Romancing the spirit of Jefferson

“No government ought to be without censors, and where the press is free, no one ever will.”

—Thomas Jefferson

The words above are those of Thomas Jefferson, whose 269th birthday we note this week, and that were formed in the midst of the great 18-century disagreement between the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the anti-Federalists, who counted Jefferson among their number.

Much as Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed, their thought continues to inform the remnant of both Federalist and anti-Federalist thinking in this country’s two great political parties, the strands of both forming a double helix into which each party binds itself to the ideas of one or the other — where modern-day Republicans look more Jeffersonian than Hamiltonian with regards the notion of a strong central government, Republicans adhere nevertheless to Hamilton’s support for a strong national defense, the budget for which President Jefferson slashed despite sending the U.S. Navy to North Africa to combat Barbary pirates.

Jefferson was an early advocate of the freedom of the press, requiring that it be among a bill of rights, and he maintained that it fell to the press to keep Americans informed, and once informed and educated, virtuous.

It was an opinion that informed his entire life, even as the strength of that conviction became hollowed out in the face of what he saw as abuses by editors and reporters, writes Richard Brown in “The Strength of a People: the Idea of an Informed Citizenry.”

Before retiring to Monticello, Jefferson’s antipathy for newspapers deepened; he called them a “polluted vehicle” and said the man who never reads a newspaper is “… better informed than he who reads them.”

Jefferson appears to be more the romantic, the idealist, to Hamilton’s pragmatist; he was the Founding Father, after all, who called “a little rebellion” a good and necessary thing and the people themselves the safest “depository of the ultimate powers of society.” Hamilton would have none of that.

Jefferson’s love for freedom seems to the kind embraced by E.B. White, who wrote that freedom is the stuff of a man’s pact to himself; to be “all things to himself … to stand self-reliant, taking advantage of his haphazard connection with a planet, riding his luck, and following his bent with the tenacity of a hound. My first and greatest love affair was with this thing called freedom, this lady of infinite allure, this dangerous and beautiful and sublime being who restores and supplies us all.”

Despite his later life disappointments with the “pollution” of liberty he saw in the early press, Jefferson would surely approve of White’s sentiment.

His cure for ill-informed freedom was more freedom but it better informed.

He wrote: “… if we think (the people) are not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”

— Robert Snyder is managing editor of the Spirit of Jefferson. He can be reached at editor@spiritofjefferson.com.

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