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September 15, 2011

Did Jefferson support a Balanced Budget amendment?

Back in 1997, when a Balanced Budget amendment was put forth by the US Senate, the Committee on the Judiciary quoted Thomas Jefferson almost from the start.

Towards the top of Senator Orrin Hatch’s report it affirms that “the public debt is one of the greatest dangers to be feared by a republican government.”

On September 3 this year, another politician claimed that Jefferson saw a balanced budget amendment as the solution, and his aids had the quote to prove it.

 “This isn’t my idea, it’s not even a new idea” said Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Christian Scientist who represents Virginia’s 6th district in the House of Representatives. “Thomas Jefferson expressed strong support for it in 1798.”

The Richmond Times Dispatch reveals Goodlatte’s source. It was a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend John Taylor. (This isn’t the John Taylor. We’re probably talking John Taylor of Caroline. He had at least two contemporaries with the same name who were more famous than him. Whichever Taylor it was, none agreed with Jefferson on everything.)

In the letter, Jefferson said the following words.

I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution.  I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government to the genuine principles of its Constitution;  I mean an additional article, taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.

What the aid left out is that the rest of the letter (available here) shows Jefferson’s his stance against war, and against war time censorhip.  (Thomas Jefferson believed that the American people had the right, and the duty, to criticize government’s wars in newspapers and elsewhere.)

As has been pointed out in “Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785-1816”, Thomas Jefferson didn’t feared that the government over-extended itself in the pursuit of welfare, but it was spending too much on warfare.  Jefferson saw the danger of going down the path of monarchies, were an unending cycle of warfare and debt took power away from the people. Thomas Jefferson was against having a large professional military.

Jefferson had been called the enemy of the navy based on another quote of his taken out of context. In a letter to another of his friends, Thomas Paine (yes, the Thomas Paine this time), he said that he saw the value of gunboats.

The real view of Jefferson was almost what some people today call isolationism. He saw the value of investing in the Louisiana purchase, or a small navy, for the defense of American commerce.

The alternatives to the Jefferson’s defense spending was to pay ransom to pirates, which Jefferson saw as more expensive. (Gunboats were cheaper than frigates too, but they also proved useful in naval operations during Jefferson’s administration.)

Others, including the widow Susan Decatur, later pointed out that Jefferson’s defense measures helped American overseas commerce to grow, as it was unmolested by extortionists.

However, Jefferson didn’t wish to extend military spending over what was necessary to defend American borders and American citizens who sailed the neutral waters.

The founders saw the right to bear arms as a means of citizen volunteers defending their own homes against foreign invaders. This was much cheaper than having a professional military, and a much surer way of preserving a republic than the use of a professional military.  Rome’s republic, they remembered, was overthrown by its military.

Some people like to pretend that Jefferson supported a coalition of small nations banding together for common defense.  Well, what he envisioned was nothing like Nato.  It was merely a device to protect the neutrality of the seas from pirates.

Joint operations were taken out in the Mediterranean, first with the help of a few frigates Sweden and then, after Sweden surrendered, with some sailors and gunboats from Naples.

Neither operation involved a binding treaty, and both were against a pre-defined common enemy.  There were no expensive parades, strategists, high rise buildings, acronyms or unnecessary hierarchies involved in these arrangements.  Most of the paper pushers abroad were pursers aboard the ships.

Later, America’s military grew.  As Jefferson feared, a standing army has become a matter of course in peace time, and wars are carried out when the nation is not threatened.  Military spending is out of control, and the military is mostly made up of professional soldiers.

So would Jefferson have supported a balanced budget amendment?  I imagine he would.