirty fighter too. His hiring – while working in the cabinet of George Washington – of two attack writers, Freneau and Callendar (on the government payroll), to make ugly attacks against Washington’s government showed a very dark side of his character.

He ended falling out with both of these men. One of them then proceeded to uncover the story of Jefferson’s use of his slave, Sally Hemmings, as mistress. The girl would have been about thirteen-years old when Jefferson first hit on her. The writer ended up dead in very questionable circumstances.

Jefferson, despite his pretenses to modernity was actually in many ways backward. Hamilton was not only his intellectual superior but was a man of such modern temperament that had he been permitted to time-travel to the present, he would have fairly quickly taken in what had happened and he would devour the details. Jefferson would have been in a state of shock and indeed would be repelled by much of contemporary society: it goes almost entirely against his honest-yeoman fantasy.

Hamilton contributed more to the early United States than perhaps any other figure. From central-banking concepts to decimal coinage and a whole lot more. He was urban and progressive and open to new things, and he had been Washington’s indispensable man, writing most of his speeches, suggesting strategies.

Again, a dark episode of Jefferson’s career includes having one of his associates visit Hamilton in private at the time Hamilton was involved in an affair with a scheming woman to threaten him with exposure if the Jeffersonians did not get their way on a certain issue. Quite contemptible actually.

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