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Vail Daily column: Jefferson roundly refutes Reagan

Jack Van Ens

President Ronald Reagan regarded himself Jefferson’s twin. He recited T.J.’s mantra that “government is best which governs least.” They agreed power concentrated in the nation’s capital is power abused. Reagan concurred with Jefferson’s vision for a “wise and frugal government.”

Reagan talked a good line about reducing national debt and balancing the budget. But he acted very un-Jeffersonian, reports biographer H.W. Brands. “He cut taxes and regulations but failed to cut spending; the result was the economic recovery (starting in 1982) but also the doubling of the federal debt” (“Reagan: The Life”).

Most citizens loved Reagan despite his insistence on digging the nation into a huge financial hole. They rejected Walter Mondale’s warning, the Democratic 1984 presidential nominee, that Reagan’s spending spree would chain Americans to “living on borrowed money and borrowed time. These deficits hike interest rates, clobber exports, stunt investment, kill jobs, undermine growth, cheat our kids and shrink our future.”



Reagan favored a constitutional balanced budget amendment to cure most financial maladies. He invented pseudo-history in order to co-opt Jefferson.

It bothered him little that the sternest critic of his proposal for a balance budget amendment would have been Jefferson. Reagan habitually aligned U.S. history with pre-conceived convictions about limited government. He repeated “facts” that supported bad economic policy. Saying them over and over, Reagan ignored historical fact when it didn’t jibe with what he believed.



Reagan was in the dark about Jefferson, misreading his hero’s stance on a constitutional balanced budget amendment. The president asserted, “It’s time to finish the job Jefferson began and to protect our people and their livelihoods with restrictions on government that will ensure the fundamental economic freedom of the people — the equivalent of an Economic Bill of Rights.”

Charging ahead, Reagan drew Jefferson to his side.

“I’m certain if Thomas Jefferson were here, he’d be one of the most articulate and aggressive champions of the cause. The reason I’m certain is that in 1798 he wrote: ‘I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government to the genuine principles of its Constitution. I mean an additional article taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.’”



Sounds correct, doesn’t it? Pass a balance budget amendment that Jefferson proposed in 1798 in order to cut off government’s over-reaching hand.

Wrong! Reagan greatly expanded the military budget in the 1980s, which increased national debt. In contrast, Jefferson wanted to cut military spending in 1798. He’d adopt a constitutional amendment to shrink the military’s budget.

Going to war in 1798 against France would have ballooned the national debt. Vice President Jefferson argued against increased defense spending. Congressional military hawks supported massive hikes in spending and borrowing. They rammed through Congress the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, which jailed or deported protesters who resisted expanding the military.

Reagan’s insistence on a balanced budget amendment, if adopted during Jefferson’s presidency, would have caused political disaster. Writing in The New York Times on Jan. 24, 1995, sociologist Paul J. Starr showed the political stupidity of balanced-budget advocates. “If the Constitution had required a balanced budget, many members of Congress would not sit there today; for one thing, Thomas Jefferson could not have completed the Louisiana Purchase.”

Oops! If Jefferson had Reagan’s economic instincts, then our nation would have been smaller, having fewer seats for congressional members.

A year after Starr’s editorial, Vermont’s Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy showed why Reagan’s balanced budget amendment wouldn’t work for T.J. “Thomas Jefferson borrowed an amount that was equal to twice the budget of the United States for the Louisiana Purchase,” Leahy correctly asserted. “I mean, this would be like borrowing trillions of dollars today.

“Had President Jefferson had a balanced budget amendment … North Dakota would have had the chance to speak Spanish, not English … . Certainly, the United States would not be a country described as ‘from sea to shining sea.’” Jefferson wasn’t always frugal. He unilaterally doubled our country’s size, taking on gargantuan national debt.

Reagan screwed up his reading of U.S. history, leaving Jefferson in the dark.

Americans honor our nation’s past when they don’t distort history to fit political agendas. Jefferson approved the federal government’s power to tax. In 1803, he borrowed enormous sums to expand our country’s size and acted like a benign dictator in cinching the Louisiana Purchase. He blocked increased military costs.

Informed citizens reject false historical comparisons.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com).


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