How I Came to Write "What Would Jefferson Do?"

Book by Thom Hartmann

Originally published at buzzflash.com on August 5, 2004.

Note From BuzzFlash:

We took the unusual step of asking our monthly "Independent Thinker" book reviewer, Thom Hartmann, to tell us a bit about his own newest book, "What Would Jefferson Do?"

Hartmann is a true citizen-scholar, in the tradition of many of the patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence. He's also a progressive radio commentator with a growing syndication.

Even though he's a BuzzFlash contributor who champions books that might otherwise not receive the attention that they should, BuzzFlash believes that many of Hartmann's writings also deserve a wider audience. In particular, we have been meaning for quite some time to interview him about his 2002 book, "Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights," which focuses on the threat posed by corporations legally being entitled to the same rights as people.

Hartmann is a true pro-democracy advocate. That is why he chose to focus on the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy in his latest book, which the Bush administration is trampling on as if such revolutionary thinking were weeds that needed to be stamped out.

In "What Would Jefferson Do?: A Return to Democracy," Hartmann reawakens the spirit of '76 that placed the ship of state in the hands of its citizens.

At a time when our Constitution and the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence are under siege by an extremist executive branch, Hartmann restores the sense of nobility and innovation that marked the creation of the great American experience in democratic rule.

* * *

How I Came to Write "What Would Jefferson Do?"
By Thom Hartmann

For the past year, I’ve been on the air coast-to-coast for three hours a day, five days a week, going up against Rush Limbaugh in the noon-3 PM time slot EST. Callers from California to North Carolina, Iowa to Texas, and even a few expatriate web-listeners who’ve dialed in from Australia, Germany, Taiwan, and Scotland, repeatedly stress a consistent set of concerns.

"I feel as though our country has lost its democracy," said one caller in New York.
"Our politicians are for sale to the highest corporate bidder," said another in New Mexico.
"I was arrested for standing a block away from a Bush fundraiser with a ‘No War for Oil,’ sign," said another in South Carolina.

A caller in Dallas told the story of how his masters degree in engineering and service as an officer in the army didn’t qualify him to compete with the engineer in India who took his job. "I’ve been unemployed for 42 months," he said, "although I’m still looking every day for a good job."

There’s a pervasive concern sweeping across our nation, a fear that both the economic American dream is slipping away while the ideals of American democracy have been under an organized and powerful attack since Ronald Reagan first declared war on America’s workers.

In the midst of this, and with our last child grown and out of the house, Louise and I moved into an 1850 Gothic house overlooking a small town in central Vermont. In the house's dark and dusty attic we found a huge pile of old books, apparently left by an occupant in the 1920s. Among them were a 20-volume set, published in 1904, of the complete collected writings of Thomas Jefferson – including over 10,000 of his personal letters, most never before or since published.

I was immediately addicted.

Four years later I came up for air, with a new appreciation of Jefferson’s worldview and its application to today’s world.

I’d discovered:

The critical missing context when he wrote his letter to Benjamin Rush in which he said, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny imposed upon the mind of man." (He was railing against churches trying to influence legislators.)
I found his thoughts on progressive taxation (a person should only have to pay taxes "after satisfying his first wants" or basic needs).

Inheritance taxes ("If the overgrown wealth of an individual be deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance...").

Slavery (he repeatedly tried to end it, both in Virginia and nationally, believed it would have ended by 1808, and was nearly overwhelmed by despair when he failed).

The Ten Commandments as the basis of American law ("In truth, the alliance between Church and State in England has ever made their judges accomplices in the frauds of the clergy,").

And dozens of other startling aspects of Jefferson’s worldview.

The result of this research – combined with a critical look at today’s world, and some startling new information about the biological basis of democracy – became a book that was just published this month by Random House/Harmony and titled: "What Would Jefferson Do?: A Return to Democracy."

My hope is that it will bring a useful historical perspective, as well as a modern critique, to today’s political discourse.

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