Today is Thomas Jefferson's birthday. The Writer's Almanac has a great capsule biography you can listen to here. Christopher Hitchens's short book on Jefferson is here. Jefferson's most famous work is here.
Our third president is considered to be the founder, or at least the ancestor, of the Democratic party. The beautiful Thomas Jefferson memorial in Washington, D.C., was FDR's idea. It was built during the New Deal.
But today Jefferson and Jeffersonian principles are more likely to be mentioned by Tea Party activists, Ron Paul supporters, Republican politicians, and movement conservatives. The Democratic party is more in the mold of Jefferson's great rival Alexander Hamilton, who supported a strong federal government in the service of national greatness.
What happened? One reason for the shift may be that over the last half century the parties swapped regions. Liberals and Democrats are clustered in places like Hamilton's New York City, and conservatives and Republicans inhabit Jefferson's native south. But the more important reason is probably the changing ideological character of the two parties. The Democrats are the party of centralized, expansive government, while the Republicans are trying to return to their roots as the party of decentralization, natural liberty, and limited constitutional government.
Of course, despite his brilliance, Jefferson lost the argument to Hamilton. America did not remain an agricultural republican democracy of yeoman farmers. The Hamiltonian forces of finance and industry changed the country irrevocably into an economic and military colossus. Even Jefferson was not immune to power. The Louisiana Purchase dramatically expanded the young nation, and the sage of Monticello launched the war against the Barbary Pirates to secure American trade lanes.
The Hamiltonians may have won in the long run. But 2010 is shaping up to be the year the Jeffersonians -- folks like Rand Paul in Kentucky, Rick Perry in Texas, Tom Campbell in California, and others -- strike back. Happy birthday, Tommy.