What Other Jefferson Scholars Have to Say

It seems Jefferson scholars disagree on what exactly TJ would have to say about Saturday night’s happenings. To a mutual friend of liberty and in response to Professor Peter Onuf’s comments in the Washington Post today, Professor Robert M.S. McDonald of the United States Military Academy wrote this:

I’m surprised by [Professor Peter Onuf]’s take on this. He’s such a cool guy, I’m sort of surprised he wasn’t at the Dance Party. I’m guessing that the reporter may not have told him what actually transpired. For starters, it’s not clear that any laws were broken. And while Jefferson may have been “anal” about the enforcement of the law, he was emphatic that laws be just and focused on the protection of individual rights.

No doubt you’re familiar with Jefferson’s take on Shays’s Rebellion (see
his letter to Madison, 30 Jan. 1787
…). If even an armed
uprising by people seeking to shirk their debts failed to upset him,
then he’d have no problem with people dancing around his statue.

More to the point, during the run-up to the Revolution, Jefferson and every other leading patriot sanctioned “extralegal” behavior designed to uphold Americans’ rights–so long as it was restrained. The Boston Tea Party is a fine example. Sam Adams and company dumped 90,000 pounds of taxed tea into the harbor, then reimbursed the captain of the Beaver for the padlock they had to bust in order to seize his ship’s cargo. I don’t think that any of the Jefferson dancers imagined that anyone would object to their behavior, but once the police intervened everything changed. What was intended as fun get-together suddenly became an act of civil disobedience.

Less forgiving, but along the same lines, Professor David Mayer at the Capital University Law school submitted this list of evidence:

To say Jefferson was “very anal about obedience to law,” as Professor Onuf does, ignores Jefferson’s lifelong commitment to natural rights (paramount to positive law), individual freedom, and, of course, limited government.

Some counter-examples or evidence that could be cited:

Jefferson’s open rebellion against British law and the presumed authority of King and Parliament, nicely expressed in the motto he chose for his personal seal: “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God.”

In his Notes on the State of Virginia (explaining why government had no authority over matters of conscience), Jefferson wrote: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. (But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”) Taken as general rule, of course, application of Jefferson’s principle amounts to Herbert Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom, or what modern libertarians call the no-harm principle: legitimate laws limit individuals’ freedom to act only in regard to actions that truly are injurious (in a direct way) to others (and more precisely, actions that abridge others’ rights.) (In this case, I’d say that a small group of people celebrating Jefferson’s birthday at the Jefferson Memorial (a public forum), causing no injury to any other person, did nothing in violation of any legitimate law. (And, obviously, general laws criminalizing “disorderly conduct” are notoriously vague and subjective and easily abused by the police.))

Jefferson reiterated this principle (and essentially his support for the libertarian view of limited government) in a report he prepared late in life as chairman of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, when he described as one of the basic principles of government: “a sound spirit of legislation, which, banishing all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of others.” (See my book The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (1994), pp. 76 & 344 n.56. As I generally note on p. 76, “Fundamental to Jefferson’s political philosophy was the idea that no government could legitimately transgress natural rights. In order for law to be binding, it not only must proceed from the will of properly authorized legislators but also must be `reasonable, that is, not violative of first rprinciples, natural rights, and the dictates of the sense of justice.'”)

Finally, of course, there’s Jefferson’s famous remark justifying rebellion to unjust laws, expressing his blithe reaction to Shays Rebellion in 1787 (apparently the remark Onuf was referring to): “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

It should be noted that neither Professor McDonald nor Professor Mayer endorse the Thomas Jefferson Dance Party, nor were they asked to. That said, they gave full permission for us to use their statements. And we are very grateful to them, and to Dr. Tom Palmer for putting us in contact with them.