Daniel Hannan, a British politician and Member of the European Parliament, writes:
I gave the same message everywhere. Americans should cleave to their Jeffersonian heritage.
Normally I would shoot mental shockwaves of negative energy towards any man who uttered such blasphemy. But I read on and Hannan was kind enough to publish an email from Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell has a much different (and accurate) take on Mr. Jefferson.
Jefferson may have said that that government is best which governs least, but he never had a useful thought about how to keep limits on government except to recommend revolution in every generation. Which is of course disastrous. But he was a very silly man—a true, because superficial and calculating, product of the Enlightenment.
Ebell proceeds to carefully delineate the differences between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Ebell’s preference for Adams shines through.
Unlike Jefferson, Adams was obsessed with how to keep elites in check by dividing power and balancing power against power. In this he is in the tradition of Harrington and Montesquieu and Hume rather than of Locke (Jefferson on the other hand admired Rousseau). He was the deepest thinker of the Revolution and also the most important political figure (as distinguished from leader)—he made the strategy that led to independence, he led the public campaign for independence, and was the leading proponent for independence in the Continental Congress both rhetorically and behind the scenes.
Mr. Ebell, if I ever meet you, the next beer is on me.
I’ll admit to a certain bias when it comes to Mr. Jefferson. My doctoral dissertation was, in essence, a diatribe on why the Jefferson/Rousseau philosophy was leading us down a path of destruction and it continues to annoy and distress me when I see conservatives hold Jefferson up to such lofty standards. The man was no conservative—in any sense of the term. The fact that he claimed to support limited government makes him no different than any of his peers, and in fact—as Ebell aludes to—his ultimate governing philosophy had quite the opposite impact. His true progeny are men like FDR and Barack Obama, not Ronald Reagan.
I’ve said on this very blog that some of these abstract academic musings are somewhat futile because America is not a deeply ideological country. I stand by that, but it is important to have some kind of grasp of our philosophical heritage. We need to understand that there are two decidedly different pathways: the path of Jefferson and Rousseau, and the path of Adams and Edmund Burke. Choose wisely.