Monticello's New Democrat

By West, John G., Jr. | Policy Review, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Monticello's New Democrat


West, John G., Jr., Policy Review


First there was Bill Clinton's well-publicized pilgrimage to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's mountain-top estate. Next came his pre-inauguration bus trip, retracing the route Jefferson travelled to his own inauguration in 1801. Finally, in his inaugural address, President Clinton invoked Jefferson by name and paid homage to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as America's founding ideals.

During last year's campaign, Mr. Clinton fashioned himself as the successor to John F. Kennedy, making much of his decision to enter politics after shaking hands with President Kennedy at the White House. But now that he is in office, President Clinton's role model of choice seems to be Thomas Jefferson, the nation's first Democratic president. Since April 1993 marks Jefferson's 250th birthday, Mr. Clinton may be expected to make further appeals to the author of the Declaration of Independence in the days ahead.

There are, in fact, some intriguing parallels between Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton. Both men served as governors of their respective southern states. Both unseated unpopular Yankee-bred presidents who previously had served as vice-presidents. Both survived bruising election campaigns largely dominated by attacks on their personal characters.

"A Wise and Frugal Government"

If the similarities are striking, however, the differences are more so. Jefferson was an unflinching champion of limited government, low taxes, and federalism. Although Mr. Clinton campaigned as a "new Democrat," he has yet to show enthusiasm in office for any of those causes. Still, there may be a glimmer of hope in President Clinton's desire to compare himself to the sage of Monticello. For if there is one former president from whom Mr. Clinton could learn a great deal, it certainly is Jefferson.

Mr. Clinton might start with Jefferson's appreciation for limited government. Despite the president's symbolic attacks on government waste and his pledges to trim the federal bureaucracy by "attrition," his overarching vision of public life remains startlingly paternalistic. Indeed, in his inaugural address, Mr. Clinton expressly employed the metaphor of child-rearing in articulating his agenda. "We must provide for our nation," he said, "the way a family provides for its children."

Jefferson would have recoiled at such a metaphor. In his own first inaugural address, he explained that the one thing needful for "a happy and a prosperous people" is "a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." According to Jefferson, the limited -- albeit crucial -- function of government is to protect people in the exercise of their natural freedoms to speak and act, confined only by the dictates of the moral law. The best way government can do this is by preserving public order; then government should stay out of the way.

Jefferson was wary about government action because he knew that it is a two-edged sword. While government is supposed to be the defender of unalienable rights, it also can turn into their greatest enemy. The ever-present danger is that government will overreach its legitimate boundaries and usurp the people's freedoms, especially through profligate spending, which will eventually require punitive taxes in order to reduce the national debt.

Profusion and Servitude

Liberals, who typically praise Jefferson for his views on civil liberties, usually overlook his views on taxes and spending. What they fail to understand is that, in Jefferson's view, frugal government -- and low taxes -- constitute the most basic preconditions of civil liberty. Citizens cannot be free to criticize the government if they are reduced by heavy taxes to complete dependence upon government largesse. …

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