Many of Jefferson’s words ring true to this day

Ed Quillen

We celebrate Independence Day because the Declaration of Independence was formally issued on July 4, 1776. It was written by Thomas Jefferson, who believed that it suffered from editing by the rest of the drafting committee – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, Roger Sherman – as well as the Continental Congress during the debates before its adoption.Many memorable phrases survived, though, among them “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” People often claim that these are constitutional rights. But they’re not in the U.S. Constitution. They’re in the Declaration, which has no legal force or effect.Jefferson had no direct hand in drafting the U.S. Constitution. When the convention met in 1787 to “revise” the Articles of Confederation, Jefferson was in Paris, serving as the U.S. ambassador to France. But his political ally James Madison was at the convention.Jefferson had issues with the original Constitution. Since there was then no limit on how many times a president could run for re-election, he feared Americans might suffer a “president for life.” He also objected to “the absence of express declarations ensuring freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of the person under the uninterrupted protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by jury in civil as well as in criminal cases.”The 22nd Amendment, adopted in 1951, put a term limit on the presidency. The first 10 amendments, “the Bill of Rights” adopted in 1791, covered most of his other objections.Here is where Jefferson and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are in agreement: habeas corpus, which in essence is to ask an impartial judge to determine whether one is legally held in custody.In the main body of the Constitution, it is defined as a “privilege” that “shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Jefferson saw that as the absence of a constitutional right. It was not put in the Bill of Rights. Thus, Gonzales has argued that “there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution.”It’s interesting to see what Jefferson has to say about other controversies that have survived from his time to ours. Today, we see immigration as a federal issue, and so did Federalist President John Adams, who got a law passed allowing him to deport, without trial, any immigrant “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.”Jefferson, who was vice president at the time, responded with the Kentucky Resolution. Illegal immigrants “are under the jurisdiction and protection of the laws of the State wherein they are: that no power over them has been delegated to the United States, nor prohibited to the individual States.” Further, an act which authorizes the executive to act “on his own suspicion, without accusation, without jury, without public trial, without confrontation of the witnesses against him, without hearing witnesses in his favor, without defense, without counsel, is contrary to the provision also of the Constitution, is therefore not law, but utterly void.”So there are places where Jefferson disagrees with Gonzales and Dick Cheney.Organized religion today gets much more public respect than it did from Jefferson: “In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”Elsewhere, Jefferson observed that “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Jefferson coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut.Nowhere could I find Jefferson’s opinions on abortion, gay marriage, flag- burning or similar modern wedge issues. He did have some opinions on health care, however. Home-based care is “better than in a general hospital, where the sick, the dying, and the dead are crammed together, in the same rooms.”As for physicians, “Whenever I see two doctors gathered in a public road, I look up to see whether there are turkey vultures flying overhead.”We don’t celebrate Jefferson’s birthday on April 13, and that’s just as well. It’s not the sort of thing he would have approved of. But when we celebrated America’s birthday on July 4, we also celebrated Jefferson, more than any of the other Founding Fathers – and it does seem oddly appropriate that both he and John Adams died on July 4, 1826.Ed Quillen is a writer in Salida, Colo., where he produces regular op-ed columns for The Denver Post and publishes Colorado Central, a small regional monthly magazine.


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