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Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address: How did we get here from there?

Updated on December 27, 2012

“….a wise a frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

These words were spoken by Thomas Jefferson at his first inaugural address on March 4th, 1801. Reading these words, I can’t help but think that he can’t be talking about the United States….at least not the United States of the 21st century. How did we get here from there? Well, I don’t think I can put the “How” into few enough words to write a book, let alone a simple article. Instead, I will lay out what he considered the essential qualities that government must have so that the United States could become prosperous.

A Frugal Government. Jefferson, like most of the other founders of our nation, understood that fostering frugality was the key to retaining ones freedom. Ben Franklin did not pursue wealth for material objects; he pursued wealth because of the freedom it brought him. As a self-professed cheapskate, I know exactly what they are talking about. While I am by no means wealthy (in fact, I am closer to the bottom of the middle class), there is great relief knowing that you can walk away from your day job any time you want. And while Jefferson did die broke, he understood how immoral it was to take other people’s money and spend it frivolously.

Well, no matter what political party you are from, I think we can all agree that the current federal government has no clue as to what the word frugal means. The federal debt is currently over 14 TRILLION dollars and rising fast. Compare this to the fact that in 1834 the United States was debt free. That is right; not only had we paid off our debt from the Revolutionary War, but had also paid off the War of 1812 and the Louisiana Purchase. And this is in the days before income tax. How did we do it? Simple: we only spent money on the essentials.

Allow individuals to keep the bread of their Labor. Tax Freedom Day should be around April 1st. This means that all of the hours you put in at work during the first THREE months of the year go toward paying your taxes and nothing else. Consider how much better your life would be if you only had to work a few weeks out of the year to pay taxes. Or what if you could keep all of the income that you earned? Granted, this would mean going without the government safety net. However, I consider that a plus, as it may provide the needed motivation to get some people on the track to a productive life as opposed to a life of government handouts.

Restrain men from injuring one another. Ok, for all of you big government types out there, this is not justification for regulating everything in this country. Nor is this a go-ahead for all of the laws that will “save us from ourselves”. Murder, theft, rape….these are the sort of things that Jefferson referred to. Telling a bank what interest rate they can charge for a loan or who an insurance company can and can’t insure is not something Jefferson would have approved of.

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Encourage Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise. Wait a minute…..encourage entrepreneurship? The US Government? Are you kidding? Yes, there was a time when entrepreneurship was encouraged in this country. Not so today. Ask any small business owner what is the greatest hurdle to success, and I think 99 out of 100 would respond government regulations and red tape. In Jefferson’s day, if you wanted to make and sell product A, you did just that. No interference from the government. A person was free to decide if he wanted to purchase product A. Perhaps product A was a good by for this person, perhaps not. But it was up to that individual to decide if they wanted to buy product A.

Recently, I was watching one of the 24-hour business channels, and they were interviewing the owner of a small cement company. The company had recently built and opened a new cement facility in California. According to the owner, between the local, state, and federal governments, there were 37 regulating bodies that had to be dealt with during construction of the plant. This is utter insanity. As Jefferson said “the governments that governs the best is the government that governs the least.”

Support the State Governments in their Rights. Today, a person is typically accused of being a racist when they bring up the subject of states’ rights. However, the Founding Fathers created a system of government with very strong state governments. The fear was that if power were to be concentrated at the federal level, the government would exert more and more power over the citizens of the country, until the federal government would become a tyrannical monstrosity. Looking at this concept from 200 years later, I can say without a doubt that the Founders were right on this one.

The “one size fits all” approach to government just does not work. I know that our current President (and many others in Congress) simply drools at the idea of central planning. However, I think a much better road to travel is allowing each state to run its own show. So California and New York want sky high taxes so they can regulate business to the point where nobody wants to live or work in those states? That’s fine; you can always move to Texas where free enterprise and low taxes are the name of the game. And while our President refers to such ideas as “the race to the bottom”, the only thing I see going down are taxes and government meddling in our lives.

As the saying goes, we have come a long way. But is it for the better? Personally, I yearn for a return to the ideas that made this country great. To have the right to succeed or fail on your own without government meddling and to keep the fruits of my labor….that would be a great thing indeed.


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    • AJReissig profile image

      Alex J. Reissig 5 years ago from New Richmond, Ohio

      I agree. Lincoln apears to have been a person with the belief of "the ends justify the means".

    • umbertoobrian profile image

      umbertoobrian 5 years ago from Speedway, Indiana

      Lincoln may be the most controversial president among those who actually read and understand history. Lincoln was a powerful advocate for many things libertarians and conservatives believe while the Constitution fell to pieces because of Lincoln's actions.

      The old argument is - He preserved the Republic - but at what cost?

    • AJReissig profile image

      Alex J. Reissig 5 years ago from New Richmond, Ohio

      I agree 100%. Advocated a slaveless society, yet held slaves. He was a major proponent of limiting the federal government, yet he greatly expanded it's powers. Although I do have to say that he and the first fifteen Presidents at least attempted to work within the confines of the Constitution (for the most part at least; Adams had that little issue with the Alien and Sedition Acts). But it seemed like after Lincold stomped all over the Constitution, the majority of the Presidents followed suit.

      Thanks for the comments!

    • umbertoobrian profile image

      umbertoobrian 5 years ago from Speedway, Indiana

      Jefferson is an excellent example of the problem you have posed. He offered and authored intellectual arguments for liberty, limited government, frugality, natural law, etc... but failed to live to the standards he would set for others. Jefferson, too frequently, intellectualized a problem rather than find its expression in the real and flawed world. Jefferson was also an apologist for the French Revolution, an ideological revolution quite at odds with the American Revolution and the ideas with which Jefferson helped found it.

      None the less, great reading, good hub.

    • PETER LUMETTA profile image

      PETER LUMETTA 6 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

      Bravo, another sane article that we all need to heed,