Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

A Jeffersonian Comment on Freedom and Ignorance

Jefferson on ignorance and freedomNo one particular reason for posting this quote from Thomas Jefferson, which is a line from a letter written in his ever-reflective old age. It is a personal favorite, and if there needs to be a reason a quick look at this morning’s news was reason enough.  In an age of apathy, obsession with entertainment, and the mistaken belief that the average American can do nothing to change the course of our beleaguered democratic republic, Mr. Jefferson’s words are sharper than a two-edged sword. Knowledge is power — why do you think your government wants to watch you? Once you know, act. The United States will only remain a republic of constitutionally protected men and women if we work to keep it that way. Those ideas worked for Jefferson and his colleagues when they declared independence, supported a war that made “liberty” its credo, and built a nation of exceptional value. Those ideas will work for us today if we still  are willing to work for our freedom and pay the price for liberty rather than laziness.

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Why Thomas Jefferson Was the Right Man for the Job

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

I recently stumbled across an article posted at Forbes.com examining the leadership qualities of Thomas Jefferson and why he was well-qualified to sum up the revolutionary principles of self-government that were the basis of the American war for independence.  I am usually not a fan of the “Leadership Skills of (Blank)” genre of articles, but this essay does a yeoman-like job of explaining the intellectual and personal qualities that shaped Jefferson’s belief in government by consent of the people. It is a good introduction to the political and intellectuals sources used by Jefferson when writing the Declaration of Independence, as well as another proof why Forbes (at least in my opinion) has some of the better writing on non-business-related topics found in any business magazine. It is well worth the time spent reading the brief but informative essay.


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For Mr. Lincoln, “Created Equal” in the Declaration Meant the Right to Earn Your Keep

Once after a particularly grueling and disappointing track and field meet, a young son sat silently during the ride home in the pick-up truck of his history teacher father. “What’s the matter?” the father inquired. “Jefferson lied, Dad,” the boy replied grimly. “All men are not created equal.”

Thomas Jefferson and the various shapers of the Declaration of Independence did not mean that humankind is born with equal gifts, talents, and abilities. As the young athlete discovered, that kind of utopian world does not exist in a shot-put pit – or anywhere else in life if the observer is willing to exercise his or her common sense while analyzing the question of equality.

Yet, today the meaning of equality has become something quite different than the one espoused in the Declaration. For example,

President Obama: According to his Second Inaugural Address, equality will be achieved through "collective action."

President Obama: According to his Second Inaugural Address, equality will be achieved through “collective action.”

none other than President Barack Obama in his second inaugural address declared that equality, an idea that he considers “the most evident of truths,” means “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” and that “progress does not compel us to settle centuries-old debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time.” Since then, the president has repeatedly made comments indicating he remains dedicated to those definitions. Both are interesting ideas worthy of debate, but they are hardly illuminating when it comes to understanding what equality in the United States evidently means. The scope of results based on President Obama’s vague formula could range from a society free of any social, political, or economic barriers to the politician’s idea of equality i.e. equal opportunity to bless your constituents with favors and federal programs.

We need a better standard. That standard can be found in the life and words of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest proponent of the Declaration of Independence.  Lincoln has been called one our nation’s greatest citizens because of how his words unite us. President Obama twice swore his oath of office on Mr. Lincoln’s copy of the Bible; school children still learn the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address.  He is the source of our most soaring rhetoric about the nation’s purpose and the political intentions of the Founders. Furthermore, Lincoln wrote and spoke frequently not only about the human rights contained in the Declaration but also the economic rights described in the document that became embodied in a nation that celebrates the individual, not the collective – what he called “the right to rise.” Today, we would call it the right to do everything legal and moral to earn a living, keep profits, and choose how our economic future could play out for the best.

One of the statements in the Declaration that Lincoln turned to repeatedly was the most familiar one: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Obviously, he applied that belief to the question of slavery in America, saying that any denial that the phrase applied to blacks was a denial of the plain language that Jefferson wrote.  However, Lincoln even went on to say that denying that truth and its application to black Americans was more than a lie – it was the extinguishing of the moral light that guided the nation. If all men are created equal, they cannot be property. You cannot set a house free or a horse free through a sales transaction. Only humans can be released from slavery, and the Declaration clearly applied to men. He strenuously maintained any other interpretation was either ignorant or dishonest.


Lincoln: Equality is the right to live in a nation that allows the individual to run "the race of life."

Lincoln: Equality is the right to live in a nation that allows the individual to run “the race of life.”

 However, Lincoln also deeply believed Jefferson’s essential statement made America a land where even the poorest citizen could have a better life because he or she could pursue happiness. Real freedom is found when the government of this nation allows its people to win what he called “the race of life” because they have the freedom to run the race (the pursuit of happiness) as they choose. In Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, historian Gabor S. Boritt examined Lincoln’s economic vision and determined that economic opportunity was one of the unifying themes of Lincoln’s public career from his first campaigns for the Illinois legislature to his presidency. Remember, Lincoln was a man who had escaped grinding poverty in his youth through self-improvement and opportunity, therefore government had a moral obligation to protect liberty so people (particularly the poor) possessed ample opportunity to rise as far as talent and ambition could take them. Even Lincoln’s moral opposition to slavery had an economic message, for slavery was not only wrong because it stole the God-given right of human freedom, but it made the slave-holder dependent on a government that enforced slavery rather than the noble institution of free labor, which is based on men who governed their own destiny. Using words that any self-made business owner would understand, Lincoln once said,“The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way to all—gives hope to all, and consequent energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” – a way that would only remain open only if government was dedicated to maintaining a clear path for opportunity through “the pursuit of happiness.”

In fact, Lincoln believed that economic improvement would be one of the chief blessings of freeing enslaved Americans, saying,

“So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else. When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life. I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son! I want every man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition — when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.”

Like the Founding generation, Lincoln believed a government that stifled economic liberty was just as unjust as a government that denied political liberty. There was more to Abraham Lincoln than crass materialism, but the man clearly believed that Jefferson’s promise of equality, manifested in a free government, meant the opportunity to rise in life. “It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations,” Lincoln told a group of Union soldiers in the 166th Ohio Regiment a little more than a month after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Few American since the Revolution have understood the full dimension of the links between liberty, freedom, equality, and opportunity expressed in the Declaration of Independence as Abraham Lincoln. “The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate,” Lincoln wrote in 1861. “Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.” No wonder Lincoln had the strength during this nation’s worst crisis to transform a bloody civil war into a quest for a new birth of freedom that would provide an enslaved people political and economic opportunity on par with free whites.

James Parton, the nation’s first professional biographer, described the significance of Jefferson’s words in the Declaration succinctly: “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If Jefferson is right, America is right.” More than 230 years have passed since Jefferson wrote the statement that defined the meaning of the United States. Since then, there has been much debate whether the ideas that formed this nation are as important as claimed by others in our nation’s past. (Even Lincoln once raised the question of the whether the United States could have come into being without the Declaration.) That is in realm of counterfactual speculation, but it is certain the United States would not have been the same without it. The Declaration became a source of liberty and freedom for those who run the race of life as individuals, not as a herd.  It remains the best source for those priceless national qualities. Millions of this nation’s past citizens clinged to its promises; millions continue to use it as the measure of whether the United States lives up to its promises. Historians have not always embraced that self-evident truth, a decision fraught with more than academic consequences. As the historian David Hackett Fischer points out, scholars who deny the expansion of liberty and freedom in the United States are dooming themselves to irrelevance. Liberty and freedom are the central ideas in United States, and without those ideas we doom ourselves and our nation to irrelevance.   We must never forget that the nation was founded on deeply held conviction regarding the equal chance to run the race of life and do our best to rise as far as talent and hard work will take us. For all their flaws, contradictions, high-minded ideals and coarse failures, Jefferson, the other Founders, and Lincoln were right. America was right, and our ideas not only matter, but they give our nation life. We measure ourselves by a standard set by a man who transcended his flaws because someday reason would prevail and the United States would recognize all the rich and full implications of the phrase, “All men are created equal.” Like Lincoln, we should never have a feeling that does not spring politically and economically from the Declaration of Independence.

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Congress Decides A Declaration of Independence Is Necessary

The Committee of Five

The Committee of Five

On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to appoint a committee that would draft a declaration of independence. Some historians have humorously referred to this group (called the Committee of Five) as “Jefferson and Co.” It is true that Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the first draft (called the “Rough Draught”) of the Declaration, written with the natural rights philosophy of John Locke, George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (published June 12, 1776), his own drafts of the Preamble to the Virginia Constitution and the essay Summary View of the Rights of British Americans, as well as the need to defend the American cause firmly in mind. However, the other members of the committee – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman – offered invaluable contributions. Both Adams and Franklin revised the original draft, making specific recommendations regarding Jefferson’s wording and content.
Additionally, the entire Committee of Five read and revised this intermediate draft. On June 28, the draft then was submitted to Congress, which revised the text further, including the removal of Jefferson’s condemnation of the slave trade and the addition as a final paragraph of a resolution passed July 2 declaring independence, before approving the final version.

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Were The Founding Fathers and Mothers Good Fathers and Mothers?

cropped-trumbull-large.jpgThey have been quoted and examined for their views on liberty, freedom, rights, and statecraft, but the Atlantic Monthly asks a question that seems like a natural when discussing the Founding Fathers and Mothers: Were they good parents? With tongue only lightly pressed into her cheek, Heidi Grant Halvorsen examines the parenting models of Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams in an article that explores how one used incentives and the other admonitions to follow the rules when giving directives to their children. It is the difference between what psychologists call promotion parenting vs. prevention parenting. At first blush, the article is an interesting though obvious foray into psychohistory, a discipline that possesses more scholarly weaknesses than assets. But the article succeeds as an intelligent palate cleanser if you need some food for thought to help you get through one more day of the work week before Friday.  If nothing else, you can decide which Founder was the better parent to his or her children.

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Is This Thomas Jefferson? Scholars Claim An Oil Painting Might Be the Earliest Portrait of the Declaration’s Author

Is this the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson?

Is this the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson?

A 1785 oil painting by the French artist Nicolas Delapierre showing a gentleman seated at a desk and beginning to write on a sheet of paper might be the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson, painted while the author of the Declaration of Independence was the United States’s minister to France.

O. Roy Chalk, who also purchased the renowned 1789 Houdon bust of Jefferson now at Monticello, owned the painting for more than 41 years. The entrepreneur was an enthusiastic art collector who used his considerable fortune earned from interests in real estate, airlines, bus companies, newspapers and a rail line that hauled bananas in Central America to purchase works of art by notable works by Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Mary Cassatt, among others. Chalk died in 1995.

Omnis, Inc., a Virginia consulting firm of  researchers, is examining the painting in an effort to authenticate who appears in the portrait. The painting portrays an unidentified eighteenth-century gentleman seated at a desk, cravat undone, and putting quill pen to paper. He is holding a copy of a book titled De la Caisse d’Escompte, written by the French orator and statesman Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, several years before Mirabeau achieved prominence as a leading figure in the French Revolution. The book sharply criticizes methods of financial speculation popular in pre-Revolutionary France. Many of Jefferson’s economic ideals were influenced by Mirabeau,  and echoes of the French commentator’s critiques color Jefferson’s distaste for “stock -jobbers,” the National Bank, and aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s financial plans during the early Federal period.

The researchers established a Web site to release information about the painting, describe current research regarding its subject, and solicit additional information from the public. The Web site has a page called “Jefferson Connections” that offers tantalizing details such as similarities of facial features in the portrait and circumstantial historical evidence that indicates the painting could be a portrait commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. Particularly fascinating is the fact that the painting is similar to composition to a mirror image portrait of John Adams, Jefferson’s close friend, painted by Mather Brown. According to the Web site, unless the parallels in these two portraits are mere coincidences it appears that Brown had access to the 1785 Delapierre portrait in London when he painted the Adams portrait there in 1788.

The site also urges any readers with relevant information about the Delapierre painting to contact the researchers.

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“… Thenceforward, and Forever Free …”: The 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

A detail from a rare original copy of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

A detail from a rare original copy of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Happy New Year. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the implementation of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Although I have noted at length elsewhere the significance of this document and how it changed the goals of the U.S. Civil War, it is still fitting to acknowledge this noteworthy day in U.S. history.

Lincoln issued the preliminary preliminary proclamation on  Sept. 22, 1862, when  it served as a warning to those states in rebellion that if they did not return back to the Union within 100 days, all the slaves in those states would be set free. It also issued an invitation to black Americans to join the Union Army and Navy. This two-pronged economic and military strategy that targeted slavery’s importance to the Confederacy as “the engine of war” (as Lincoln put it) ultimately became one of the chief reasons the North was victorious. With its issuance, both Northern Copperheads and Southern Democrats claimed Lincoln had transformed the Civil War into a race war. Black Americans celebrated its practical effect: More than 50,000 slaves in territory under Union control were immediately freed, despite the obvious fact that the Confederacy would ignore the war-time order and millions remained in bondage. Yet, slaves escaped from the South by the tens of thousands, bound to cross Union lines and join the republic’s military in a fight for their freedom.

Traditionally, the Emancipation Proclamation has fared poorly when estimated by many historians. Richard Hofstadter famously and bluntly stated the document “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading and did not in fact free any slaves.  Surprising no one who knows Howard Zinn’s work, the late Howard Zinn called it a sop given by a racist Lincoln to Radical Republicans in order to maintain unity in a fractious Republican Party. Despite the renown of both scholars, their assessments miss the mark. Lincoln, a man who repeatedly embraced Jeffersonian principles in his personal struggle for success and his political development during public life, issued what Allen Guelzo called the last great Enlightenment political document of 19th century America. Lincoln would expand his understanding of Jeffersonian liberty further in the Gettysburg Address, a rhetorical explanation of the Civil War’s role as bloody midwife during the country’s new birth of freedom.

The Emancipation Proclamation was no empty gesture, no piece of political wheeling and dealing.  “When the Proclamation was issued,” one former slave told a congressional committee, “that was when I decided to flee my master.”  Another said, “I have been a slave from my childhood up to the time I was set free by the Emancipation Proclamation.” As one Union officer noted, the slaves then had “a spirit of independence—a feeling they are no longer slaves.” You cannot enslave a people who know they are free.


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Thomas Jefferson, Master Politician?

Thomas Jefferson, author of The Declaration of Independence and subject of David Barton's "The Jefferson Lies'

Thomas Jefferson, subject of  Jon Meacham’s “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power”

The most common image of Thomas Jefferson is the Sage of Monticello, an intellectual and political luminary who rose above the tawdriness of politics in a way that defies gravity. Jefferson himself preferred the reputation he gained during the last decade of his life as the Pen of Liberty, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, founded the secular University of Virginia, and convinced the Virginia legislature to adopt his bill for religious liberty. (If a man’s tombstone is any indication of how he wishes history to assess him, Jefferson’s self-composed epitaph speaks volumes.)

As in all matters Jeffersonian, the reality is far more complex. Few biographers have examined Jefferson’s political career – and a career politician he was. Schooled in roughhouse Virginia politics from the first time he rubbed shoulders with the royal governor during his college days at William and Mary, his career was marked by tactics familiar to anyone in the cockpit of partisan politics today. Jefferson frequently used surrogates to fight his battles on controversial issues, remained silent in the face of criticism (the Sally Hemmings controversy is one famous example of the Sphinx of Monticello at his most mute), and practiced the art of the well-placed contradiction (for example, publicly espousing the “Jeffersonian” ideal of open, limited, constitutional government while secretly negotiating the Louisiana Purchase and then presenting the deal to Congress as fait accompli).

Jon Meacham in his new book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power spends much-needed time in the political world of Thomas Jefferson, and it is a welcome visit. One always can be cynical about Jefferson, a trend that has marked at least the last 40 years of Jefferson studies that often can be boiled down to a simple statement: Jefferson is an unknowable hypocrite who declared “all men are created equal” while sexually enjoying at least one of his slaves and clinging his entire life to the continuance of slavery as an institution.  The questions about Jefferson and slavery are perennial and unavoidable, but Meacham convincingly portrays Jefferson as a man who understood the emerging crop of voters in the new republic as men (remember the times) dedicated to representative government and agrarian opportunity.  The book is particularly clear on Jefferson’s role in the growth of what would become the Democratic Party, though Jefferson swore his entire life that he was not the founder of any political party and his efforts to reverse the Federalist agenda of the Washington administration were simply attempts to preserve the republican spirit of the American Revolution and a rejection of monarchial power he believed Alexander Hamilton favored.  (Hence, the first name of the first “Democratic Party,” the Jeffersonian Republicans.) Yet, Jefferson’s own words clearly detail his belief that in a free society, differences of opinion will naturally give birth to partisan factions. The agenda the factions pursue is what really matters. As Jefferson once wrote to his friend Henry Lee in 1824:

“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.”

Considering 1824 is the year of the first presidential election cycle that recorded the popular vote and the inaugural year of what some American historians still call The Era of the Common Man, Jefferson was a clear-eyed analyst of what would forever mark the landscape of national politics in the United States. From then on, a two-party political system each claiming a vision of liberty that they would present to the people while pursuing the same object, namely what is good for nation, would dominate American national politics. Again, like so many things about Jefferson, the idea is simple but the reality is often monstrously complex. Meacham, however, navigates his way through the thicket.

A brief but thorough review of the book is here.  As biographies go, this is a welcome new approach to Jefferson, a man whose obvious flaws still do not drown his lifelong contribution to the growth of government by the people and for the people through the sometimes seamy but always necessary pursuit of power on behalf of the people, not the government.


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Maybe Jefferson Isn’t All That Bad: Push-Back Hits “Master of the Mountain”

From the New York Times comes an interesting article on the firestorm of controversy ignited by Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, which I examined in an earlier post. Apparently, there is something new to be said about this book as professional historians dog-pile on Wiencek, an independent scholar who has written other impressive books such as An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.  Frankly, the contretemps appears to me as another bout of professional jealously that rears its ugly head when a non-professional historian (i.e. someone outside the world of tenured professors in the academy) scores with readers who transform his or her book into a popular tome. Read Wiencek’s blog responses here. They are as enlightening as the article. Equally tantalizing are arguments that Wiencek’s dark view of Jefferson is an exaggeration. Are representatives of the neo-patriotic school of historiography alive and well in academe? The pendulum swings back when it comes to historical opinion and I wonder if a Jefferson renaissance is in the wings.

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Is Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” Misunderstood? A Declaration

From the New York Times opinion blog “The Stone” comes this article by John Paul Rollert, who teaches business ethics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and leadership at the Harvard Extension School.  In the piece, Rollert argues that Adam Smith’s comment regarding the “invisible hand” of market forces was an idea that had only fleeting appearances (three total) in all of Smith’s writings and that Smith never argued for the elimination of government because of inherent qualities inimical to the growth of capitalism or human liberty. Rollert’s analysis of Smith seems to have more to do with his qualms with the Romney/ Ryan ticket than refuting what he considers a common “misunderstanding” of Smith’s fundamental descrition of market forces and human economic cooperation. He writes:

In other words, the invisible hand did not solve the problem of politics by making politics altogether unnecessary. “We don’t think government can solve all our problems,” President Obama said in his convention address, “But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems.” Smith would have appreciated this formulation. For him, whether government should get out of the way in any given matter, economic or otherwise, was a question for considered judgment abetted by scientific inquiry. He offered “The Wealth of Nations” in service of such an inquiry, a two-volume tome he painstakingly revised for years after it was published. Had he known that a single phrase plucked from the dense thicket of ideas would become the first and last word of his philosophy, I suspect he would have made one more revision.

Perhaps. None other than Milton Friedman had a clear understanding of the phrase, which he examined in detail during his monumental television series Free to Choose and in the accompanying book written in conjunction with his wife Rose. Smith, Friedman wrote, argued that government had its uses (blocking monopolies, for example) but it was the poorest stimulant for economic growth. (Take the time to watch this clip from Episode 1, “The Power of the Market,” where Friedman brilliantly uses a simple pencil to describe the invisible hand as a force for peace and cooperation. You will understand why he won the Noble Prize in Economics.)

Where Rollert hits the mark (I could care less about his politicking in the article) is correctly pointing out that Smith’s seminal work The Wealth of Nations includes a withering blast against mercantilism, the prevalent national economic policy of Britain which regulated the economy of the American colonies. Smith’s book is published the same year as the Declaration of Independence and there is superb evidence that many of the delegates to the Second Continental Congress were familiar with his ideas. Jefferson and Smith would have been agreement when discussing the economic charges leveled at George III specifically and the British government generally in the Declaration:

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to
harrass our people, and eat out their substance … He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: … For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent … .

The condemnation of taxation without representation is one that every school child should know. What often goes unsaid or unknown are the economic arguments in the Declaration that make clear that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” should be free from the unwarranted regulation of government that does not enjoy broad consent of the people. If the people wish to alter or abolish that form of government it can be for economic reasons as much as for political reasons.

I often wonder if either President Obama or Gov. Romney would sign the Declaration if they truly understood what it meant. If both would read it and The Wealth of Nations they would understand that the United States should not measure its wealth by how government imposes a visible hand of “fairness” but how it promotes cooperation between free individuals who use the power of the market to improve their lives.

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