Bachelor of Arts
Harlan Garnett Wilson
Jefferson, America, Politics, President, Jeffersonian, Government
In structuring this paper I will first consider the argument that Jefferson was an anti-government thinker, and in the same chapter I will show how Jefferson’s embrace of expansive federal authority as president renders this interpretation untenable. In the next section I will present an alternative interpretation of Jefferson’s political thought. In my view, Jefferson was not an enemy to the government, but to its use for corrupt ends that benefitted elites at the expense of the public. This interpretation is consistent with Jefferson’s actions in the three major periods of his political career.
In section 4 I will explain how Jefferson’s political thought draws from the classical republican tradition. A central aspect of this strand of political thought is the relationship between virtue and corruption. Jefferson thought public officials demonstrated corruption when the failed to act in the public interest. This was essentially the same view expressed by Algernon Sidney. Further, when public officials demonstrated corrupt behavior, Jefferson thought it was up to the people to protect their own interests by actively participating in public affairs. This is Jefferson’s definition of civic virtue. In his view, the people have a responsibility to combat the forces of corruption, and whenever civil society fails at this task the republic experiences (perhaps irreparable) moral decay. The theory that the virtue of the citizen is essential to sustaining a republic can be traced back to Aristotle. As I will show in this section, the influence of these classical republican thinkers pervades Jefferson’s political project of building a Virtuous Empire in America.
In section 5 I will consider a criticism presented by Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson; namely, that Jefferson appealed to the reason of state in his role as President and thus compromised his principles by placing national interests ahead of the interests of the people. I will respond to this criticism by differentiating between the version of reason of state that the Federalists appealed to in the 1790s and the type of reason of state Jefferson utilized as president. The key difference is that Jefferson used federal authority primarily to preserve a strong civil society in America. In the case of the Louisiana Purchase this meant accumulating more land to preserve the agrarian nature of the republic; the Embargo act was simply Jefferson’s alternative to warfare, which Jefferson believed to be the impetus for most governments to abuse their powers, a state of affairs that was antithetical to republican principles. In the end, neither the Louisiana Purchase nor the Embargo Act weakened civil society in the way Hamilton’s National Bank or Adams’ Alien & Sedition Acts had done, even though these initiatives were also justified by an appeal to national interests.
Finally, I will show how Jefferson’s attempts to build a Virtuous Empire failed in his lifetime because of the corrupting effect of slavery, and how the role of money in American politics threatens the Jeffersonian project today.
Palmer, Gavin, "Virtuous Empire: The Jeffersonian Vision for America" (2012). Honors Papers. 367.