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If Even Jefferson Was Bad...

Tom DiLorenzo, in his new book, Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution - And What It Means for Americans Today (see his The Founding Father of Constitutional Subversion), shows how Hamilton helped to subvert the superior (and more libertarian) Jeffersonian interpretation of the Constitution. But though Jefferson was clearly better than Hamilton in his ideas and constitutional interpretation (see Jefferson on Nullification; Fourteenth Amendment Resources), he was also a pretty bad president.

In Forrest McDonald great article, The Bill of Rights: Unnecessary and Pernicious, McDonald (pp. 404-405) gives the the example of how Jefferson blatantly violated the 4th and 5th Amendments in enforcing an 1807 embargo. More intriguing to me was the description (p. 407-408) of the Jefferson administration's blatant trampling of the Constitution during an incident when martial law was declared in the Territory of Louisiana by U.S. General James Wilkinson.

As McDonald recounts,

"A fourth set of circumstances under which the Bill of Rights is apt to be trampled upon arises whenever there is a general sense of emergency, justified or unjustified, local or national. On the local level, the city of New Orleans offers instructive examples. In the winter of 1806-7 Gen. James Wilkinson, commander of the small American army in the Louisiana Territory, asked Territorial Governor William Claiborne to declare martial law, on the ground (which Wilkinson knew to be false) that Aaron Burr was about to invade New Orleans with his rebel band. Claiborne refused, whereupon Wilkinson imposed martial law anyway; and in the name and authority of the United States, he proceeded to crush the Constitution and the Bill of Rights beneath his boot. He arrested without warrants and held incommunicado three of Burr's associates, and when writs of habeas corpus were obtained in their behalf he had them chained and sent sea to Washington. In addition, he jailed their attorney, the judge, the judge's closest friend, a newspaper editor, former Senator John Adair, and about sixty other citizens. None was charged with a specific crime, none was allowed his constitutional rights, and a number were transported from the vicinage, where they had a constitutional right to a speedy and public trial, and were shipped in secret to Washington. The president of the United States [Jefferson- SK] approved of these doings, his only reservation being that Wilkinson must stay within the limits, not of the Constitution, but of what public opinion would bear [emphasis added]."

And, of course, there was Jefferson's ownership of slaves, and the Louisiana Purchase...

Now, granted, McDonald is a Hamilton worshipper, and can be expected to trash Jefferson. But the point is even Jefferson--the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Kentucky Resolutions--did terrible things as President. It's awfully difficult for a politician to avoid being a politician, it seems. But as a friend noted, "If even Jefferson is pressured to ignore the Constitution, then the argument for limited government really is absurd."


Stephan Kinsella

Stephan Kinsella is an attorney in Houston, director of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom, and editor of Libertarian Papers.