WWJD: What Would Jefferson Do?


Barack Obama is upset about lies he thinks are being told about him.  CCP and others are alarmed by threats to resort to criminal and regulatory processes to silence his critics.

In trying situations we sometimes ask what great leaders would do.  In the case of Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Democratic Party, we don’t have to guess.

Jefferson was subject to outrageous attacks on his patriotism (too French), his religious beliefs (allegedly atheist), and his personal life.  His political allies were actually thrown in jail for criticizing the ruling Federalists.  Armed conflict seemed a real possibility.

Jefferson fought back hard, but he used the press and the political process, not threats of prosecution.  Rather than turning the tables once he gained power, he used the experience to show America, and the world, the superiority of free speech over government coercion to combat error.  It’s a lesson the Obama campaign should learn.

The Sedition Act, under which Jefferson’s allies were prosecuted, was particularly noxious because it was enacted temporarily: expiring just before Jefferson took office.  Having criticized the act in his campaign, Jefferson let it lapse.  After the ugliness of the 1800 campaign, Jefferson said in his First Inaugural:

"During the [campaign] the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might [surprise] strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, … all will, of course, … unite in common efforts for the common good. … Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.

Jefferson’s re-election was no less bitter, and in his Second Inaugural Jefferson decried what he saw as abuses of press freedoms.  He even noted those abuses might be subject to state civil – not criminal – laws, ones not enforced by Jefferson’s own administration.  But Jefferson refused to take even that course, preferring the "true spirit of [the] constitution," reliance on the "verdict" of the voters.

The Obama campaign doesn’t have to let false accusations pass, but it might take a lesson from their party’s founder: the way to combat error is with truth, not with criminal prosecutions.  Trust the voters: they’ll sort things out.  Here’s an extended quote:

"During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been levelled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science, are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness, and to sap its safety; they might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation; but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation.

"Nor was it uninteresting to the world, that an experiment should be fairly and fully made, whether freedom of discussion, unaided by power, is not sufficient for the propagation and protection of truth — whether a government, conducting itself in the true spirit of its constitution, with zeal and purity, and doing no act which it would be unwilling the whole world should witness, can be written down by falsehood and defamation. The experiment has been tried; you have witnessed the scene; our fellow citizens have looked on, cool and collected; they saw the latent source from which these outrages proceeded; they gathered around their public functionaries, and when the constitution called them to the decision by suffrage, they pronounced their verdict, honorable to those who had served them, and consolatory to the friend of man, who believes he may be intrusted with his own affairs."

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.