A Monologue with the Æther

Oft Quoted Jefferson

If the legislature would add to that a perpetual tax of a cent a head on the population of the State, it would set agoing at once, and forever maintain, a system of primary or ward schools, and an university where might be taught, in its highest degree, every branch of science useful in our time and country; and it would rescue us from the tax of toryism, fanaticism, and indifferentism to their own State, which we now send our youth to bring from those of New England. If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe. [emphasis added]

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey dated 6 January 1816

Usually, one only sees the strongly emphasized part of the above quote, but I believe it is useful to place the quote in the context of its origin. All those who seek to bend Jefferson to their cause need to spend more time reading all of these quotes they so love in the context from which they are excerpted. There are two significant ideas expressed in the above excerpt. The first is that it is important that education be democratized; Jefferson believed that at minimum everyone should be capable of literacy and numeracy or as was often stated in my youth: the 3 ‘R’s — Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. The second idea of import is that expressed in the final emphasized line of the excerpt to wit the free press. In Jefferson’s context that would be a press free of government influence and coercion.

While there still exists the peril of government propaganda as news, to it has been added the danger of corporate propaganda. An insidious form of propaganda that many fail to see the danger of because they believe that the “free market” will keep corporations “honest”. Unfortunately, as evidenced by such outlets as Fox News Channel and MSNBC, people are little engaged in questioning what they see and hear from these entities.

The point expressed by Jefferson is that a democracy and its citizens remain at liberty only so long as the citizens remain vigilant against all encroachments and actively engaged in the processes of democracy. Jefferson, however, believed in an utopian, hyper-libertarian form of democracy predicated on the belief that every citizen would be self-supporting subsistence agrarians. Jefferson consistently refused to acknowledge the reality that America was as much a nation of merchants as farmers, leading to the constant and unaddressed tension between the “Jeffersonian” ideal and the “Hamiltonian” reality even in the context of his own era.

None of this is new nor is it inevitable. The American Republic can only survive if the people begin to actively engage against the true forces of anti-democracy. We too often overlook what the founders of the American Republic meant by government which was an institution of arbitrary oligarchic forces in the form of kings and nobles rather than institutions of consistency — Rule of Law — and merit.