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Daniel Hannan is an MEP for the South East and blogs for the Daily Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter. He is pictured above at Monticello last week speaking to the Fund for American Studies

When Thomas Jefferson
drafted the Declaration of Independence, he included a wistful line that was
excised by the other signatories: ‘We might have been a great and free people
together’.

Until that moment, the idea
that Americans were engaged in a war against a foreign power would have struck Patriots
and Loyalists alike as bizarre. Jefferson, like other Virginia radicals, saw
himself as a British Whig, heir to the tradition of Edward Coke (1552–1634), John
Hampden (1595–1643) and Algernon Sidney (1623–1683). He did not believe he was laying
claim to any new rights; rather, he was defending the liberties that he assumed
he had been born with as an Englishman. Right up to the end, he had hoped that such
liberties might flourish under the Crown, but George III dashed his ambition.
We sense Jefferson’s bitterness in the Declaration’s telling complaint about
the king ‘transporting hither foreign mercenaries’. Foreign! How historians
have glossed over the significance of that word. In sending his Hessian
hirelings against Britons, the Hanoverian monarch was in effect annulling their
nationality.

The American Revolution is
now described with anachronistic terminology. History books and tour guides
talk about how, in 1775, minutemen and militias swarmed to resist ‘the British’
– language that no one would or could have used at the time. Everyone involved
was British, and public opinion in the British Isles was divided in exactly the
same way as in the colonies. The American conflict was, in truth, a settlement
by force of the ancient Tory–Whig dispute which, at least in New England, had
passed the point of peaceful resolution. What we now call the American War of
Independence would more accurately be termed the Second Anglosphere Civil War –
the First having been fought across England, Scotland, Ireland and America in
the 1640s.


At the weekend, I fulfilled
a long-standing ambition and visited Monticello, the neo-Palladian manor house that
Jefferson built for himself, as well as the nearby University of Virginia,
which he founded. I’ve long been happy to call myself a Jeffersonian, though I
have no illusions about the third president’s imperfections. He was disloyal to
George Washington and John Adams, and badly miscalled the French Revolution. He
may have opposed slavery in theory, but this did not prevent him keeping slaves
on his estate. He gave the Patriot cause its best lines, but never fired a shot
when the fighting came. Indeed, as my friend Myron Ebell of the Competitive
Enterprise Institute argues
persuasively
, his actions repeatedly
fell short of his words. (Much the same could be said of today’s Democrats, who
claim Jefferson as their founder.) John Adams was, on most measures, a better
Jeffersonian than Jefferson.

For all that, though, we
can’t fail to admire the fellow. We gape at the range of his intellectual
accomplishments: architect, historian, inventor, naturalist, legal theorist,
agronomist, master of six languages. We thrill to his rhetoric: ‘The God who gave us life gave us liberty at
the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them!’

One of Jefferson’s
biographers wrote that visiting Monticello is the closest we can come to having
a conversation with the great man. It’s true. Washington’s frugal home, Mount
Vernon, bespeaks the humility of a soldier who renounced supreme power for the sake
of his republican principles. Ronald Reagan’s two-bedroom ranch in California
tells us of a man too true to himself to be turned by power, a man longing to complete
the task
which had brought him
into public life and retire, as Cincinnatus to the plough.

Monticello, by contrast, is
filled by the agitated spirit of its architect: Jefferson the inexhaustible
host, Jefferson the constant experimenter, Jefferson the restless polymath –
and, yes, Jefferson the English Whig. On the parlour wall are portraits of the
three men he venerated above all others: Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John
Locke. Jefferson read voraciously in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin
and Greek. He knew that enlightened freedom, as he conceived it, was a peculiar
characteristic of the English-speaking peoples.

I can’t help feeling that
the third president would sob with despair if he could see how the constitution
of the republic he founded has been prejudiced. Read this passage from the
inauguration speech at the start of his first presidency in 1801 and, as you
read, ponder the present state of affairs:

Equal and exact justice to all men, of
whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and
honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support
of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent
administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against
anti-republican tendencies; economy in the public expense, that labor may be
lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of
the public faith; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of
person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries
impartially selected.

I was in Monticello as a guest of the
Fund for American Studies, which seeks to pass on to students the values of the
Founders. Such acts of transmission make a nation: they turn what would
otherwise be a random aggregation of individuals who happen to live under one
jurisdiction into inheritors of a common patrimony. I spoke, accordingly, about
what Jeffersonian principles meant in practice.

Curiously enough, one man who would have
disputed my premise was Jefferson himself. Where Edmund Burke defined society as a partnership between the dead,
the living and the unborn, his radical contemporary took a markedly different view:

"I set out on this ground, which I
suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living".

On this question, at least,
Jefferson is plain wrong. Such thinking is partly responsible for our debt
crisis: the present generation is quite content to sustain a standard of living
which it cannot afford by borrowing from posterity.

All the more reason for the
Anglosphere peoples to remember who they are. Ours is the
civilization that invented limited government. We, uniquely in the world, found
mechanisms to hold our leaders to account, to ensure that the law was above the
government rather than the other way around, to make the state our servant
rather than our master.  That tradition –
the Whig tradition, for want of a better shorthand – culminated in Jefferson
and his contemporaries.

For a century and a half following
the American Revolution, Jeffersonian principles made the English-speaking peoples
the wealthiest, freest and best-governed on Earth. Power was dispersed,
legislators were elected and decisions were taken as closely as possible to the
people they affected.

The decline of the Anglosphere
precisely matches the decline of those precepts. Government has grown larger
and more remote; taxes and spending have risen to levels which English-speakers
would have revolted over as recently as a century ago; elected representatives
have ceded power to standing bureaucracies. How Jefferson’s shade would groan to
look upon our present age. We might have been a great and free people together.

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