Thomas Fleming: Wall Street Protesters Channel Thomas Jefferson






Mr. Fleming, a former president of the Society of American Historians, is the author, most recently, of "The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers" (Smithsonian, 2009).

'We demand the forgiveness of all debts." After several days of listening to the Occupy Wall Street protesters, I had begun to lose all hope of grasping exactly what they wanted, beyond some sort of "change." I was almost relieved to hear this endorsement of a solution to a specific problem, especially pertinent to protesters in their age group who owe millions of dollars to the federal government for the money they borrowed to go to college....

Did they know, on this point, they were echoing Thomas Jefferson? If so, these protesters and their sympathizers might want to think twice.

Debt forgiveness was not original with Jefferson, who enunciated it in a letter to his favorite correspondent, James Madison, on Sept. 6, 1789, when the French Revolution was picking up steam in Paris....

In a masterpiece of understatement, James Morton Smith, the editor of "The Republic of Letters," a three-volume collection of their correspondence, says Madison's reply to Jefferson's proposal was "a severe test of their friendship." Point by point, the younger man demolished Jefferson's silliness with polite but irrefutable logic....



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