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Mondays with Murray: Rothbard's Conflicting Views on Thomas Jefferson

Many libertarians and classical liberals hail Thomas Jefferson as an example of a great American statesman and generally praise him as a great historical spokesman for liberty. Thomas DiLorenzo among others have even referred to Ron Paul as the “Thomas Jefferson of our time.” So what was Murray Rothbard’s view on Thomas Jefferson?

In last week’s edition of Mondays with Murray, when answering the question of who he saw as the best U.S. president from the libertarian viewpoint (Martin van Buren in his view), Murray Rothbard referenced Thomas Jefferson, saying that he was an excellent orator for liberty but effectively “sold out” once he was in office. This insight gives us a glimpse into how Rothbard saw Jefferson. In perusing some of his writings on Jefferson, it appears that Rothbard had some conflicting view on Thomas Jefferson.

On one hand, Rothbard often criticized Jefferson’s political career, specifically the time surrounding his Presidency. Here is Rothbard on his disappointment with the so-called “Jeffersonian Revolution”:

The Republicans replaced the Federalists in what has justly been called “The Revolution of 1800.” Unfortunately, Thomas Jefferson was not really the best man to lead that Revolution. A brilliant libertarian-republican theoretician before achieving power and after leaving it, Jefferson is a classic case of corruption of principle from being in power. The first Jefferson Administration, however, was certainly one of the finest libertarian moments in the history of the United States. Expenses were lowered, the army and navy were sharply reduced, the bureaucracy was cut, the public debt retired, and the federal excise tax, and the Alien and Sedition Acts, were repealed. In the second term, however, the course was reversed, as Jefferson began expanding government, and gearing up for economic war and eventually military conflict with England.

Even in his criticism of Jefferson’s presidency, his admiration simultaneously shines through, as he praises Jefferson’s the bold cutting of taxes, spending, and debt during his first term. But as Jefferson stayed in power through his second term, he began to look more and more like the power hungry, big government politicians he had made a career out of detesting.

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Thanks Marc.

Another great article. Jefferson is a tough one. He's lovable and yet has some shortcomings. Murray, on the other hand, is all lovable. I love that guy! LOVE!

I am still pondering the animal rights question. Thanks for stimulating my mind.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone

Perfection is hard to come by and you're always going to find things in a person that you agree and disagree with. I think you should judge the over-all affect and not finger point at minutia. The fact that Washington sided with Hamilton over Jefferson re: the central bank, will always stick in my craw. But over-all, both men did good for the country.

If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.
James Madison

We also would do well to

We also would do well to remember that Jefferson was a rat bastard of a slave owner. No, I don't mean he was just evil for owning slaves, but he was evil in the sense that recently uncovered documents reveal the cruel nature of his ownership, including the savage beating of children who didn't keep up their level of production in his nail shop. Beating and selling offenders off south to keep them in a "terrorem" as he put it.


Yeah, it's an ugly picture. Very hard to reconcile. He even wrote letters to George Washington explaining to him the economic benefit, down to percentage profit year over year, for the acquisition of more slaves. Washington, ironically, would free his own slaves due to the disgust he developed over this very fact. The fact that human beings were traded and reaped for profit like "cattle on the market."

Anyway, this revelation that Jefferson was anything but a "reluctant" slaveholder doesn't sit well with me one bit. Does it detract from the philosophic truths he championed in his youth? No. But it definitely makes me respect him as a man far less than I did.

Slavery was cruel and utterly immoral.

This is no new revelation. Jefferson was an extreme hypocrite, and in many ways, cruel and callouss. On the other hand, his "other side" contributed greatly to the ideas of freedom.

In our day and age, on which side of Jefferson should we dwell?

In 1807, he was the President who pushed the bill prohibiting “the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States."

In looking at it from a historical perspective, we should appreciate the fact that he spoke out publicly against slavery at all. That is far more than most of his contemporary Virginia planters were willing to do.

And we should also note his last recorded words on the subject: "... time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also ... My sentiments have been forty years before the public ... Although I shall not live to see them consummated, they will not die with me; but living or dying, they will ever be in my most fervent prayer."

Does this absolve him from the hypocrisy and cruelty? Absolutely not. But he had legitimate concerns about simply freeing the slaves.

"t will probably be asked, why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the State, and thus save the expense of supplying by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."

Jefferson felt that blacks would long remember the injustices done to them, and because of their differences in appearance, black skin, white could easily apply their tendencies to prejudice. And, in fairness, Jefferson questioned blacks innate abilities and wondered if they had the intellectual capabilities to thrive in a free society.

But even on this last point, Jefferson seemed to entertain the possibility that the black man would be more than capable if given the chance.

"We have now in the United States a negro [Benjamin Banneker], the son of a black man born in Africa, and a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable mathematician. I procured him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new Federal city on the Potomac, and in the intervals of his leisure, while on that work, he made an almanac for the next year, which he sent me in his own handwriting, and which I enclose to you. I have seen very elegant solutions of geometrical problems by him. Add to this that he is a very worthy and respectable member of society. He is a free man. I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talents, observed in them, is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends."

Is this, on balanced, enlightened reasoning? By our standards today, certainly not. But for an 18th century southerner, it was almost unheard of, even radical to imagine such things.

Finally, I think Jefferson understood the evil nature of slavery, and feared the ultimate consequence of it.

""...And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of god? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice can not sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! . . . "

In this day and age we have to appreciate this last quote. Slavery and it's aftermath is a sin we still pay for today. It has changed the political landscape and cheapened the contributions of the founders in the eyes of many. Demographically, it has tipped the overall sentiment against freedom and towards statism. Our national sin may ultimately enslave us all, just as he imagined.

That entire article is

That entire article is speculative. The author is most likely a progressive. Let's get that out of the way.

This is the same revisionist history bullshit they spun about the south through public schools. I'll believe what I read for myself, not some Ivy league progressives speculation and OBVIOUSLY leading wording that brings you to his conclusions. He had to COMPLETELY ignore and call Jefferson's writing on slavery later in life rhetoric. How preposterously absurd.

That's not journalism or a historical account, that's propaganda.

"Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty."

Click Here To See The Candidates On The Record

I whole-heartedly agree with the last statement:

...libertarians should be the harshest and loudest critics of those in power, particularly among libertarian political leaders. Like Rothbard, libertarians should judge everyone by the same standard. Praise them when they are correct; and loudly denounce them when they are wrong.

I practice this concept.

Thanks dwalters

In fact, I think along with educating the public it is the most important task of libertarians to criticize those in power, particularly those most closely associated with libertarianism.

*Advancing the Ideas of Liberty Daily*


New feature Thursdays with Thomas?