Friday, April 16, 2010

We Hold These Untruths To Be Self-Evident

One of the interesting attributes of the Tea Party crowd in Richmond yesterday was the Founding Father worship, possibly an offshoot of Confucianism based on the premise that the framers of the Constitution spoke to us directly in aphorisms suitable for printing on t-shirts and scrawling on patriotically-themed hand signs. Ultimately the Tea Partiers hope to collect a sufficient number of aphorisms so that every situation, from the humdrum to the critical, from the personal to the national, can be governed by reference to the most appropriate Founding Witticism.

Of course in building any collection, it’s essential to discard the inauthentic. Take the one in the picture above: “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” And while it seems practically made for our very time and situation, maybe that’s because its first appearance in print was in 1986 and it has never shown up in any of Jefferson’s known writing.

It’s rather fortunate that Jefferson didn’t say it, really, as talk of earning one’s living through the sweat of one’s brow falls a little flat when the speaker owns hundreds of human beings who cook his food, make his bed, tend his crops, keep his stables and – almost certainly – sleep with him and bear his children.

Another quotation was indeed correctly attributed to Jefferson: “Never spend your money before you have it.” But the man who wrote this advice died in such debt that he was unable to free his slaves due to his inability to pay off the loans he had taken out against them – though it would still be good advice even if every person who passed it on died woefully broke. That it’s too general to be of much practical value while also being annoyingly unworkable only adds to its charm.

Anyway, the assemblage of the Jeffersonian hadith seems well underway, if beset by a few questionable sentiments and confused by occasional gaping chasms between his statements and his ideals. On the bright side, beating the plowshare of Jefferson’s profligacy into the sword of a fiscal conservative will seem like a piece of cake compared to the effort that’ll be required to turn him into a Christian.

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