Archive for January, 2015

Owning The Declaration of Independence – Jefferson’s Pursuit of Property and Power

January 29, 2015 1 comment

Jefferson’s Ownership of the Declaration of Independence

His Pursuit of Property and Power

By Wilson J. Moses, Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jefferson’s possessiveness regarding the Declaration of Independence was no mere matter of intellectual pride; it involved material gain. He consistently derived financial and political advantages by staking a claim to its authorship. Steven Hochman says that, “While Jefferson often failed to pay his debts on time, creditors rarely complained. Generally a warm letter would be sent to him as from Leonard and Bayard in 1822, granting more time “to the author of the Declaration of Independence.”[1] Hochman’s statement reveals a generousity of spirit, but in fact, Jefferson, did not simply postpone payment on his debts; he never paid them. He left a financial burden to his heirs that was not lifted until 1878. But even Jefferson’s prideful heirs did not bear the brunt of the suffering caused by his financial genius, which was a gift for constructing air castles, somewhat different, but no less magnificent than those of Charles Ponzi and Bernard Madoff.   The chief moral difference is that Ponzi’s and Madoff’s victims were culpable partners in their own destruction. The victims of Jefferson’s financial irrresposibility were the slaves who constituted the bulk of his capital, and whose families and communities had to be liquidated at the time of his death.

Jefferson’s greatest marks of entrepreneurial genius were thus proven by his economic and his political exploitation of the Declaration of Indepencence. Never in modern history has any politician pulled off a more impressive coup. His singular reputation as a philosopher of the enlightenment rests entirely on his ownership of the preamble to that document, which consists of a few glib pontifications that he later repudiated, both in word and in deed.   Jefferson used words alone to establish himself as the creator of the Republic, without ever fighting in the revolution, and while making only the most half-hearted attempt as wartime governor of Virginia. He was absent from the country while the Constitution was being framed, and he returned just in time to continually undermine George Washington’s administration. His greatest accomplishment was heeding Madison’s advice to purchase Louisiana, in pragmatic violation of his own abstract ideological princples.

That his life contradicted in the most eggregious manner the egalitarian and libertarian ideas of the Declaration has become a boring cliche. It is less commonly acknowledged that he verbally repudiated the Declaration’s ideals both in print and in private letters. And yet, he was brilliantly capable of marketing himself as the author of the Declaration’s eternal verities. These self-evident truths had a use-value to a clever trickster who could borrow money on the basis of their sentimental appeal, but its platitudes had no application to the child laborers in Monticello’s “dark satanic mills.”

[1] Steven Harold Hochman, “Thomas Jefferson: A Personal Financial Biography” (Ph. D. dissertation, U. of Virginia, 1987). I wish to thank Henry Wiencek for providing a copy of this page.

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