Book Review: Richard K. Matthews’ The Radical Politics Of Thomas Jefferson

2 Jan

Jim Bissett’s Agrarian Socialism in America got me interested in Thomas Jefferson. I wondered if the attempted fusion of such diverse figures as Marx, Jesus, and Jefferson was grounded in a proper interpretation of their principles, or did it result from distortion? It is clear that there were areas of mutual sensitivity among the three men, but were their ideas compatible?

In reading Richard K. Matthews’ The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson, I did not expect to find a fully developed, modern critique of political economy, and didn’t, but what I did find was striking all the same. Jefferson ruminated upon, and offered solutions to, problems which continue to vex the Left today. His stratagems may be geared to another age, but his prescriptions on how to put power into the hands of everyday people, and how to fight reaction, have unmistakable relevance to contemporary Leftist discourse. They foreshadow many of the disputes which would capsize the First International, and rile the workers’ movement for centuries to come.

The book is full of surprises. One myth which Matthews exposes is that of the laissez-faire Jefferson. In contrast with Hamilton, Jefferson is seen as an advocate of small, localized modes of production in an agrarian, federalized state; and an opponent of highly centralized, hierarchical, officiously bureaucratic governance. This is so, but only up to a point. In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, Jefferson believed that the government not only should intervene in the economy but had a responsibility to do so. Mathews provides examples:

“I am conscious that an equal division of property is impractical. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care that their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind.”


“Wherever there is in any country uncultivated land and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given in common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour returns to the unemployed.”

These quotes demonstrate the inadequacy of his radicalism, but do debunk the Jefferson-as-neoliberal fantasy favored by Right-wing think tanks and Christian theocrats. More to the point, I would argue, they provide a theoretical justification for revolution from below. At the very least they reveal a concern for the toiling masses which sets him apart from most of the other elite Planters who are commonly regarded as the founders of our republic. Jefferson’s disdain for speculators and bankers is fulsome:

“The wealth acquired by speculation and plunder is fugacious in its nature and fills society with the spirit of gambling…”


“The bank has just…notified it’s [sic] proprietors…[that they made] a profit of 26 per cent per annum. Agriculture, commerce, and everything useful must be neglected, when the useless employment of money is so much more lucrative.”

Jefferson was in Europe when capitalism was in its ascendancy and was revolted by its depravity. So much so that he urged his fellow countrymen to prevent “manufactures” from coming to America–better to keep the immiserating, demoralizing effects of industry in the Old World. (He would later reverse this position in the name of autarchy.) To the exponents of industrial capitalism, Jefferson laments:

“I find the general fate of humanity here most deplorable. The truth of Voltaire’s observation offers itself perpetually, that every man here must be either hammer or anvil…While the great mass of the people are thus suffering under physical and moral oppression, I have endeavored to examine more nearly the condition of the great…which dazzle the bulk of the spectators…”

Jefferson recognized the predatory character of capitalism, and proposed correctives. He argued that the state should provide a piece of land of sufficient size to ensure a decent income for its tiller. In this way, should some industrialist wish to entice some farmer from his field, he would need to offer a wage such as would raise the prospective wage earner’s standard of living. And should incomes decline, the worker could always return to his farm.

In regards to the above, Jefferson’s ideas are dated, yet he speaks with unexpected pertinence to the contentious issues which have kept the Left divided and ineffective. At the heart of the Leftism are three questions: How do we rid ourselves of capitalism and create a classless society; how best to avert counterrevolution; and what will the post-capitalist society look like? With regards to the first, Jefferson never formulated, as the quotes above suggest, a unambiguously anti-capitalist position. To the extent that he did, I think most Leftists would agree that his vision of the independent, citizen-yeoman can be dismissed as utopian.

It is in relation to the other two questions that Jefferson speaks to the great rift in the Left. The anti-capitalist movement has been divided into two camps: authoritarian and libertarian. According to the analysis of the former, the capitalist state must be smashed, and a authoritarian workers’ state, with full coercive powers, must take its place in order to “hold its enemies in subjection” (as Engels put it). Thereafter, when capital is banished without hope of return, the state will disappear, and a classless, “communist” society will live on in perpetuity. Libertarian critics of this approach insist that a “workers’ state” is an oxymoron, and holds everybody in subjection. And that such a state (like any other) either ossifies into a new ruling class, or, at the very least, provides a portal through which the old ruling class to clamber back to power. The best way to fend off reaction, so this theory goes, is to dismantle the state immediately and entirely: Worker control at the point of production is not only the goal of the social revolution, but also its best means of defense. These opposing visions came face to face one day in Lenin’s office where Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman went to entreat for a lifting of the ban on free speech (among other things). The proletariat’s dictator said that free speech imperiled the revolution. His frustrated guests countered that workers will fight for a society in which they have freedom, equality,  and real political power. Who wants to risk his neck for a social order in which he cannot even say what he wants?

Jefferson’s views accord with those of the libertarians:

“The elementary republics of the wards, the county republics, the state republics, and the republic of the Union, would form a graduation of authorities, standing each on the basis of law, holding everyone [sic] its delegated share of powers, and constituting truly a system of fundamental balances and checks for the government. Where every man is a sharer in the ward republic, or in some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election once a year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the state who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great and small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.”

As to where sovereignty should reside and what form power should take, ever the federalist, Jefferson says:

“Divide the countries into wards of such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person. Ascribe to them the government of their wards in all things relating to themselves exclusively…and by making every citizen an acting member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by the strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and its republican constitution….These wards, called townships in New England, are the vital principle of their governments, and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation.”

Not all of libertarian bent would call this anarchism, but I will.

Noam Chomsky once said something to the effect that as Americans we are supposed to revere Thomas Jefferson, but not to read him. Matthew’s book demonstrates why. As evidence of the danger Jefferson’s legacy still poses to the plutocracy, on the back cover of Matthews’ book, palace historian Forrest McDonald, author of The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, blurbs that “Liberals…will hate [this book]…[because] Matthews has demonstrated…that [Jefferson] was precisely the kind of…quack that the [Hamiltonians took] him to be.”


The Radical politics of Thomas Jefferson is well written and researched. It is short, a hundred pages or more, and I enjoyed it. It’s subtitled A Revisionist View, that it is, and a good introduction as well.

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