Can the progressive future claim the past?

President Obama used the imagery of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to state that equality was a founding principle of the Republic, and that now is the time to fulfil that promise with regard equal pay for women and gay rights. (Blog on that here)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Needless to say, the right may have a problem with this – having claimed the founding fathers for the small state, and liberty for all to have wealth without being taxed by the state to increase it’s power relative to the rest of civil society.

Enter Buchanan:

How could that be, when the author of the declaration Obama cites, Thomas Jefferson, believed homosexuality should be treated as rape, and George Washington ordered homosexuals drummed out of his army?

What Obama was attempting at the Capitol, with his repeated lifts from Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, was to portray his own and his party’s egalitarianism as a continuation of the great cause that triumphed at Yorktown and Appomattox.

He is hijacking the American Revolution, claiming an ancestral lineage for his ideology that is utterly fraudulent and bogus.

Source WND

Buchanna is at least more honest then some about Jefferson’s position. Many do quote Jefferson’s ideals about equality, and people being free to their conscience. Yet he also in the Virginia legislature tried to introduce castration for rape and sodomy. Some have spun this that the alternative was the death penalty, which made him liberal by the standards of the time. At any rate, his bill was defeated.


Yet claiming Jefferson as a homophobe or as pro gay rights is to put our own terms on a people who believed that no one could consent to a homosexual act. Such is the problem also when we look to great figures in the past as an example. Look deeper, you will find something that will shock you.

Richard Dawkins covers that well when talking for ten minutes about the moral zeitgeist – that is that overtime what we consider moral changes, sometimes rapidly – and to be cautious when using our times looking back on history.

Buchanan is right that civil rights are in many ways a modern idea in American history (just listen to the quote Dawkins reads out from Lincoln above). It does however miss an important point, that our values could be considered barbaric in the future and we may need to discuss them with enthusiasm, and that each generation may have to come to terms not only with that but how they should be governed, perhaps tearing down what has gone before, even the constitution.

Those ideas come from … Thomas Jefferson:

“We shall have our follies without doubt. Some one or more of them will always be afloat. But ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not of bigotry, not of Jesuitism. Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the return of ignorance and barbarism.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 15:58


Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right. It may be said, that the succeeding generation exercising, in fact, the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law had been expressly limited to nineteen years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be, indeed, if every form of government were so perfectly contrived, that the will of the majority could always be obtained, fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves; their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils, bribery corrupts them, personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents; and other impediments arise, so as to prove to every practical man, that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:459, Papers 15:396


If we are going to be honest, let us be fully so. In the debate bring your enthusiasm. Time to claim the future from people long since dead.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78


1 Comment

Filed under America, Dawkins, Philosophy, politics

One response to “Can the progressive future claim the past?

  1. Pingback: Thomas Jefferson Quote, 1816 | THE SCARECROW

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