The German federal president, Christian Wulff, gave the opening speech yesterday at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Economic Sciences, with 17 Nobel laureates gathered on the banks of Lake Constance. His concluding quote came not from some Ph.D. economist nor even from a European, but rather from Thomas Jefferson:
"We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude." These are the famous words of the third President of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson, urgently warning – in the summer of 1816 – against government overindebtedness. In this summer of our disillusionment, which must mark the start of a process of reorientation, need anything else be said? We just might have learned a lesson.
There are quite a few fake Jefferson quotes circulating on the Web, so this one sent me looking to the primary source, which is pretty remarkable. The Library of Congress Web site has an image of the actual letter, and the University of Virginia has the text. The Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, TeachingAmericanHistory.org, has the letter's date as June 12, 1816, rather than July 12, 1816, which is what the other sites have. Anyway, here is the full relevant passage from Jefferson's letter to Samuel Kercheval.
to preserve their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude. If we run into such debts, as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and our creeds, as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes; have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers. Our landholders, too, like theirs, retaining indeed the title and stewardship of estates called theirs, but held really in trust for the treasury, must wander, like theirs, in foreign countries, and be contented with penury, obscurity, exile, and the glory of the nation. This example reads to us the salutary lesson, that private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by private extravagance. And this is the tendency of all human governments. A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, and to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering. Then begins, indeed, the bellum omnium in omnia, which some philosophers observing to be so general in this world, have mistaken it for the natural, instead of the abusive state of man. And the fore horse of this frightful team is public debt. Taxation follows that, and in its train wretchedness and oppression.
Governor Perry or Romney could do worse in 2012 than to just have some Jefferson re-enactor read this section of the letter aloud as a television commercial, followed by President Kennedy's famous quip at a star-studded White House gathering of Nobel laureates that it was the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that had ever been gathered at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.