Magazine article Insight on the News

A Dubious Link with Jefferson

Magazine article Insight on the News

A Dubious Link with Jefferson

Article excerpt

Bill Clinton arrived in the nation's capital at the head of a jubilant cavalcade from Charlottesville, Va. By touring the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson, he sought to link in the public mind the names of William Jefferson Clinton and the revered author of the Declaration of Independence.

There are indeed some interesting similarities between the two. Clinton is a lawyer who served as a Southern governor; so was Jefferson. Both ran as Democrats, although Jefferson's Democratic Republican Party proved to be the forerunner of both of today's major parties.

Both men became president after 12 years' control of the executive branch by the opposing party. In each case, an older president's (Washington's and Reagan's) enormous popularity collapsed during his final two years (because of, respectively, Jay's Treaty and the Iran-Contra affair). In each case that president was succeeded by a vice president (John Adams and George Bush) plagued by rising unpopularity and a serious split in his own party.

Both Jefferson and Clinton were elected without a majority -- the former in the Electoral College, the latter in the popular vote. Both claimed to have led a revolution against rule by the rich and commercial classes in favor of the common citizen.

These similarities appear to end with a comparison of the two presidents' political principles. Jefferson's eloquently expressed philosophy of government would put him today, somewhere to the libertarian side of Ronald Reagan, while Clinton envisions a larger, more activist, more expensive and more powerful national government.

In words of admirable clarity, Jefferson urged upon his fellow citizens "a wise and fellow government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."

To Jefferson, this was not idle political rhetoric. As president, he enthusiastically set out to shrink the size of government, under the banner of "economy and liberty," the antithesis of "profusion and servitude:" Half the young republic's embassies abroad (Berlin, Lisbon and The Hague) were summarily closed. The Army was slashed to about 3,000 regulars, stretched along a frontier from the Sraits of Mackinac off Michigan to the Alabama Gulf Coast. "Uncertain as we must ever be of the particular point in our circumference where an enemy may choose to invade us," he was later to write, "the only force which can be ready at every point and competent to oppose them is the body of neighboring citizens as formed into a Militia!" Like all good Whigs, Jefferson dreaded a standing army as a threat to liberty and a chronic stimulus to meddle in the interminable conflicts among foreign powers.

Jefferson's remarkable fiscal program was largely the work of his brilliant Treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin. Gallatin had argued in the Cabinet with telling effect that if the administration could not extinguish the national debt and abolish taxes; it could never be done, and hapless future generations would be sorely afflicted by all the Hamiltonian evils of oppressive taxation, moneyed influence, foreign adventurism and proliferating government.

Accordingly, Jefferson's first annual message to Congress recommended allocating $7.3 million of the $10.5 million expected from the existing revenue base to pay interest on and help retire the $83 million national debt. By assigning a like amount every year until 1818, the debt would be retired. …

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