Self government and a republic in name only

Thomas Jefferson

Republican Party energy is down for a number of reasons. Republican leaders didn’t accomplish enough while they held power and too often governed like Democrats. Republican Party and elected officials have also preferred to keep grassroots energy at a safe distance. Many of our leaders see their life as complicated enough without having to get involved with or listen to outsiders. The fact that they can’t win majorities without a lot of volunteer support or that some of the input they’d receive could be quite valuable hasn’t mattered to them.

At both the state and national level our GOP leaders often get confused and begin to think their titles bestow a wisdom that is somehow unattainable to the rest of us. Few elected officials in the country are as good at ignoring advice or squelching energy as Republicans in Illinois. The fact that our party is poised to lose even more ground here this November is not important.

I’ve been around these elected and party types enough to know that they see independent people or organizations not as necessary allies but unwanted annoyances. For years they’ve been proving their short-sightedness and, in fact, their own limited leadership abilities by working to ignore or keep at bay the source of what little interest or activism that survives on the political right.

Alan Pell Crawford, the author of “Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson” recently spoke at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C. about an incident from two hundred years ago that is relevant to today’s GOP grassroots energy problem. Crawford discussed one of the contributions Thomas Jefferson made to American political thought after his retirement from public office.

It involved a lesson Jefferson learned during his second term as President and then wrote about years later. During his second term in 1807, President Jefferson won passage of the Embargo Act. Here is how one source summed up the matter (emphasis added):

Jefferson’s most vexing problems as president grew out of the war between Britain and France, which had resumed and involved much of Europe. Both sides ignored the neutral rights of the United States, but since Britain commanded the seas, its actions most offended Americans. Particularly objectionable was the practice of impressment, in which British warships stopped American vessels and impressed, or forced, American seamen into British service. Not wanting either to submit or be forced into war, Jefferson, in 1807, gained passage in Congress of the Embargo Act, which halted exports to both Britain and France.

Measures of this sort had been used successfully by the colonists against the British before the Revolution. However, the embargo was bitterly opposed by shippers, especially in New England, who claimed that it did more harm than good, and that the government was tyrannical in enforcing it. The embargo’s failure was painful to Jefferson, and it was repealed at the very end of his presidency.

Almost a decade later in 1816 Jefferson’s views were solicited from Virginia leaders as they contemplated rewriting their states’ constitution to deal with issues stemming from population growth in the west. Specifically, Crawford said, they wanted his thinking “on the proper distribution of power in a constitutional republic…”

According to Crawford, at that time Jefferson expressed his view that there was a fatal flaw in the American political system but that it could still be redeemed. Jefferson corresponded with his friend Benjamin Rush during this period, and Crawford summed up one important point from their exchange:

The flaw…was that America was rapidly becoming a republic in name only. Power derived from the people, it was true, but they possessed this power only on the days of their elections. After that, Rush said, it is the property of their rulers.

Starting soon after the founding of the nation there was a power transfer from the local level to the states and from the states to the federal government. In Crawford’s words, this transfer of power was “turning the ennobling challenges of self government into mere problems of administration.” Crawford continued:

True self government, Jefferson believed, required the active participation of well informed citizens. Administration, by contrast, relied on a professional class of increasingly unaccountable government officials – and this makes all the difference in the world.

As this transfer of power took place, Jefferson believed that as ordinary people were denied the opportunity to run their own affairs their capacity to govern themselves would diminish and over time disappear.

The citizens would lose any attachment to their liberties and lack the will to resist their usurpation by ambitious men like Hamilton and Burr.

Today, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr have been replaced by countless radical special interest groups of every tax-eating and left-wing stripe.

The inevitable result, Jefferson was convinced, was the moral corruption of the American people and in short order despotism on the European model.

Fortunately, he believed there was a way to avoid this calamity. But it required the direct involvement of the people themselves, for they, he had decided, were the direct repository of the spirit of liberty.

Crawford pointed out that while Jefferson had always believed in limited government, he had seen that the people who had most effectively resisted the embargo years earlier were those in the townships of New England. It was where government was the “closest to the people, and thus the most direct expression of the people themselves.”

Jefferson’s remedy was to suggest nothing less than radical decentralization, where all powers were left to the local level except those which could only be exercised statewide or nationally.

Only when the people were fully engaged in securing their own liberties, Jefferson said, was government at the national and continental scale at all conceivable.

There is an application of this principle to political activism, the modern political party and the role of today’s elected state legislators and members of Congress. As Americans have left the political process to others, they have experienced what Plato warned about when he said that if a person won’t get involved, they should expect to be governed by their inferiors.

When too many people delegate their responsibilities of citizenship we get what we have now—a behemoth that feeds from the public trough. When our elected and party leaders attempt to squelch activism, there isn’t any counter force to turn off the spigot filling that trough.

Just as Thomas Jefferson learned from his bad experience with the embargo, conservatives and the Republican Party need to learn from our own bad experience of recent years. Weak leaders who have limited vision have been our undoing.

The past 200 years, of course, has seen a steady acceleration of power and tax dollars transferred from one segment of society to another. Too many Americans from coast to coast have forfeited their responsibility of self-government. They have handed it off to bureaucrats and elected or party officials. The result has been a moral, and in fact, intellectual corruption.

Why else would so many people tell poll takers that they think Barack Obama can solve their personal economic problems? Such ignorance doesn’t happen by accident.

Instead of the ennobling challenges of self government creating a culture where citizens are engaged, Americans shirked their responsibility and handed over their power. Now they must take it back. Voting on election day isn’t enough, and never has been.