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Monday, December 15, 2014

The Hundreds: Thomas Jefferson's Forgotten Plan for Restoring a Failed Republic

Dear Reader,

I wrote a few weeks ago on history being edited by people in power. This week’s article illustrates another case where inconvenient facts don’t survive in our history textbooks. You might think that the most passionately held political thoughts of Thomas Jefferson—the author of the US Declaration of Independence, no less—would be a noteworthy part of American history.

But no, those have been left out of the books. I discovered them while writing a history book of my own, some years ago. And if I—a freelance author working on my own nickel—could find these passages, you can be sure that salaried academic historians have seen them many times.
When I’m done, Doug French looks into the killing of Eric Garner—a criminal act of hubristic enforcers employed (and protected) by the City of New York. But Doug doesn’t stop there. Don’t miss this one.
Let’s get to it.

Thomas Jefferson became one of my heroes when I was 13 years old. So you’d think I’d enjoy hearing people say good things about him, but very often, I don’t. My reason is simple: the people who praise Jefferson seldom really understand him, and if they did, it’s questionable that they’d like him. (Others try to get rid of him by trashing his reputation.)

What People Don’t Know

A crucial thing people don’t know about Jefferson is this: he was fully convinced that freedom in America was fatally wounded—in fact on its deathbed—by 1810 or so. He maintained that he and his fellow founders had blown their opportunity and that American freedom had already slipped away.
Now, since what I’ve written above will seem almost inconceivable to many Americans, let me back it up by quoting a few of Jefferson’s letters:

Letter to John Holmes, April 22, 1820:
I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it.
Letter to Nathaniel Macon, 1821:
Our government is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction. That is: by consolidation first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence.
Letter to John Cartwright, June 5, 1824:
Our Revolution presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased. Yet we did not avail ourselves of all the advantages of our position… [What we really needed was] to break up all cabals.
“Cabals,” FYI, equates to “political parties.” (George Washington and John Adams also bewailed them.)
Letter to Samuel Johnson, 1823:
I have been criticized for saying that a prevalence of the doctrines of consolidation would one day call for reformation or revolution.
Letter to William B. Giles, 1825:
I see with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States, and the consolidation in itself of all powers, foreign and domestic; and that too, by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power.
I don’t think any honest reader can see Jefferson’s actual words and still conclude that he’d have any respect at all for the modern US government. And please believe me that there are more passages like these.

Jefferson’s Hundreds

While Jefferson was fully convinced that he and his friends had blown their opportunity, he wasn’t one to simply give up. So, in typical fashion, he put together a plan to recreate the republic. And you can find this plan in letters to his friends. (As best I can tell, no one in Washington ever gave them the time of day.)
I’m editing these passages for clarity. You should be able to find the originals online.
This is from a letter to John Tyler, dated May 26, 1810:
I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength.
  1. That of general education to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.
  1. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it. …
Every hundred, besides a school, should have a justice of the peace, a constable, and a captain of its militia. These officers, or some others within the hundred, should be a corporation to manage all its concerns, to take care of its roads, its poor, and its police by patrols, etc.…
Every hundred should elect one or two jurors to serve where requisite, and all other elections should be made in the hundreds separately, and the votes of all the hundreds be brought together. …
These little republics would be the main strength of the great one. We owe to them the vigor given to our revolution in its commencement …
General orders are given out from a center to the Foreman of every hundred …
Could I once see this I should consider it as the dawn of the salvation of the republic. …
Jefferson repeats essentially the same plan to Samuel Kercheval in 1816:
The article, nearest my heart, is the division of counties into wards. These will be pure and elementary republics, the sum of all which, taken together, composes the State, and will make a true democracy as to the business of the wards, which is that of nearest and daily concern.
The division into wards … enables them by that organization to crush, regularly and peaceably, the usurpations of their unfaithful agents, and rescues them from the dreadful necessity of doing it insurrectionally.
In this way we shall be as republican as a large society can be, and secure the continuance of purity in our government, through salutary, peaceable, and regular control by the people.
Jefferson’s plan, in simple terms, is this:
  1. Divide the entire country into 100-person units with full self-governing powers.
  1. These units can then delegate some of their powers to larger governmental bodies, or not.
  1. The tiny size of these units would ensure that every person in the country knew his or her local representative… as in, “can knock on their door and complain to their face.”
This plan, which I like to call Jefferson’s Hundreds, would be simple to implement. These groups could be formed in any number of ways, in locations urban or rural. After all, counting to one hundred is hardly difficult.

Would It Work?

Whether governance in America is too far gone for reform is an important and legitimate question, but for the sake of today’s discourse, let’s assume that it remains a possibility.
So, if reform was still possible, Jefferson’s Hundreds would be a reasonable and effective way to return to America’s first freedoms. And there is absolutely no reason why it wouldn’t work.
Sure, the televised suits and uniforms would scream intimidating things about the Articles of Confederation being too weak, but that old argument can be solidly refuted. (I hope to devote an issue or two of my newsletter to the subject soon.) Then, of course, we’d hear, “What about the highways!?”… another emotional but paper-thin objection. And so on… all answerable, if people are actually permitted to try.
Might some people act like pigs under “the hundreds”? Certainly some would—but under this arrangement, their piggishness would be open to view and response, rather than being protected behind the cloak of authority.

So if we were really serious about reforming America, this would be the plan to pursue. It’s clear, of immense effect, and has the best of pedigrees. Furthermore, it is fully in harmony with the founding ideals of this country, in particular with the Lockean concept of man’s natural freedom.
So, to close, here are a few quotes from other American founders. Please imagine how they’d apply in a country built upon Jefferson’s Hundreds, and then reflect on their scope under the current arrangements.
I think the exercise will be worth your time.

Samuel Adams
The Rights of Colonists, November 20, I772
The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man; but only to have the law of nature for his rule.
Patrick Henry
Speech to the Second Virginia Convention, March 23, 1775
Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!
Samuel Adams
Letter to his wife, November 7, 1775
We must be content to suffer the loss of all things in this life, rather than tamely surrender the public liberty.
John Adams
Letter to Thomas Jefferson, November 13, 1815
The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical council, an oligarchical junta, and a single emperor. Equally arbitrary, cruel, bloody, and in every respect diabolical.
John Adams
Letter to Jonathan Jackson, October 2, 1789
There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil...
A Free-Man’s Take is written by adventure capitalist, author, and freedom advocate Paul Rosenberg. You can get much more from Paul in his unique monthly newsletter, Free-Man’s Perspective.

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