May 3, 2014 by History in a Hurry
Born April 13, 1743 (Shadwell, Virginia)
Died July 4, 1826 (aged 83) (Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia)
The Real Jefferson
Mises Daily: Thursday, May 23, 2002
by Luigi Marco Bassani
Most people believe that they know something about Thomas Jefferson’s political thought. If the object of study has been Jefferson’s own writings, this may be true. If, however, people read only the usual accounts of Jefferson’s that are made available to students, they are likely to be burdened with some serious misunderstandings.
A typical account is Richard Matthews’s The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson. This book espouses the view that Jefferson was not a Lockean, but a proto-socialist ready to expropriate the rich in order to give to the poor, on grounds that property rights are purely conventional and a gracious gift of society.
Matthews’s view is typical of the material available in university bookstores. Even a visit to D.C.’s Jefferson Memorial (dedicated in 1943) would lead you to believe that Jefferson’s main concern was the promotion of public schooling.
The problem is that Jefferson’s vast writings do not support this now-conventional wisdom. In contrast, Jefferson’s writings show that:
1. He was a natural-rights theorist of the Lockean persuasion. In his political outlook he somewhat radicalized Locke’s doctrine, but he never really deviated from it.
2. He believed that private property is a natural right, and that the only proper function of government is to protect the individual’s enjoyment of natural rights.
3. The Kentucky Resolutions were central to Jeffersonian thought; the states’ rights doctrine he deployed here was even more important to his later thought than his lifelong dedication to natural rights.