Thomas Jefferson’s Flights of Fancy

Thomas Jefferson, born this week (April 13) in 1743, is — deservedly so — in the pantheon of American heroes.  His Declaration of Independence is the greatest “Mission Statement” ever penned and is one of the three documents on which our nation is founded.  He also brilliantly engineered the Louisiana Purchase, paying just $15 million — about three cents an acre — to acquire territory that doubled America’s size.  And, finally, he led the movement to protect religious freedom for all citizens.

But Jefferson was also — how to put this? — occasionally nuts, and two examples illustrate the point.  In the first example it was his good friend (my hero) James Madison who parried his impractical theory.  In the second it was his good friend John Adams who punctured a hole in his unconscionable theoretical balloon.

In September of 1787 Jefferson wrote to Madison to say that, after much reflection, he had concluded that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” and therefore any laws passed or constitutions fashioned by one generation should have no power over succeeding generations. He added, “If it be enforced longer [than one generation] it is an act of force, not of right.”

Madison, who had just spent five months at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia creating a constitution, was — we can suppose — stunned.  But by nature conciliatory, and well acquainted with his friend Jefferson’s often odd theories, Madison was gentle in his reply. He praised Jefferson for his “many interesting suggestions,” but countered that constitutions needed permanence in order to earn the reverence necessary to be accepted, and obeyed, by the people.  As for passing laws and then scrapping them every generation for new laws, that would essentially result in a lawless society.

Wisely, both Jefferson and Madison let the matter drop.

Years later, in his retirement, Jefferson weighed in on the Missouri Compromise and the controversy over whether slavery should be allowed to expand into the new territories that, ironically, were now U.S. territories because of the Louisiana Purchase.  Jefferson actually supported slavery’s expansion, theorizing that expansion would end slavery, not prolong it.  He wrote, “Diffusion over a greater surface would make slaves individually happier and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation.”

Astonished, his friend John Adams wrote to Jefferson that “Slavery is a cancer to be isolated” (confined to the South).  For Jefferson to argue that allowing cancer to spread throughout the body “as a way to lessen its lethality” was, well, nuts.

Jefferson toned down his position.

Thomas Jefferson was brilliant, but like many brilliant men he sometimes needed to be reminded of humdrum reality. Fortunately, he was wise enough (very different from brilliant) to pick friends who were unafraid to do just that.