What would Jefferson think of the government shutdown?

Published 10:44 am Wednesday, January 9, 2019

by John Micek

It was a perfect post-Christmas day, as I watched tourists move in concentric circles around the Jefferson Memorial at the far edge of the National Mall.

Jefferson’s famous exhortation about the nature of government, that “we might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors,” still inspires all these centuries later.

Then there was this. And I’m pretty sure it’s not something that Jefferson ever said or wrote.

“AREA CLOSED: Because of a lapse in federal appropriations this national park facility is closed for the safety of visitors and park resources.”

And if you were a tourist looking to … ahh … drain the proverbial swamp, the intractability of leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue meant that you were out of luck.

The shuttered restrooms at the Jefferson Memorial are an appropriate, if a tad flawed, metaphor for our current political predicament. The pipes of government are hopelessly clogged. And as the shutdown drags into its third week, it’s difficult to imagine what could possibly get Congressional leaders and the Trump White House to “Yes.”

So as Democrats and new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dig in, and as Trump fantastically blusters that he could declare a national emergency to build a wall, it seems worth asking: Just what would America’s third president have made of the shutdown stalemate?

In our national imagination, we like to think that the founders were an 18th Century coffee klatsche, conjuring a new nation out of a bloody revolution, even as they hung out in their powdered wigs and knickerbockers, knocked back a bit of grog, and just generally debated the heck out of stuff.

But, in fact, they were just as sharp-elbowed and fractious as our current leadership. Some even hated each other. There’s a reason why “Hamilton” has a sad ending, after all.

Lawson Bowling, who teaches history at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York (And who was, as a matter of full disclosure, my favorite professor as an undergraduate) offered a dose of perspective.

As Bowling points out, America had no immigration laws during Jefferson’s day. And T.J. was no fan of a strong, central government. So those obstacles would have been entirely foreign to him.

As president, Jefferson “cut federal spending,” and “he might have said that the fact that life is going right on despite the scary-sounding ‘government shutdown’ underscores that there is far more to America than the national government,” Bowling observed.

Jefferson also had zero patience for the kind of partisan shenanigans that have colored our current debate. The lanky Virginian “opposed a party system and worked, successfully, to destroy the ‘Federalist opposition,’ so he would not have faced divided government, though before his presidency this was characteristic of the 1790s,” Bowling said.

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, offered a slightly different take. The Founding Fathers, were they around today, and were actually your dads, would be very disappointed in you.

The Founders were “visionaries and were able to contemplate so many contingencies could follow in the wake of their work,” Borick said. “They also were pragmatic: They knew that humans weren’t angels and that there would be conflict between the branches [of government.]”

Even so, they’d be disappointed over a stalemate over a chunk of cash that’s basically a rounding error in the federal budget. On Friday, Trump wouldn’t move off his demand for $5 billion in border wall funding and warned that a shutdown could last months or even years, The Washington Post reported.

That’s Grade-A Trumpian bluster, but the Founders, who liked to think of themselves as a consensus-minded bunch, would be “disappointed by such pettiness,” Borick said.

“They knew there would be major showdowns,” Borick said, but “They were visionaries and pragmatists. There’s nothing visionary about this fight. And it’s something a pragmatist would shake their heads at.” He had a point. As I left the Jefferson Memorial, I could have sworn I saw T.J. glowering down the National Mall.

JOHN L. MICEK, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the opinion editor and political columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvani. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at jmicek@pennlive.com.