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Thomas Jefferson’s Second Inaugural Address

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Published : January 22nd, 2013
485 words - Reading time : 1 - 1 minutes
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Category : Editorials

Here’s what Thomas Jefferson had to say about taxes, the size of government, and the national debt in his second inaugural address on March 4, 1805. For anyone today, that second sentence below is mind-blowing.

At home, fellow citizens, you best know whether we have done well or ill. The suppression of unnecessary offices, of useless establishments and expenses, enabled us to discontinue our internal taxes. These covering our land with officers, and opening our doors to their intrusions, had already begun that process of domiciliary vexation which, once entered, is scarcely to be restrained from reaching successively every article of produce and property. If among these taxes some minor ones fell which had not been inconvenient, it was because their amount would not have paid the officers who collected them, and because, if they had any merit, the state authorities might adopt them, instead of others less approved.



The remaining revenue on the consumption of foreign articles, is paid cheerfully by those who can afford to add foreign luxuries to domestic comforts, being collected on our seaboards and frontiers only, and incorporated with the transactions of our mercantile citizens, it may be the pleasure and pride of an American to ask, what farmer, what mechanic, what laborer, ever sees a tax-gatherer of the United States? These contributions enable us to support the current expenses of the government, to fulfil contracts with foreign nations, to extinguish the native right of soil within our limits, to extend those limits, and to apply such a surplus to our public debts, as places at a short day their final redemption, and that redemption once effected, the revenue thereby liberated may, by a just repartition among the states, and a corresponding amendment of the constitution, be applied, in time of peace, to rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great objects within each state. In time of war, if injustice, by ourselves or others, must sometimes produce war, increased as the same revenue will be increased by population and consumption, and aided by other resources reserved for that crisis, it may meet within the year all the expenses of the year, without encroaching on the rights of future generations, by burdening them with the debts of the past. War will then be but a suspension of useful works, and a return to a state of peace, a return to the progress of improvement.

Of course, with the important exception of the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson was a lot more frugal with the government’s money than he was with his own. From everything that I’ve read, he had what we call today a “compulsive shopping disorder” that left him with massive debt his entire life, so much so that when he sold his personal library to the Library of Congress for $24,000 in 1815 (a princely sum at the time), most of that money was passed on to debt collectors.


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