On a spring day in 1743, a towering figure in our country’s founding was born: Thomas Jefferson. His skillful hand carved much of the character of America.
Today, however, what Jefferson so painstakingly crafted lies pulverized almost to stone dust. Were he alive to celebrate his birthday this April 13, instead of sipping champagne, he might want to drown his sorrow in whiskey.
What has happened to the revolutionary ideas he penned on the parchment that is the soul of America, the Declaration of Independence? How many of today’s citizens—and elected officials—understand the stirring proclamation that every person possesses certain “unalienable rights,” among which are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?
Today, most Americans don’t understand their rights; the entire concept has been hopelessly muddied. Many now believe that if they want or need anything—from health care, to a “decent” salary, to help paying their mortgage—that they have a “right,” through government taxation and regulation, to compel others to provide it for them. As a result, our actual rights have been eroded at an ever-increasing pace.
So, in homage to Thomas Jefferson, and with his guidance, let’s examine some features of our real rights, to set the record straight.
According to Jefferson, our rights are unalienable. This means that individuals possess rights in virtue of being human. They are neither granted nor invalidated by any person, king, congress, or group. Might does not make right; individual rights are a sacred temple that even the will of the people must respect. “[T]he majority, oppressing an individual,” says Jefferson, “is guilty of a crime . . . and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society.” Further, because they stem from universals of human nature, these rights are legitimate in all societies and all eras. As such and properly understood, they form the rock-solid foundation of our freedom.
Contrary to modern misinterpretations, our real rights—to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness—are rights to take action; they are not entitlements to goods and services. Jefferson defined liberty as “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.” This means we may act in our own behalf, for example, to earn money and buy health care, but we may not expect the government to tax and regulate others to provide us with health care for free.
Rights belong to us as individuals, with each of us possessing exactly the same ones. There are no “rights” of groups—be they farmers, seniors, students, workers, homeowners, or the like—to any special privileges at the expense of others. According to Jefferson, “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare but only those specifically enumerated [in the Constitution].” What, then, would he have thought of our current government’s using taxpayers’ money to provide privileges to countless special-interest groups—through bank bailouts, government-backed mortgages, programs for the arts, government housing, car-company loans, etc.?
As understood by Jefferson and his contemporaries, our rights include the right to property, which entitles us to keep the things that we legitimately acquire. Does a rich person have less of a right to property than a poor person? According to Jefferson: “To take from one because it is thought his own industry . . . has acquired too much, in order to spare others who . . . have not exercised equal industry and skill is to violate the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.” What, then, would he have thought of the recent referendum passed in Oregon—typifying the practice of many states, as well as the federal government—in which a majority levied substantial additional taxes on businesses and the wealthy? Wouldn’t that seem like a few sheep and a pack of wolves deciding what to have for lunch?
Jefferson valued productive work as a noble part of the American character. When his Monticello farm fell on hard times, he began producing nails, and did so proudly because “every honest employment is deemed honorable [in America] …My new trade of nail-making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility … [is] in Europe.” He scorned the “idleness” of the European aristocracy, calling their courts “the weakest and worst part of mankind.” He expected people to use their minds to judge conflicting ideas, overcome obstacles, and achieve goals, extolling reason as the autonomous person’s tool for successful living: “Fix reason firmly to her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.”
When his 15-year-old daughter had difficulty reading an ancient text, he admonished: “If you always lean on your master, you will never be able to proceed without him. It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate—to surmount every difficulty …” Americans, he continued, “are obliged to invent and to execute; to find the means within ourselves, and not to lean on others.” What, then, would he have thought of today’s government “entitlements,” which encourage idleness while discouraging people from making their own decisions?
Jefferson swore “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” ardently defending the spiritual and intellectual freedom of the individual. He held that a person’s beliefs and values were an entirely private matter and that “the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.” What, then, would this champion of freedom of religion, speech, the press, and conscience have thought of recent threats and insinuations by public officials to influence the content of radio programs? What would Jefferson have thought of a president, able to wield the full coercive powers of the state, discouraging people from listening to the opposing viewpoints of private individuals?
As individuals possessing the right—and glory—of self-sovereignty, what, then, is the proper role of government in our lives? The Declaration explains “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” Wise government, Jefferson elaborated, “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.” Government’s exclusive purpose is to protect us from acts of force or fraud, which violate our rights—e.g., to apprehend and punish aggressors who would pick our pockets or break our legs—but otherwise, to refrain from regulating or controlling our lives.
Jefferson’s vision provides “for a government rigorously frugal and simple … and not for a multiplication of officers and salaries merely to make partisans …” What, then, would he have thought of today’s ever-growing swarms of agencies, commissions, and departments that, following King George III, “harass our people, and eat out their substance”? What would he have thought of the 2,700-page health-care reform bill passed in the dead of night, with backroom bribes used to obtain the votes of congressmen unclear about its massive contents and implications? Do we have any doubt that Jefferson would be horrified by such corruption and by the dangerous, unprecedented powers this legislation has granted to the state?
Thomas Jefferson fought for a country in which the government had no power to encroach on the mind, the life, the liberty, or the property of the individual. He fought for a country in which the individual, for the first time in history, could live for the pursuit of his own happiness instead of being a pawn in the hands of the state.
Within a mere page of the calendar of history, the world-shaking recognition that freedom is every person’s natural state and sacred right led to the abolition of slavery, the suffrage of women, and the spread of human freedoms in nations around the globe. The dawn of liberty upon the modern world began with the founding principles of America, which the author of the Declaration of Independence so ably articulated.
On Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, we must grasp again and hold dear the fragile gem of freedom that he so carefully carved. We must protest the hammering away at our individual rights by the ignorant, the deceived, and the unscrupulous. And we must polish the ideals for which Jefferson pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor.
Gen LaGreca is author of Noble Vision, an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in health care today. Marsha Familaro Enright is president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States.