Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson’s name gets thrown around these days by the tea partisans, which is a good thing. A populist movement of the right or left that neglected Jefferson would be a sorry affair indeed. Jefferson’s distrust of concentrated power was such that he left a legacy for every dissenter against the state.

But Jefferson did not stop there.

He was, as well, a relentless critic of the monopolizing of economic power by banks, corporations and those who put their faith in what the third president called “the selfish spirit of commerce (that) knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain.”

Jefferson might not have wanted a lot of government, but he wanted enough government to assert the sovereignty of citizens over corporations.

In the early years of the 19th century, as banks and corporations began to flex their political muscles, he announced: “I hope we shall crush … in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

Some would have us believe the founders intended for corporations to control our elections -- and, tragically, five of these Tories sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, where they recently ruled that the nation’s biggest businesses may spend whatever they like to buy the results that serve their bottom lines.

The better angels among the founders would be aghast.

The framers of the American experiment were imperfect. Few were so radical as Tom Paine, the wisest of their number. But like Paine, Jefferson was a proud revolutionary against inherited monarchy, state churches, empires and the authority of the few.

We know this because, as July 4, 1826, approached, Jefferson was invited to appear in Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Age and infirmity prevented him from attending. But he sent a message which read:

“May (July 4) be to the world, what I believe it will be -- to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all -- the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form (of government) which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

So let us look to the original intent of the founders this July 4. But let us recognize what they actually said about the danger posed by an “aristocracy of corporations” and the danger of allowing CEOs to ride roughshod over the promise of the American experiment.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com

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