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Jefferson’s Lesson for Conservatives

Yesterday, timed almost perfectly with the unlawful extension of the ObamaCare employer-mandate delay, President Obama was touring Monticello with the visiting French president when he joked about breaking protocol there. “That’s the good thing as a President, I can do whatever I want,” he said according to the pool report. I’m never sure anymore if this sort of thing is really a gaffe, or if the president is just trolling conservatives. Either way, it got the requisite attention.

One of the comments was to note the irony of Obama making such imperious boasts at the home of a president who feared just such a display of lawless executive whim. At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey, for example, said: “That’s precisely the opposite of the example set by Jefferson, at least in terms of the presidency. Too bad Obama hasn’t learned that lesson yet.” And of course I agree … mostly. The truth is, Jefferson actually has something in common with Obama in this regard. Both found their presidencies weighed down by public disapproval. But Jefferson, of course, respected it–and in the end, like many things Jefferson set his mind to, took it a bit overboard.

But first he flexed more executive power than he’s remembered for. In 1807, when American ships were being abused on the open seas, Jefferson believed he had two options: go to war, or keep the traders in harbor. He opted for the second. His proposed trade embargo was an astoundingly bad idea, though it received congressional approval. But Jefferson was showing signs that his everyday personality was ill-suited to the presidency. Richard Brookhiser notes that:

There was a too-good-for-this-world streak in Jefferson’s character that showed itself in many ways, from his mountaintop house, to his dislike of face-to-face argument, to his pride, which also found expression in the embargo.

Jefferson’s secretary of state, James Madison, had much to do with the embargo policy. Madison thought American exceptionalism (though of course he didn’t use the term) would assert itself, and the American people would win this game of economic chicken. They did not. The two ignored a prescient warning from Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin that “Governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated.” (Gallatin would be better remembered today, perhaps, had the Congress not blocked his nomination to be Madison’s secretary of state later on.)

But even more important, Gallatin cautioned that the difficulty of enforcing the embargo would force Jefferson to make a choice: “Congress must either vest the executive with the most arbitrary powers … or give it up altogether.” Gallatin had correctly predicted the course of the policy. Its failure took a toll on Jefferson. Brookhiser writes: “But the effort tore him up. Was he appalled by the means he had been driven to use? The party of liberty and light government was behaving more odiously than the Federalists had a decade earlier” by restricting free trade where the Federalists restricted free speech.

In any case, it sickened Jefferson, and he quite literally gave up on the presidency. He didn’t leave office–that might have been more of a scandal, but less of a constitutional offense than the course he chose, which was to simply have Madison, his unelected secretary of state, act as de facto president for the remainder of his last year in office. Madison was duly elected in the next election, but Jefferson’s actions risked undermining the system he helped create, and it was an insult to popular democracy.

The comparison between Jefferson and Obama can only be taken so far without becoming ludicrous. When Jefferson “gave up” on the process he bowed out quietly. When Obama did so, he simply discarded the process and did what he wanted. Hence, Obama’s “joke” isn’t really a joke except to the extent to which it’s on us. Nonetheless, there are a couple of lessons. One is that Madison eventually went to war, but did so from a position of greater weakness, lower public morale, and with a less prepared military. An instinct to avoid war is laudable, but in Jefferson and Madison’s case it resulted in rolling back economic freedom and nearly strangling the young nation’s economy. History has vindicated Gallatin, while also cruelly neglecting him.

The other lesson is one about the temptations of power. Jefferson turned out to be quite stubborn; his preferred policy could only be carried out by crossing his own principles, and that’s what he did. This is not to take away from Jefferson’s legacy, but to point out that Jefferson was a critic of John Adams’s crackdown on liberty when he was out of power, and ended up curbing freedom when his turn came.

Conservatives are noting that Obama is setting a disturbing precedent–but it’s one Democrats seemingly approve of. Thus it could be used in any number of ways by the next Republican president. Conservatives should resist the temptation to follow the left’s precedent the next time they have the chance. The extent of Obama’s lawlessness is the exception, and it should remain that way.


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