Before Thomas Jefferson took office as the third President of the United States, he spent five years as America’s Minister (ambassador) to France. From this perspective, Jefferson wrote of the pervasive civil immaturity among the citizens of Europe. In his missive to fellow Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe, Jefferson noted Europe's shameful comparison to the culture of freedom and rugged individualism that was flourishing in the New World.
“If all the sovereigns of Europe were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance & prejudices, & that as zealously as they now endeavor the contrary, a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out.” I don’t believe that Jefferson was exaggerating when he described the New World civilization to be a millennium ahead of the Old World continent.
Jefferson expresses appreciation for America’s opportunity to emerge with grace due to its isolation from the influences of Europe. “Ours could not have been so fairly put into the hands of their own common sense had they not been separated from their parent stock & kept from contamination, either from them, or the other people of the old world, by the intervention of so wide an ocean.”
To appreciate the perspective of Jefferson’s reflections, these words were written ten years after he signed the Declaration of Independence, three years after the end of the Revolutionary War with Great Britain, and one year after he had arrived in France. From that frame of reference, Thomas Jefferson issues a rare superlative, “To know the worth of this, one must see the want of it here. I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowlege among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson is frequently quoted for supporting the government supply of education. Many opponents of vouchers from public education dollars will cite Jefferson’s advocacy for state support of schools. Perhaps the most referenced quote by such activists comes from the Jefferson Memorial just off the Potomac in Washington, D.C., “Establish a law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state and on a general plan."
These words were actually lifted from two, unrelated sources. From the letter to George Wythe come the words, “Preach, my dear sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people." And from a Jefferson letter to George Washington, "It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan."
If we are to respond positively to Jefferson’s admonitions to fund education, we should also direct those dollars as he instructed, “Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests & nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”
Jefferson made three references to “kings, nobles and priests” -- and none of them pretty -- in his letter from France to George Wythe, “If anybody thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of the public happiness send them here. It is the best school in the universe to cure them of that folly.” In defense of the priesthood, let’s understand that the church was in partnership with the government during Jefferson’s ministry to France.
There is no denying that Thomas Jefferson came away from his stint in Europe with a strong distaste for the worldview that has more recently emerged on this continent as American liberalism. And since liberals are so fond of quoting Jefferson in support of public education, perhaps conservatives should work toward common ground here. Educate the common people on the effects of a pervasive government presence. As Jefferson said of the French in 1786 and would likely say of Americans in 2013, “such a people I say, surrounded by so many blessings from nature, are yet loaded with misery by kings [and] nobles ... and by them alone.”