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Thomas Jefferson Feared an Aristocracy of Corporations | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Thomas Jefferson Feared an Aristocracy of Corporations

Thomas Jefferson's name gets thrown around quite a bit these days by the Tea Partisans, which is a good thing.

A populist movement of the right or the left that neglected Jefferson, the most radical of the first presidents, would be a sorry affair indeed.

Jefferson's distrust of concentrated and consolidated power was such that he left a legacy for any and every dissenter against the state.

But Jefferson did not stop there.

He was, as well, a relentless critic of the monopolizing of economic power by banks, corporations and those who put their faith in what the third president referred to as "the selfish spirit of commerce (that) knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain.

Jefferson might not have wanted a lot of government, but he wanted enough government to assert the sovereignty of citizens over corporations. To his view, nothing was more important to the health of the republic.

In the early years of the 19th century, as banks and corporations began to flex their political muscles, he announced that: “I hope we shall crush… in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

There are those who would have us believe that the founders intended for corporations to control our elections – and, tragically, five of these Tories sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, where they recently ruled that the nation’s biggest businesses may spend whatever they like to buy the results that best serve their bottom lines.

The better angels among the founders would be aghast.

The  framers of the American experiment were imperfect men, to be sure. Few were so radical, or so far ahead of their times, as Tom Paine, the wisest of their number. But like Paine, Jefferson was a proud revolutionary against the old order of inherited monarchy, state churches, empires and the authority of the few over the fate of the many.

We know this to be true of Jefferson because, as July 4, 1826 approached, he was invited to appear in Washington for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Age and infirmity prevented Jefferson from attending the event. But he sent a message -- his last political statement -- which read:

“May (July 4) be to the world, what I believe it will be -- to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all -- the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form (of government) which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

So, yes, by all means, let us look to the original intent of the founders this July 4. But let us recognize what they actually said and meant about the danger posed by an “aristocracy of corporations” and the danger of allowing CEOs to ride roughshod over the democratic promise of the American experiment.

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