Was Thomas Jefferson A Socialist?

OK, maybe not.  Sorry, I simply can’t buy into that.  In fact, I’m quite sure he was not. 

Still, I believe he was a charitable man, like most of our founders.  And, that would, actually, make quite a bit more sense.  And, generally consistent with that character, Jefferson did, apparently, see a limited role for government in addressing the problem of poverty. 

ARL contributor/foil/bomb-thrower HDW, who is occassionally tickled to shoot the odd-socialist idea “across my bow”, has recently called my attention to a number of statements “TJ” had made on this subject.  I’ll select the following, however, for consideration today:  (See more here.)

Among the first of [nature’s] laws, is that which bids us to succor those in distress.” –Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1790. ME 8:22

“It is a duty certainly to give our sparings to those who want; but to see also that they are faithfully distributed and duly apportioned to the respective wants of those receivers. And why give through agents whom we know not, to persons whom we know not, and in countries from which we get no account, when we can do it at short hand to objects under our eye, through agents we know and to supply wants we see?” –Thomas Jefferson to Michael Megear, 1823. ME 15:434

I, myself, have made the case that charity is a singularly important ideal to strive for, both in our individual lives, but also in the development of our “good” society.  Like Jefferson, however, I’m quite concerned with the problem of ensuring that charity actually accomplishes some real, rather than an imagined, good.  And, in that regard, we would agree that local action is always better than distant and, even, instutional efforts. 

Jefferson was, likewise, well aware of other practical (and legal) limits to what the government could and should do.  Other excerpts from his writings would, appear to suggest that he imagined that even where direct government aid might be necessary, it ought to be constrained by a range of (both implicit and explicit) caveats.  Among them, I present these gleanings:

  1. First, the use any “surplus” funds (taxes) to any “object of improvement”, (meaning that which is  beyond the mandated minimalist role of the government) might require actual modification of the constitution. (Thomas Jefferson to John W. Eppes, 1813.)  – Take that you “general welfare” idealogues.
  2. Next, that any aid ought to be locally administered and, whenever possible, in direct support of individual efforts, such as to those who would take the poor into their own homes. (Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782.)
  3. Also, that so-called vagabonds “without visible property or vocation” should be placed in institutional “work houses” where they would help to pay for their own sustenance through forced labor. (Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782.)
  4. And, further, that those employed in vocational guilds (specifically, mariners) should be expected to care for their brethren with a portion of their wages, turning to government assistance only as a last resort. (Thomas Jefferson to James Ronaldson, 1813.
  5. And, that aid should be limited in accordance with need that would result from: a) a lack of property, and b) a lack of (helpful) friends, and c) a lack of the “strength to labor”.   (Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782.)
  6. Finally, he cautioned that any government action that might extend beyond these (mere, last resort, mostly supplementary, and mostly supportive aids to those already demonstrably charitable members of society) to include the prescription of medicine or diet would likely reduce the state of our bodies to a condition equal to that of our (impoverished) souls.   (Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782.)

Thus, while it seems clear that Jefferson did, in fact, perceive a communal (and/or public) duty to assist the poor, it is also fair to say that he may not have believed that such aid was necessarily legal or, even, always prudent. 

Within rather strict bounds, however, he clearly promoted the local administration of financial aid to be made in direct accordance to the recipients ability to first provide for themselves and, then, only in a manner that would effectively promote and preserve the charitable inclinations of friends and neighbors.  

All in all, I rather tend to agree with that very reasonable perspective.  Further research may, ultimately, convince me that Jefferson would have imagined that such “collective” relief would, typically, be provided through local institutions such as churches, rather than the state.   

Application Today:  To begin with, let’s take a moment to establish a little context.  The vast majority of Americans are really, really fortunate when it comes to “basic” necessities.  The sort of “incessant whining” that tends to prompt my own incessant whining in response, generally, reflects the apparent lack of appreciation our society has for this true fact:  Even the poorest among us are far, far wealthier than a good part of the world. 

As I’ve noted in the past, an American family of four making less than $22,050 (the official 2009 poverty level) enjoys an income that is a mere 1,350% of the average family income for the whole country of Haiti and 300% for that of Mexico, two near & dear examples.  As I stated before, our “poor” should be thrilled, but often are not.  (Hence the incessant whining.)

What we call “poverty”, much of the remainder of the world sees as unfathomable wealth.  To be sure, the cost of living in the USA is also much higher, but there are so many well established (even if counterproductive) supports for families (in particular), even those well above the official poverty limit that it’s hard to imagine any serious threat of permanent homelessness here, let alone actual starvation.

Oh, I know, there are those who “fall through the cracks”, though these are mostly the results of bungling, inept bureaucratic stupidity, rather than a lack of actual resources.  More significantly, even these might be more effectively prevented if our nation’s local and personal charitable efforts were promoted, rather than generally discouraged through the impersonal efforts of government.

Still, despite the many, many counterproductive policies and, unfortunately, rampant waste,  Americans are, demonstrably, the most charitable people on the planet, often to the consternation of committed socialists, for whom no level of generosity, short of that resulting in material equality, would ever be enough.

But, unlike Jefferson’s (and my) goal, which would be to help ensure a basic level of comfort, what seems to trouble today’s socialist is not actually the material well-being of the poor, but, rather, their emotional well-being.  For, in fact, it is what they would characterize as the “unfair” disparity of wealth distribution in the USA, as if even my comfortable life is somehow cheapened by the mere presence of someone like Bill Gates in the same society. 

Well, I have to say that if I spend even one minute of any day I’m given here being pissed off about someone else being richer than me, while I’ve got plenty of food and a warm bed, then there would be something terribly wrong with me.   And, for the record, there is a whole lot more (or less, if you will) to the concepts of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” than ensuring that there’s a Playstation III in every child’s bedroom.

I might go this far, however:  Our HDW also recently called the “canasta basica” (or basic basket) concept to my attention.  Typically, this “basic basket” is, in Latin American country’s – where basic survival may often be at risk – a real and generally more meaningful metric in the measurement of poverty.  While, politically speaking, the “canasta basica” is often wielded by the “social justice” movement, much as the minimum wage is here, I’m inclined to view this conceptual approach to poverty as useful.

I’d merely suggest that, even when we’re talking about the basics for survival, that we pay heed to Jefferson’s wisdom in the matter.  Don’t employ policies that discourage private charity.  Don’t attempt to institutionalize either the public sector’s power in this realm, or poverty itself.  Don’t promote dependency.  Don’t reward “incessant whining”.

Harry Tuttle



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