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the bureaucracy was cut, the public debt retired, and the federal excise tax, and the Alien and Sedition Acts, were repealed.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.
During a series of lectures he gave in 1986, “Ideology and Theories of History”, Rothbards mentions how Jefferson’s supporters of the time were among his harshest critics, as many perceived him as selling out to principals:
At a political level, for example, in American history, you always hear about Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is a great guy, but the Jeffersonians are much better than he was. They’re more consistent. Jefferson sold out when he was in power. But the Jeffersonians usually didn’t. They were usually attacking him for selling out. So when you deal with the leading Jeffersonians — Macon, Randolph, Taylor, etc. — you get a much harder-core doctrine than you do if you’re only dealing with the leadership.
On the surface Rothbard’s criticisms of Thomas Jefferson seem to run in stark contrast with many of his written acclamations of the same man. In a 1973 essay entitled “A Future of Peace and Capitalism,” Rothbard praised Jefferson for his support of free markets, in contrast to the mercantilist system supported by Alexander Hamilton:
…on my reading, Jefferson was very precisely in favor of laissez-faire, or free-market, capitalism. And that was the real argument between them. It wasn’t really that Jefferson was against factories or industries per se; what he was against was coerced development, that is, taxing the farmers through tariffs and subsidies to build up industry artificially, which was essentially the Hamilton program.
So what are we to make of this seeming inconsistency of Rothbard’s view towards Jefferson? I believe Rothbard’s own consistency and his depth of historical knowledge are the reasons for this seeming contradiction.
When Rothbard refers to Jefferson the “radical” or “laissez-faire rhetoric” he is referring to the Thomas Jefferson who was essentially the critic of those in power, whether it be the British crown or the Adams administration. Rothbard recognizes that, while out of power, Jefferson was excellent on liberty and economics, and recognizes the historical importance of his influence during his time.
On the other hand, as with so many other political figures throughout history, once in power Jefferson’s actions began to deviate from his past rhetoric. As he notes, even the so-called “Jeffersonians” of the day whose support helped Jefferson achieve the presidency were among the harshest detractors of the Jefferson administration.
Murray Rothbard was always able to see history in the proper context, and it is this context which drives both his criticism and praise of Thomas Jefferson.
The libertarians of today can certainly learn from this. Like Jefferson’s own Jeffersonian critics, libertarians should continue to hold politicians who run under the banner of libertarianism – or “libertarian Republicans” – to a high standard. Indeed, 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.
Check out our past editions of Mondays with Murray!
6/17/13 – Who was the “best” U.S. President?
6/10/13 – Rothbard on State Surveillance
5/27/13 – Rothbard on America’s “Two Just Wars”
5/20/13 – Do Animals Have “Rights”
5/13/13 – A Further Insight on IP
5/6/13 - The Boston Lockdown
4/29/13 – The Problem with Empirical Studies
4/22/13 – The Real Story of the Whiskey Rebellion
4/15/13 – What is an Entrepreneur?
4/8/13 – Rothbard on Intellectual Property
3/11/13 – Rothbard on Lysander Spooner
3/4/13 – Rothbard on Statism
2/25/13 – Rothbard on John Bolton and Ann Coulter
2/18/13 – Rothbard vs. Krugman on $9 Minimum Wage
2/11/13 – Time To Hoard Nickels
2/4/13 - The Death of Keynesian Economics
1/28/13 – Competition and Monopoly
1/21/13 – Rothbard Down The Memory Hole?
1/14/13 – We Are Not The Government
1//7/13 – Why Does Someone Become A Statist?
12/10/12 – Rothbard on Conspiracy Theory
12/3/12 – Rothbard on Secession
11/26/12 – Rothbard on the Drug War
11/19/12 – Rothbard on the Euro Crisis
11/12/12 – Rothbard on the Lions of Liberty
11/5/12 – Rothbard on Voting and Gas Lines
10/29/12 – Mythbusting the “Free Market Cartel”
10/22/12 – Rothbard on the Two Party Charade
10/15/12 – Rothbard on Private Roads
10/8/12 – Rothbard on Private Law
10/1/12 – Rothbard on Ron Paul
9/24/12 – Rothbard on Quantitative Easing