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28th Jan, 2010

The Governor of Virginia Distorts a Thomas Jefferson Quote and Reveals the GOP’s Real Problems

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Image:  Steve Helber/Associated Press

For some reason Republicans are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson, even though Thomas Jefferson is about as far from the current version of the Republican Party as you can get. The problem is that when Republicans misquote Jefferson they either get it wrong or just make it up.  The latest GOP leader to distort Jefferson is Bob McDonnell, the newly-elected Governor of Virginia who delivered the Republican reply to Barack Obama’s State of the Union.

After letting viewers and listeners know he was delivering his response from the “historic House Chamber of Virginia’s Capitol, a building designed by Virginia’s second governor, Thomas Jefferson” McDonnell went on to quote Jefferson directly:

It was Thomas Jefferson who called for “A wise and frugal Government which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry ….and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned…”

The problem is that is not exactly what Jefferson said. Here is the complete quote, which is from Jefferson’s First Inaugural:

Still one thing more, fellow-citizens — a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

Why McDonnell distorts Jefferson

You will immediately notice how McDonnell conveniently left out important parts of Jefferson’s speech. Below is the speech as Jefferson gave it with McDonnell’s “editing” in bold:

Still one thing more, fellow-citizens — a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave [men] them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

Someone might argue that McDonnell was only condensing Jefferson’s words but not distorting their meaning, as is often done when you are quoti8ng someone else, especially in the short time McDonnell had to deliver his response, but such a defense of McDonnell’s editing is disingenuous at best.

To prove that point let us start with what McDonnell decided to cut from Jefferson.  First, and most important, is Jefferson’s phrase “which shall restrain men from injuring one another.” This is not merely an omission that when left out does not change Jefferson’s idea. Leaving it out distorts the entire meaning of what Jefferson said.

Distortion number one

In this speech, as in his other writings, Jefferson, who did believe in limiting central government, was making it clear that the very definition of a wise and frugal government was one which restrained people from harming one another.  In other words, this is one of the earliest expressions of what I have termed liberalism: the belief that a central role of government is to keep the playing field level.

As well all know Jefferson chose each word carefully. In this case he uses the word “restrain.” Restrain is an active verb. It suggests that government has a role of preventing in advance those injuries. You restrain a dog on a leash to prevent it from attacking someone. Jefferson is suggesting that the dogs of our society who are prone to attack others need to be kept on a leash.

The second key word is “injure.” Even back in Jefferson’s time a party in a lawsuit was referred to as the “injured party.” Jefferson is evoking that larger sense of injury not merely physical harm. In legal terms he was not just referring to what we might term criminal actions but civil ones as well.  To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, they can rob you with a pen just as easily as with a gun. Jefferson knew that.

To verify that is what Jefferson himself meant one need only read the rest of the speech. After that sentence he goes on to speak further about what he terms “the essential principles of our government.” The list of principles Jefferson articulates not only parallel what I term the four cornerstones of liberal America–economic and social justice, voting rights, educational equity, and media fairness–but echo the words he wrote for the Declaration of Independence:

Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political;

Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none;

The support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies:

The preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad:

A jealous care of the right of election by the people — a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided;

The diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason;

Freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.

Curiously Jefferson’s words echo more the sentiments that Barack Obama outlined in his State of the Union Address than McDonnell did in his reply.

The omission of the phrase that government shall “shall restrain men from injuring one another” by the Republican reply to Obama condenses in a few words the differences between the two parties. This incarnation of the Republican Party does not believe that government has a role to play in preventing people from being abused or injured. They believe the market will take care of that.

Bob McDonnell himself made that abundantly clear in his speech:

Top-down one-size fits all decision making should not replace the personal choices of free people in a free market.

And no government program can replace the actions of caring Americans freely choosing to help one another.

What government should not do is pile on more taxation, regulation, and litigation that kill jobs and hurt the middle class.

This rhetoric is exactly what Obama was criticizing in his speech.  Note the inflammatory phrase “Top-down one-size fits all decision making.” It is what is known as a straw man. No one, Democrat or Republican has ever said they believe in such a policy, but McDonnell is cleverly trying to wrap the Obama Administration in that straw.

The second sentence is equally disingenuous.  Note the use of the word “replacing.” Like McDonnell’s distortion of Jefferson this phrase is another unnecessarily inflammatory straw man. Of course no one would oppose replacing a private charity with a government program and no one has. But McDonnell’s rhetoric is designed to cast yet more straw around Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Then there is the final sentence, an interesting laundry list: “taxation, regulation and litigation.”  McDonnell seeks to lump these three together, which as anyone knows, they are not, except maybe in McDonnell’s mind.  Adding the qualifier “that kill jobs and hurt the middle class,” only begs the question, which taxes, which regulations, which litigation?

McDonnell cleverly leaves us hanging by this noose he has fashioned.   He won’t tell us the answer to the question, which is simplistic at best and demagoguery at worst.

Distortions number two and three

Note McDonnell conveniently left out the phrase, “ them otherwise.” This is important to understanding Jefferson’s thinking. Jefferson was saying that first government should insure that its citizens do not injure one another; then once that was done people were free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement. This is not an idle omission.

Including the phrase means that pursuits of “industry and improvement” can only be accomplished if the nation has a climate free of injury.  Injury distorts these relationships, Jefferson tells us.  By leaving out the “otherwise” McDonnell implies that either the prevention of injury is not a legitimate government function or that it actually distorts industry.

Given the quotes above, it appears he and the Republicans believe it is not a legitimate government function, at least when it comes to industry.  I cannot emphasize this too much. By his omissions I doubt McDonnell or the Republicans would say that government should not prevent some injuries; it’s just that when it comes to industry, regulation gets in the way.

A quick aside. My guess is that mist people listening to McDonnell assumed that the word industry meant business, and I think McDonnell intended people to think that, but Thomas Jefferson was using industry in its broadest sense, meaning any human endeavor, whether the arts or science or philosophy as well as business.

This leads to the second distortion which is the curious omission of the rest of Jefferson’s phrase “improvement.” Again, remember Jefferson’s use of language. The word improvement is purposely broad for it can mean the improvement of one’s mind or one’s economic situation.  If we think of improvement that way, then Jefferson’s opening about the role of government becomes even more important, for if government does not prevent “injury” then people will have a tough time improving themselves.

The final omission of Jefferson’s last sentence tells us all we need to know about McDonnell’s distortion. Jefferson uses the phrase “the sum of good government.” By that he means we cannot, as McDonnell has done, take just some of his words, we must accept them all or we do not have good government. By picking and choosing what of Jefferson he will accept and what he will not, McDonnell committed the most serious sin one could to Thomas Jefferson, for Jefferson, as we have seen, saw government as a series of interlocking parts. Take away one of the parts and government would cease to function.

The final word

We live in an era where the Internet and the mass media instantly broadcast any misquote or distortion as if it was real. By the time Snopes.com or some other truth seeker tracks down the error, it will have been circulated to millions of people. By distorting Jefferson, McDonnell was committing a serious crime, for you can bet now millions of people believe his quote is what Jefferson said and have no knowledge of the original.

I do not doubt that in a few years the McDonnell version will even appear in a few textbooks.  We must grant that either McDonnell was an idiot who did not understand what he was doing and also did not read or understand Jefferson’s Inaugural, or that the omissions were intentional.

As Barack Obama said in his State of the Union, it is time to stop this kind of distortion. If the Republicans have a case to make against big government, and I believe they do, they should be aloe to state it without having to resort to misquoting Thomas Jefferson to bolster their case. Like Jefferson, I chose my words deliberately. McDonnell’s speech misquotes Jefferson because it omits key words and phrases and by doing so distorts Jefferson’s meaning.

The next time the Republicans choose someone to reply to the President let us hope they will choose someone who can at least give an honest speech.  Americans deserve no less.

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