Whose birthday anniversary we are...


April 16, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THOMAS JEFFERSON, whose birthday anniversary we are celebrating this week, once wrote, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

My kind of president, right? Well, maybe, but TJ wrote that in 1787, 13 years before he was elected president. After he became president, he probably would not have put it quite that way. Here are some of his later thoughts on journalism:

"The printers [editors] seem to have aroused their lying faculties beyond their ordinary state, to reagitate the public mind."

"The abuses of freedom of the press here have been carried to a length never before known or borne by any civilized nation."

"Our newspapers for the most part present only the caricatures of disaffected minds."

"Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper."

"Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put in that polluted vehicle."

"The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors."

"Our printers raven on the agonies of their victims as wolves do on the blood of lambs."

"I read but one or two newspapers a week, but with reluctance give even that much time."

"I read but a single paper, and that hastily."

"I have almost ceased to read newspapers."

"I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid, and I find myself much happier."

My comment Monday that Jefferson was like those present dapols who spend their careers at the public trough provoked the following response from Frederick Vondy: "A big difference between TJ and and our current careerists is that his public service career just about ruined him financially."

How true. No valuable perks and huge gummint pensions in those days. What kept TJ in food and shelter in the last decade of his life was his sale of his collection of Tacitus, Thucydides, Newton and Euclid, et al. to Congress.

Congress' own library of 3,000 volumes was destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. TJ had a library of 6,487 volumes at Monticello. The lowest valuation any expert put on them was $23,950. Others said the collection was worth much more. Some said it was literally priceless. But TJ sold it to Congress for that low price. It became the basis for today's Library of Congress.

The vote to buy was close. Congressional Federalists (the equivalent of today's Republicans) opposed the sale almost to the man. Why? Too many books of "infidel philosophy" -- namely those of Voltaire, Rousseau and Locke. There are Jesse Helmses in every age.

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