History, Top Stories

A Progressive Defense of Thomas Jefferson

Since the election of President Trump, American progressives have been looking at their country and its Founders with renewed scrutiny. Although protesters have rallied against Confederate statues for decades, in recent years left-wing activists have increasingly included Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers in their calls for a thoroughgoing repudiation of America’s racist past.

In 2015, protesters at the University of Missouri covered a statue of Jefferson in sticky notes labelling him a “racist” and a “rapist” for his ownership of slaves and sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. (For a defense of Jefferson from these specific charges, see Race Hochdorf’s excellent piece.) More recently, activists in Jefferson’s own state at the University of Virginia shrouded his statue, and later vandalized it with the same insults. At Hofstra University in New York, a crowd including the local College Democrats went so far as to demand the removal of a Jefferson statue from campus, declaring in a petition that he had “been embraced as an icon by white supremacist and neo-nazi organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.”

Lest one think this is limited to college campuses, the Democratic Party has also been distancing itself from Jefferson’s legacy. The Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, formerly the staple of Democratic Party fundraising and an event at which presidents from FDR to Barack Obama have spoken, has been renamed in many states. In response, evangelical activists like David Barton have sought (falsely) to claim that Jefferson was a conservative Christian. What makes both the Left’s embarrassment of Jefferson, and the Right’s appropriation of him so odd is that, historically, Jefferson has been celebrated by the Left, and with good reason: he was a revolutionary progressive and one of the founders of what we understand today as left-wing politics.

Far from being a conservative, Jefferson was the most profoundly radical politician and president the United States has ever had. In an age of chattel slavery, he sought to include a paragraph condemning the slave trade in the American Declaration of Independence, which was rejected by the Continental Congress for being too radical. That excised paragraph described the international slave trade as a “cruel war against human nature itself,” and referred to slaves as “men,” indicating that slaves were included in the same document’s earlier declarative phrase that, “all men are created equal.” Jefferson spent much of his later career opposing the slave trade, which still had much support by the time Jefferson successfully outlawed it as President in 1807. His personal relationship with slavery was complex, conflicted, and ethically tainted, and any honest appraisal of Jefferson’s views must acknowledge his tentative belief (which he described as a “suspicion”) that “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Nevertheless, politically, Jefferson was one of the most outspoken opponents of slavery at a time when popular pro-slavery ideologues like William Loughton Smith were arguing strongly in its defense.1

Jefferson’s radicalism was not limited to slavery. His bold phrase, “all men are created equal,” was audacious at a time when kings claimed their divine right to rule. This revolutionary statement alone makes Jefferson worthy of celebration. His momentous achievement was to combine Enlightenment philosophy with the romantic agrarian tradition of English liberty and to place those principles at the very heart of the new nation as it was forged. Jefferson did more than just turn this philosophy into elegant prose. While serving as American ambassador to Paris in 1789, Jefferson became intimately involved with the development of the French Revolution, which still regularly draws condemnation from conservative voices today for its radicalism.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

The international revolutionary movement started by the American and French Revolutions formed the genesis of what became known as the political Left.2 However, as the French Revolutionary terror unfolded, some of the American Founders began to distance themselves from the cause. While the excesses of Jacobin fervor made Jefferson uneasy, he never renounced his support for the revolutionaries, and spoke often in their defense. In this, Jefferson’s closest friend and ally was the English pamphleteer Thomas Paine, who, unlike Jefferson, continues to be celebrated by the Left today. The irony here is that without Jefferson, Paine would likely have faded into obscurity. When Paine’s radical views opposing slavery, Christianity, and economic inequality became known, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and eventually even George Washington broke ties with him, and Paine was unofficially banished from the United States. Jefferson was the sole Founding Father who remained in contact with Paine and continued to promote his works.

In a barely disguised attack on Adams, Hamilton, and others who distanced themselves from revolution, Jefferson said of Paine’s perhaps most influential work, The Rights of Man, “that something is at length to be publicly said against the political heresies which have sprung up among us.” And, like Paine, Jefferson was a strong defender of environmentalism, religious freedom, secularism, and the separation of church and state, even for majority non-white religions like Islam and Hinduism. All these principles continue to be key pillars of the progressive Left today. Contemporary college students and progressive activists eager to reject Jefferson’s vision in its entirety might want to reconsider if they really want to throw this particular baby out with the bathwater.

What many do not seem to realize is that, far from dismissing men like Jefferson as pitiless racists, early progressive radicals like Paine, Robert Owen, Frances Wright, and others drew inspiration from them. Jefferson’s ideas about property even presaged Karl Marx himself. Writing to James Madison from France, Jefferson outlined his views on property extensively:

The property of this country is absolutely concentred [sic] in a very few hands […] But after all there comes the most numerous of all classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are undisturbed only for the sake of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be labored. I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable, but the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree, is a politic measure and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on.

Though future progressives might reject specific ideas of Jefferson’s, leftists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw themselves as building on his example.3 Indeed, as I will explain in a moment, Jefferson himself would likely have shared their views.

A full analysis of the complex reasons for the modern Left’s perverse repudiation of Jefferson lies beyond the scope of this essay. It comes partly from the appeal of iconoclasm and a hostility to the pieties of tradition, but it is also related to changing trends on the Left, which today tend to analyse history and contemporary politics through the prism of race and sexual identity to the exclusion of every other consideration. Combined with what Helen Pluckrose has called “the postmodern epistemic shift,” which views the Enlightenment values Jefferson espoused as nothing more than masks for oppression, this has led the development of a contemporary Left which has little in common with its own heritage.

When I point out the peculiarly obsessive antipathy to Jefferson among sections of the activist Left, very few of my fellow progressives seem to care. With so many other issues to address, why worry if a handful of progressive activists are mistaken about history? As tempting as it might be to prioritize the unity of the Left over everything else, I cannot agree. The fact that progressives have allowed the anti-Jefferson campaign to get as far as it has is both a moral failure and a strategic error. The vast majority of Americans are proud of their nation and its history. According to recent polls, around 90 percent of American voters oppose attempts to remove Thomas Jefferson from his place of honor in American history, and that number self-evidently includes the vast majority of liberal voters. That radical activists are insulating themselves from their countrymen’s values, and continue to misunderstand and attack important and revered American symbols, bodes ill for electoral prospects of progressive politics. A better strategy would be for the American Left to celebrate Jefferson and his progressive legacy, just as their forebears once did. Reclaiming its rightful place as Jefferson’s heirs offers the Left an opportunity to reconnect with average Americans, from whom it has become increasingly remote.

Indeed, coupling patriotism with radical progressivism has been very successful in the past, and a large part of the reason for this has been the undercurrent of optimism which runs through Jeffersonian philosophy. Thomas Jefferson fundamentally believed that even if his generation were unable to solve the problems of slavery and economic inequality, future generations would inevitably question the injustices of the status quo. To this end, he believed, the revolutionary spirit had to be nurtured so that Americans could continue to shape their political system in pursuit of a more just and noble society. Jefferson made this especially clear in the Declaration of Independence:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Though one generation would be unable to solve every problem in society, the existence of a democratic government would enable those that followed to carry the imperfectly realised principles of the American Revolution forward. For Jefferson, revolution was not an event, it was a process.4

Jefferson’s idealistic philosophy of continual rejuvenation has had an incalculable effect on many of the most influential progressives who followed him. President Franklin Roosevelt regarded Jefferson as his greatest hero, even creating a memorial to him in Washington DC, and used his dedication of the Jefferson Memorial as an opportunity to unite Americans around their shared history of Jeffersonian optimism during the Second World War. Martin Luther King Jr. also invoked Jeffersonian principles during a 1965 sermon delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is a dream. It’s a great dream.

The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say, “some men”; it says “all men.” It doesn’t say “all white men”; it says “all men,” which includes black men. It does not say “all Gentiles”; it says “all men,” which includes Jews. It doesn’t say “all Protestants”; it says “all men,” which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say “all theists and believers”; it says “all men,” which includes humanists and agnostics.

Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day—that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.

Nelson Mandela, too, sang the praises of Jefferson and of the American Founding: “As freedom fighters we could not have known of such men as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, and not been moved to act as they were moved to act.”5 A young Vietnamese cook named Ho Chi Minh encountered Jefferson’s ideas while living in the United States, and became influenced by them to lead the independence movement in his own home country. When writing the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh quoted Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”6 For ‘Uncle Ho,’ Jefferson’s ideology was not conservative, it was downright revolutionary.

The nineteenth century anti-slavery radicals were perhaps Jefferson’s greatest latter-day admirers, and even the most radical abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown, regarded Jefferson as a hero despite his slave ownership.7 Abraham Lincoln invoked Jefferson as a unifying symbol for the nation to rally around amidst the darkness of the Civil War. He also bestowed upon Jefferson perhaps the greatest compliment I have ever read:

But soberly, it is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation.

One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.

One dashingly calls them ‘glittering generalities’; another bluntly calls them ‘self evident lies’; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to ‘superior races.’

These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect–the supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the vanguard — the miners, and sappers — of returning despotism. We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us. […]

All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

Unfortunately, those on today’s Left who disparage Jefferson have not heeded this advice. As Lincoln said, far from being “progressive,” these individuals are “the vanguard of returning despotism.” By rejecting and denouncing our Jeffersonian past, they are despoiling an essential part of our heritage, alienating average Americans for whom these ideas matter, and ceding ground to the Right at a critical juncture in our political history. At a time when America is threatened by subversion from without and by populism from within, progressive hostility to the greatest Founder of the republic—whose principles have stood as a bulwark against such forces—is dangerous to our democracy.

Jefferson’s revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality, and continual renewal may have been inconsistently applied in his own life, but they remain the timeless “definitions and axioms of free society” Lincoln identified. Despite being a member of a higher and tyrannical order of aristocrats and slaveholders, Thomas Jefferson brought a Promethean fire of human liberty down from Olympus and offered it to all mankind. Though he never fully absolved himself of his place in that oppressive order, Jefferson does not deserve to have his liver feasted upon. The time has come to release and restore him to his rightful place as a political visionary.

We are now facing unprecedented attacks on religious freedom, equality, the natural environment, and even American democracy itself. If the Left is to oppose these developments effectively, it must reclaim and reaffirm the ideals of Jeffersonian optimism. Holding the axioms of a free society—and the man who authored them—in  contempt is the last thing American progressives should be doing now. Instead, we must restore Jefferson’s ideas to their central place in American democracy and the Left. The time has come for the return of Jeffersonianism.

 

Ned Borninski is a historian, scholar, activist, and writer living in the United States. He may be reached at edmiborn@gmail.com

References:

1 John B. Boles, Jefferson – Architect of American Liberty, p. 460.
2 Jonathan Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How The American Revolution Ignited The World, 1775-1848. P. 282
3 Ross Wolfe, The Truth of Liberalism, p. 16.
4 Michael Hardt, Michael Hardt Presents Thomas Jefferson: The Declaration of Independence. P. xii.
5 Susan Dunn. Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light. P. 190.
6 Ibid. P. 175
7 Ibid. P. 166.

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31 Comments

  1. stephen harrod buhner says

    Very well put, thank you. I have been reading many of George Orwell’s essays of late. Interestingly, with some minor word alterations he could be writing about our own times. He makes a very useful distinction: liberals and leftists are not the same life form. Leftists, according to Orwell, are ideological utopians who tend to be consumed by a sense of moral outrage and a demand for ideological purity that they try to force on others through increasing levels of violence of one sort or another. Liberals are something else entirely, a way of life and belief that has been captured well in this article. It is incumbent upon all of us to resist the ideological utopianism of the left which as Orwell noted always becomes totalitarianism if not resisted, and stand for the liberal values upon which human dignity, democracy, and freedom rest.

  2. yichen says

    I am neither a historian nor an American, but isn’t the guiding principle of Jefferson individualism and small government? Isn’t the whole rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton largely about the role of federal government which Jefferson was always leery about? Sorry, I find classifying as progressive makes no sense at all.

    • Ned Borninski says

      You’re entirely correct that Jefferson was, philosophically, devoted to small government principles. What many people don’t know today is that originally it was the left which was more devoted to smaller government principles, as back then government was seen as a tool of the rich. Socialists back then generally favored small local communities. It was only later that the left became associated with larger government.

      I’d also add that Jefferson was not as small government as is commonly assumed. As president he took action with the federal government on many occasions, one instance being his federal abolition of the international slave trade.

      • ADM64 says

        That is sophistry. Jefferson’s entire natural law, natural rights philosophy, his respect for reason and property and individualism utterly at odds with progressivism in particular and leftists generally. Indeed, the progressive movement formed at the end of the 19th century explicitly rejected the principles of the founding. Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, Herbert Croly, William James and others were crystal clear about this. That’s why, initially, they sought and passed amendments to the Constitution.

        Jefferson, like all of the Founders, was not perfectly consistent. The body of his work and thought, though, cannot be reconciled with the collectivism, subjectivism, relativism and socialism of today’s progressive movement: not at all.

        Then there’s the claim that the left has historically embraced his ideas more than the right. First, for the first 150 years of the country’s history, most Americans embraced the general principles of the founders. Slavers and segregationists (whom were overwhelmingly Democrats), did not. They used versions of Jefferson’s views on the union and small government to rationalize their bigotry, picking parts while ignoring the substance (sort of like your article). Socialists and leftists sought protection for their right to speak using reference to Jefferson’s ideas while likewise rejecting the actual philosophy from which they spang. Today, an actual, substantive, left-right split exists over fundamentals. The left knows that the Founding – and thus both the Constitution and Declaration – embody a particular political philosophy, classical liberalism, which is completely at odds with pprogressivism.

        Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Ayn Rand, Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedan, William F. Buckley, virtually all libertarians, and many others on the right were substantively aligned with Jefferson in ways the left just isn’t. Again, these people were not perfectly consistent, but they were more aligned with Jefferson than anyone on the left.

  3. Pingback: A Progressive Defense of Thomas Jefferson – Foggytown's Micro Blog

  4. Have any statues or plaques or buildings dedicated to democrat Sen Robert Byrd been defaced? If not, why? Or, is ignorance so great they don’t know about his Klan leadership position? He was a big mentor to Hillary when the Clintons came to DC.

  5. I have always found Jefferson a bit of a perfumed prince phony while agreeing with his views. Not just with slavery but his indulgent living. (especially during boycotts of goods)

    • Unto T. says

      In long run in human society only outcomes of actions matter.

      I think these days we pay too much attention to persons’ speech, behaviour, looks, lifestyle etc. when judging their actions and thoughts. We are quite Victorian in this sense.

      We end up in endless debates over sophisticated analysis of used words … and at the same time real people are drowning to sea (yes, I’m European).

      I think Jefferson’s lifestyle was his strength along with progressive thoughts … He was elite and understood how present world functioned but he also understood the need for change.

  6. AA says

    The contemporary progressive is increasingly hostile to the very principles the country was founded on. In the hierarchy of values, the progressive places individual liberty at the very bottom, far below other values such as group grievance, rectifying historical injustices, and repression of any impure thoughts or attitudes deemed politically incorrect. What is perhaps most disturbing is that the contemporary prog is happy to dispense with the principle of individual liberty and responsibility when it proves a “stumbling block” to the larger goal of satisfying group grievances.

    I admire the author’s attempt to recover Jefferson for progressives, but I ultimately see this as a futile gesture considering the manner in which the progressive’s value structure is the exact inverse of the value structure espoused by any of the Founders. Of course, the more scholarly prog recognizes this — hence the concerted attempt to delegitimiize and ultimately obliterate the legacy of all the Founders and the country’s founding moment.

    • Bubblecar says

      You’ve decided to use the term “progressive” to refer to the progressives you most strongly disagree with, and to ignore the other progressives who are more likely to agree with this article.

      There are progressives who believe that a society with the most respect for minorities is one that genuinely respects the freedom of the individual, which also ensures the greatest diversity.

      “Human rights”, as the term suggests, should apply to each individual human, not to social labels, cultures, corporations or institutions.

      Nonetheless as things stand, there are individuals who still suffer adverse discrimination on the basis of characteristics they share with groups that have been historically oppressed, and progressives are still working to rectify this.

      Some are not doing an effective job of it and their tactics alienate potential allies.

      • ADM64 says

        The smallest minority is the individual. His rights are inalienable. They do not include a right to the time, labor, person, property or good iopinion of any other human being. This is at odds with progressivism. Jefferson and others believed a just society was one based on actual individual rights. He famously noted that the policy of the government is liberty, neither helping nor hurting individuals from pursuing their goals. Again, this is at odds with all progressive thought. Sorry.

        • Bubblecar says

          I don’t think the term “progressive thought” means what you think it means. Jefferson was a progressive revolutionary and a liberal humanist, not a modern American anti-tax libertarian, who pretend to regard human society itself as an unwanted imposition (but who are just as dependent on it as the rest of us). Sorry.

          • nicky says

            And, as we saw, he was a proponent of progressive tax rates (progressive in the sense of incremental).

        • John Laing says

          Children have a right to the labor of their parents; to say otherwise is to endorse abuse and neglect. A citizen has the right to petition their government for redress of grievances, even at the expense of some civil servant’s time, or some judge’s inclination to be biased against them for personal reasons irrelevant to the matter at hand. The moral basis for reallocation of underutilized property from the idle rich to the desperately poor is no less fundamental.

  7. EK says

    I think it would be more accurate to use Jefferson’s own description of his political philosophy; liberal constitutional democratic-republicanism. The terms left, right and progressive are too anachronistic to be useful and are very distracting.

    I think Jefferson’s great accomplishment was to fuse the liberal British whiggism that emerged after 1688 with the populist English republicanism that had emerged between 1630-45 into a durable political settlement that lasted from 1800 to about 1900; if I had to put an end date on it it would be 1903. In this he succeeded where Lord Saye and Sele, Baron Brook, the Earls of Warwick and of Lincoln, Henry Vane the Younger, Henry Marten, Col. Thomas Rainborowe and the Levellers had failed in the 1640-50s. Jefferson was building on the successful fusion of these two factions that had been accomplished in New England after 1630 and not inventing anything really new.

    • AA says

      @EK: But is anyone ever so detached from their culture and history that they are capable of “inventing anything really new”?

      • EK says

        No, I think it poor history and poor philosophy to suggest otherwise. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants and we would do well to identify whose shoulders we are standing upon.

        There is far too much hagiography associated with the American revolutionary generation.

        • Ned Borninski says

          Hagiography? Maybe once upon a time, but these days it seems the Founders are more likely to be demonized than anything.

        • markbul says

          “There is far too much hagiography associated with the American revolutionary generation.”

          That’s what my brother was taught in college. In 1968. Where have you been – living in a cage? Your great insight was a tedious academic trope two generations ago.

          • Bill says

            But it hasn’t been taught in schools since as the current Progressives seek to rewrite history (hence this article’s relevance).

  8. Dan Beamer says

    Ned, great article! Keep up the excellent research and writing! This could be used to g
    et into Grad school?

  9. ga gamba says

    Let’s not forget Jefferson’s role in the defeat of the Barbary Pirates.

    We are now facing unprecedented attacks on religious freedom, equality, the natural environment, and even American democracy itself.

    And this is where Mr Borninski ruined his own essay. Was this sentence written by autopilot or is it something you genuinely believe?

    Please specify where and how these attacks exists, by whom, and, if they exit, also how they are “unprecedented”. Actual bona fide “unprecedented” examples and not hyperbolic catastrophising, overwrought assertions, and overly imaginative conspiracies.

    I presume a person who claims to be a historian knows of the Japanese internment, the imprisonment of the Amish and other Anabaptists, Indian Removal Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Jim Crow laws, anti-sodomy laws, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the shooting of demonstrators at Kent State, the “Know-Nothings”, the harassment and violence against Mormons forcing them to flee across country, married women’s property rights, the Bible Riots, yada yada yada,

    • Bill says

      Don’t forget the Battle of Athens in 1946!

      • ga gamba says

        Indeed.

        This is where progressives wrong foot themselves time and time again: a piss-poor understanding of history barring Columbus, slavery, and Jim Crow. I presume they attended school, yet reading how frequently they claim to be “well-educated” and “the smart ones”, which at times gives them the neck to assert us dummies ought to be disenfranchised, I’m at a loss to understand how they reached such a high opinion of themselves.

        Don’t get me wrong, I think Borninski wrote an otherwise informative and interesting essay. But why he’d want to torpedo it with that sentence raises questions in my mind. He delved into those five history books, and perhaps many more, to research his essay but somehow he still thinks the here and now (under Trump, I presume) is worse than ever. That he couldn’t even substantiate this point in an essay otherwise chock full of substance suggests to me he’s taken “unprecedented attacks” as an article of faith unpinned by progressive woke dogma.

        On the surface the intent of the essay is to restore Jefferson’s good name, but the audience here is those unlikely to have disparaged him in the first place. If this was the real intent, then The Nation, The Huffington Post, Salon, or Jacobin would offer the far more appropriate readership to that end. I doubt this was the genuine or at least the primary goal. I think there’s a discreet message that lurks beneath that indicated to me the essay’s intent is to restore in part progressives’ sullied reputation amongst liberal centrists. The 2020 election is in two years after all.

        • Ned Borninski says

          I’m glad you (partially) liked my essay. My point wasn’t so much as to restore progressives’ reputations, but more to argue why progressives should care about the mistaken understanding of history perpetrated by our own.

          It seems like your biggest issue was with the word “unprecedented”. I’m well aware of all of the events you’ve mentioned, but I still do think there is something unprecedented about Trump. He may not be the first President to attack our liberties, but he is attacking them in a different way than previous presidents have done. You may disagree with me here, but I believe the Russia allegations against President Trump, and I think it is unprecedented to have a president who is secretly working with a rival, undemocratic power.

          • ga gamba says

            My point… to argue why progressives should care about the mistaken understanding of history perpetrated by our own.

            As I earlier wrote, the anti-forefather progressive audience exists in much larger numbers elsewhere. You’re preaching to the choir here. I’ll wait for Rosa to confirm whether or not she’s been swayed.

            Of course words matter, be it one or many. Your one word states such things have never happened in the history of the republic. That’s a bold, if not very reckless, claim. You’d better be absolutely positive about it.

            You concede you’ve taken the allegations as fact, as I suspected. For the sake of your argument let’s say this is true. This would be an attack on American democracy, yeah? In what way is this also an unprecedented attack on religious freedom, equality, the natural environment?

            Have other American leaders been accused of treason? Indeed they have. George Washington was accused by… ahem… Jefferson, Madison, and others for negotiating the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation, a.k.a. the Jay Treaty, with Britain.

            When the provisions of Jay’s Treaty were made public in April of 1795, the public uproar was deafening. It seemed that Jay had not accomplished anything he had set out to do, and instead handed over what amounted to an affront to the national dignity. There were no provisions for compensation for wartime damages, illegal captures of ships and impressment of American sailors, or for the protracted Indian wars caused by the British occupation of the western posts. The British agreed to abandon the posts, but only after eighteen months. Especially insulting to the American people was a seventy ton limit on American ships trading in the British West Indies, effectively locking Americans out of the lucrative lumber trade.

            Such was the public rage that Jay was burned in effigy, and Hamilton was pelted with stones when he tried to speak in favor of the treaty outside of City Hall in New York.
            www(dot)let(dot)rug(dot)nl/usa/biographies/alexander-hamilton/the-jay-treaty-controversy-(april-august-1795).php

            As the public tempest had swelled, some wanted Washington impeached. Cartoons showed the President being marched to a guillotine. Even in the President’s beloved Virginia, Revolutionary veterans raised glasses and cried, “A speedy Death to General Washington!” Reeling from the blows, the sixty-three-year-old Washington wrote that the “infamous scribblers” were calling him “a common pickpocket” in “such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero.”
            www(dot)americanheritage(dot)com/content/impeach-president-washington

            BTW, when Jefferson was president he attacked the press for what we now call “fake news”.
            Writing in April 1807: Nothing can now be believed which is in a newspaper. I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.

            It’s concise enough to fit into a tweet. Perhaps Trump ought to copypasta former presidents’ words in his tweets, and when accused of doing or saying something unprecedented he may cite the origin. I reckon Americans may learn some astonishing history about their country.

            As it is presently, the only bona fide unprecedented act by Trump was his telephone call with the President of Taiwan since such an act by a US president contravenes the one China policy the US accepted when it normalised diplomatic relations with Beijing. Of course Trump did so prior to his inauguration so it’s debatable whether this breached the treaty. Certainly it’s an unprecedented act by a president-elect. Eureka! We found his crime. Notify Mueller.

          • Chad Jessup says

            Ned, your article could have reached a superb rating; however, your denigrating comments about Trump show that you have been brain-washed by the propaganda arms of the Democratic Party, i.e. ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, etc., thus lowering the quality thereof.

            You believe the allegations against Trump merely because you want to, not because there is proof. I am an Independent and go where the facts lead, and after two years there have been no indications of Trump “secretly working with a rival”.

  10. Unto T. says

    Thank you for this article … It was interesting read eventhough I’m not American.

    I think every “revolution” needs people like Jefferson – a person of elite that understands need for change.

    If revolution is driven solely by “oppressed” they seem always to end up like French Revolution, first chaos and then tyranny. Just think all these communist revolutions that brought in persons like Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Stalin, Castro, Chavez … not to mentioning all African revolutions.

  11. Think Ming! says

    Replying to Ga Gamba:

    Trump did not breach the ‘one China policy’ by calling the President of Taiwan. Nor is the ‘one China policy’ a ‘treaty’.

    The US has diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) rather than Taiwan, but the US merely ‘acknowledges’ the PRC’s One China Policy.

    Acknowledgment is not acceptance.

    Official US policy is that status of Taiwan remains undetermined since WWII.

    • ga gamba says

      @ Ming,

      TL;DR: it’s murky.

      Yours is a good comment. The One China policy is not a treaty in and of itself, it is a component of the Shanghai Communique.and Joint Communique of the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China of 1979 (hereafter Joint Communique).

      Para 2 of the Joint Communique: The United States of America recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.

      States agree to exchange diplomatic recognition. For example, Para 1 of the Joint Communique:The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have agreed to recognize each other and to establish diplomatic relations as of January 1, 1979.

      Per your point re acknowledgment, this is stated in Para 7: The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.

      We can’t read Para 7 in isolation and ignore the preceding paragraphs. In Para 1 and 2 the US recognises Beijing’s sole rule of China is de jure. Is recognition, even when tempered by acknowledgment, acceptance? There a differing opinions on this. We know it’s neither support nor endorsement; this much is clear. Advocates of one line of thought say it’s acceptance because it’s congruent with Para 1 and 2 as well as subsequent US actions.

      This acceptance is demonstrated in act by the US severing diplomatic relations with Taipei. It maintains unofficial relations (until recently), which means there is no US embassy and consulates – the US government had to create a non-profit corporation to continue its diplomatic mission with Taipei. The US-citizen employees at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the unofficial embassy and consulate, are not State Department employees. Actually they are but through the magic of paperwork shuffle, documented here by the Office of Personnel Management they are reclassified (PDF). Why would the US undertake all these actions if this were not an acceptance of the One China policy?

      The lack of endorsement of Beijing’s position is demonstrated by the Taiwan Relations Act, which guarantees US support for the island. Crucially, this act states that the US must aid Taiwan to defend itself. This is US law.

      But, here’s where it gets tricky. Para 3 of the Joint Communique: The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China reaffirm the principles agreed on by the two sides in the Shanghai Communique and emphasize once again that:

      So, we have to reference back to the Shanghai Communique to understand Para 3. Para 12: The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.

      If you don’t challenge a position then you accept it.

      The Shanghai Communique is a foundational document on which everything else is built. I may be wrong, but I know of no other document between Washington and Beijing that revised or clarified it. Notice who “the Chinese” are in Para 12. It’s both the mainland and Taiwan. Referencing back to Para 3 and 7 of Joint Communique: emphasize once again that: . . . . The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.

      The “Chinese position”, once again reaffirmed, is that of both Taipei and Beijing. Did the US and Beijing tie Taipei’s hands? If Taipei were to declare independence is this a renunciation of the “Chinese position” as accepted by the US?

      Lastly, and importantly, neither communique is US law. The Taiwan Relations Act is US law. The Act makes no mention of the One China Policy. At most the Act states US policy is to:

      (3) to make clear that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means;
      (4) to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;

      The Act demonstrates American support in law for Taiwan, and this is more powerful language than recognise, acknowlege, and accept in communique.

      As we know the law is supreme, so treaties (a.k.a. accords) when signed and ratified are law. Often this requires other laws be amended or the treaty, whilst in negotiation, be amended to comply with the law. The foundational documents of US-Sino relations are the three communiques – the last one was in 1982 covering some of the details of arms sales to Taipei. This is a flimsy foundation because at their essence they are public messages and prone to wide interpretation and differing understanding. In fact Beijing edited the Chinese-language version of Joint Communique’s Para 7 replacing “acknowledges” with “recognises”. Subsequent documents such as the treaty on dual taxation and the China Trade bill that passed Congress in 2000 are law. None of these mention the One China policy. In fact, the China Trade bill requires the US government to ensure Beijing doesn’t interfere with Taiwan’s accession into the WTO.

      Official US policy is that status of Taiwan remains undetermined since WWII.

      This was correct at the conclusion Treaty of San Francisco. In 1958 the State Department’s official policy was: That the provisional capital of the Republic of China has been at Taipei, Taiwan (Formosa) since December 1949; that the Government of the Republic of China exercises authority over the island; that the sovereignty of Formosa has not been transferred to China; and that Formosa is not a part of China as a country, at least not as yet, and not until and unless appropriate treaties are hereafter entered into. Formosa may be said to be a territory or an area occupied and administered by the Government of the Republic of China, but is not officially recognized as being a part of the Republic of China. Source: www(dot)taiwanbasic(dot)com/state/usg/shengvsro.htm

      Key here is “… the sovereignty of Formosa has not been transferred to China; and that Formosa is not a part of China as a country, at least not as yet . . . . is not officially recognized as being a part of the Republic of China”

      Both the Shanghai and Joint Communiques see this language disappear. Shanghai: all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. This formulation is a variant of the domestic jurisdiction argument, invoking an ethnic instead of a territorial community, which has precedent since the mid-19th century. To me this settles the question of how the US sees Taiwan (and Formosa) insofar as no one but the Chinese have sovereignty of Formosa. Of course, as I mentioned before, they’re communiques and not treaties. Who knows how a distinct Taiwanese, i.e. non-Chinese, identity that’s emerged since the ’90s will change things?

      In March of this year Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows unrestricted two-way travel for officials from the United States and Taiwan, thus restoring direct official US contacts.

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