Thomas Jefferson, Warmonger?

"What are words for, when no one listens anymore?"
Missing Persons

Michael Ignatieff is, by almost any measure, much smarter than the average bear. I am likely to be one of those bears, as are you. Dr. Ignatieff, in fact, is a well-regarded professor of "human rights" at Harvard’s School of Government. Despite his superior intelligence, though, he is also a human being. So just like the equally brilliant men who designed, built, sailed, and sank the Titanic, he can be wrong. His recent pro-imperial column in the esteemed New York Times Magazine, "Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?" proves the accusation.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not a trained historian, and unlike Dr. Ignatieff I have neither degree from nor paid position at Harvard, that august institution that wasn’t worth Bill Gates‘ time and money. Still, despite these shortcomings, I have spoken and read English for most of my 36 years, so the good doctor’s definition of "Jeffersonian," a definition he unfurls and slaps up as his war cry’s justification, completely baffles me.

Dr. Ignatieff defines "Jeffersonian" as the urge to spread "democracy and freedom" to the world’s oppressed – who yearn to vote – by the sword, an activity he heartily approves of. To support his definition, he uses Mr. Jefferson’s words in a manner that imparts to them a meaning exactly the opposite of what Jefferson meant. Please allow me a few examples, lest you think me harsh.

"The test that Jefferson’s dream has to pass is whether it gives members of a new generation something they want to fight for with all their might."

Dr. Ignatieff jumps right into it, batting Mr. Jefferson lead-off. A dying Jefferson, old musket in one hand, quill in the other, declaimed that "to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all" and democracy would one day hug the globe in a warm, squishy embrace of "unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion." Dr. Ignatieff’s definition of "Jeffersonian" as having "a message that American democracy should be exported to the world" – by force – is beyond comprehension to any rational person who has read what Jefferson wrote.

Jefferson made repeatedly, bluntly clear, like a nagging mother, that war and foreign entanglements are an extreme danger to liberty and are to be avoided at almost any hazard. The other Founding Wigged Ones, to a man, also made repeatedly, bluntly clear, like a nagging mother, that war and foreign entanglements are an extreme danger to liberty and are to be avoided at almost any hazard. Yet Dr. Ignatieff claims that our mission to ram "democracy and freedom" down every throat is "a mandate and a dream as old as [America’s] founders."

I imagine Thomas Jefferson would have, like me, been surprised by the contradiction Dr. Ignatieff uses to describe Ronald Reagan – "internationalist Jeffersonian." This is like stating Ted Bundy was a "kindhearted serial killer." In a similar vein, he twists reality into contradictory pretzels and claims America’s acceptance of the attack on Iraq (expressed through the 2004 reelection of W.) was a victory for "the Jefferson dream." It most certainly was not.

"I love peace, and I am anxious that we should give the world still another useful lesson, by showing to them other modes of punishing injuries than by war, which is as much a punishment to the punisher as to the sufferer."
– Thomas Jefferson, May 1, 1794

Unlike imperialists such as Dick Cheney, who gets aroused watching Gunga Din, Thomas Jefferson didn’t like war in the least nor wish to engage in it unless the people had absolutely no choice. In a letter dated May 29, 1797, he wrote, "War is not the best engine for us to resort to, nature has given us one in our commerce" (emphasis Mr. Jefferson’s). Rather than expending the blood of the working masses in battle with foreigners, the withholding of trade would "appeal to their [the foreigners’] interests" to induce them to play nice. If they didn’t, we would take our trade and go home, leaving them to their foolishness.

If the opinions repeatedly expressed in his voluminous writings are to be believed, Jefferson would not only have been completely appalled by our nation’s brazen, unprovoked attack on a weaker nation innocent of causing any harm to us, but also with the failure of we the people to demand our political class respect the legal restraints and procedures expressly laid out in our Constitution, the one they swore to protect and uphold. (Yes, we have a Constitution, just like the Iraqis do.)

Regarding our Constitution, he wrote in 1790 that "the ground of liberty is to be gained by inches … it takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good," and I believe it irrational to suppose Jefferson’s definition of "persuade" included a full-scale military invasion and torture chambers. He wrote in December 1790 that "a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition." Has anyone been able to find mention of any "authorization to use force" in our Constitution, the one our congresspersons swore to uphold?

I could quote a few more pages of Jefferson’s writings for you, but I will respect your urge to go back to surfing the Web. Still I wonder, how did Dr. Ignatieff – a man who was able to write a four-page article liberally quoting Jefferson – miss all this?

I quote the good doctor, again, about "the Republican embrace of Jeffersonian ambitions for America abroad." He gives examples of interventions he proclaims Jeffersonian: Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. How on earth did he conjure a positive relationship between the words "Jefferson" and "foreign entanglements"? Did Alice in Wonderland help him write his paper?

Despite taking up four pages to explain his point, toward the end Dr. Ignatieff contradicts his theory, writing, "Jefferson airily assumed that democracy would be carried on the wings of enlightenment, reason, and science." So there we have it; Dr. Ignatieff cannot show where Thomas Jefferson wrote in favor of precision-bombing the world into freedom, because he didn’t. He is, in legal parlance, interpreting what Jefferson meant, like a man of foul character interprets a poor girl’s "No!" for consent.

It was not the sword that Mr. Jefferson thought best to wield as a weapon to spread to the people of the world an awareness of their natural rights against the parasitic political class. Instead, he declared such awareness would be spread, and could only be spread, through trade, the printing press, and reason. In his "Minutes of the Board of Visitors" in 1825, he specifically referred to the Federalist Papers as one of the most influential sources for his political outlook. Written by James Madison and others, it expressly declared (right from the get-go… in essay number one… front and center) "in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword." (For those who attended public school, "proselytes" means converts.) Thomas Jefferson "airily assumed" nothing; he argued that freedom must be chosen – it could not be forced on a people, even if they’re Iraqi. It is Dr. Ignatieff who is airily assuming that Jefferson airily assumed.

"To revolutionize, make a change, nothin’s strange,
People, people, we are the same! …
Fight the power!"
Public Enemy

In one sense Dr. Ignatieff is correct; Jefferson was absolutely for war – but not against foreign governments. Like all our Founders, radicals to the man, he called for and urged the people to occasionally rise up and overthrow, not foreign, but domestic governments. This is an uncomfortable truth you’ll never hear any government official extol. While they will justify the creation of hundreds of new American orphans by quoting Jefferson’s "the tree of liberty must be refreshed, from time to time, with the blood of patriots," that, like most of our nightly news, commits the sin of lying through omission, a cheap form of propaganda.

What Thomas Jefferson wrote, in full, was "the tree of liberty must be refreshed, from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants," and he was speaking approvingly of the men who fought the government during Shays’ Rebellion. The patriots he spoke of are We the People, Joe Six-Pack, the masses. He called to "let the people arm themselves." The tyrants are not foreign, but domestic, not in Baghdad and Kabul, but in Washington, D.C.

While Thomas Jefferson in this author’s opinion gave the people far too much credit (and the fact that Carlos Beltran was an All-Star this season proves my point), he reserved all his distrust for elites like himself. The political class, in Jefferson’s opinion, needed to be occasionally reminded by we the people of their duty to the Constitution, with a few bullets for emphasis. Otherwise, the people would be displaying "lethargy, the forerunner of death to liberty," and there, according to Jefferson, lay the road to tyranny. Again referring to Shays’ Rebellion, he wrote, "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion."

Our Founding Fathers were radical revolutionaries with a deep belief in the right to be left alone, and the willingness to fight for it if need be. If they were alive today, we would be treated to pictures of them stacked in naked pyramids.

"A man hears what he wants to hear,
And disregards the rest."
-Simon and Garfunkel

Dr. Ignatieff somehow misinterpreted all of this. He would have been much more accurate had he labeled our nation’s current crusade to force "freedom and democracy" on others "Wilsonian." I believe Woodrow would make a good fit. While he initially expressed a steady desire to stay out of World War I ("No nation is fit to sit in judgment upon any other nation," April 1915), as soon as he was safely ensconced in the executive branch, his principles, assuming he had any to begin with, were quickly forgotten ("The world must be made safe for democracy," April 1917). Wilson became the first American president to call it our nation’s duty to bring "freedom and democracy" to the world at bayonet point, and he shoved millions of forcibly inducted Americans over there. We have him and the pest of precedent to thank for our current mess, not Thomas Jefferson.

America is a nation utterly confused. We call socialism capitalism, tyranny freedom, and Blink 182 a punk band. The masses, in all times and countries, are poorly educated at best. In this, the American people are no different than any other. However, Dr. Ignatieff and the brain he purchased at Harvard have no excuse. His linkage of Thomas Jefferson’s radical, undoubtedly isolationist philosophy with America’s current imperial fetish is slack-jaw silly, built not on facts but on airy assumptions. He owes Thomas Jefferson an apology.

I do not begrudge Dr. Ignatieff expressing his opinion freely and loudly, nor the New York Times giving him a forum, but how anyone can read Jefferson’s words and come away convinced that he was for spreading "democracy and freedom" by force boggles the mind. Like whoever it was that did not vote for Tom Seaver‘s induction into the Hall of Fame, there’s just no accounting for some people sometimes.

There is no greater honor to an intellectual than to have a philosophy named after him; it is their Hall of Fame. So lest Dr. Ignatieff feel slighted by my opinion of his opinion, I offer this honor as compensation: to read as Jeffersonian the current administration’s Wilsonian action against the people of Iraq is "Ignatieffian."

Author: John Feffer

John Feffer writes for Foreign Policy in Focus.