Friday, November 30, 2012

Letter: Founding Father avoided fiscal cliffs

Tom Steele writes to wag his finger against public debt, using a quote from Thomas Jefferson.

Mr Steele is here parroting a line that's appearing all over the right-wing blogosphere and in not a few letters to the editor. The quote is from Jefferson's 1816 letter to Samuel Kercheval (click here to see it all), and neglects his main point, which may irk "originalists" like Mr Steele:

"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead.  I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. It is this preposterous idea which has lately deluged Europe in blood. Their monarchs, instead of wisely yielding to the gradual change of circumstances, of favoring progressive accommodation to progressive improvement, have clung to old abuses, entrenched themselves behind steady habits, and obliged their subjects to seek through blood and violence rash and ruinous innovations, which, had they been referred to the peaceful deliberations and collected wisdom of the nation, would have been put into acceptable and salutary forms. Let us follow no such examples, ...."

Jefferson lived and died in an agrarian backwater that we would not recognize as a viable state, let alone the richest and most powerful nation on the planet it is today. His economic sagacity left him perpetually broke. I imagine were he confronted with the challenges of governing this land in the 21st century, he would likely have the humility and wisdom to heed his own advice and avoid foolishly standing on outdated principles.

Further, Sunday: We should also note the context for Jefferson's rant about debt. In 1816 the US had just come through its first war of choice, a disastrous encounter thoughtlessly trumped up for political gain from which we managed to escape only lightly scathed because the British had more serious business to attend in Europe. In those days government borrowing was almost exclusively about financing war. So we may take Jefferson's admonishments, in context, to be against running up debts to finance military adventures, a no-brainer in my book.

1 comment:

Zig E. said...

Great quote ! I've been concerned about this country's almost biblical attitude toward the constitution for some time now. Some on the right seem mere inches away from proclaiming sainthood for the writers of that document. Even when presented with evidence that the founders expected us to rewrite that constitution as needed to fit the times, they still cling to the notion that it is somehow " The Perfect Constitution ". Funny but I bet none of them rely on 18th century firearms when they're screaming about their second amendment rights.