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Of Jefferson and Vice By: Myles Kantor
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, August 14, 2001

MY "AMERICA, EMULATE JEFFERSON, NOT CASTRO" has received spirited responses. Two points recur among respondents: 1) Thomas Jefferson endorsed the criminalization of sodomy in Virginia, 2) Sodomy and homosexuality are vices. I will address these in order.

Thomas Jefferson wrote of inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, deplored slavery’s "unremitting despotism" and "degrading submissions" in Notes on the State of Virginia, and in his twilight affirmed that "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." The same Thomas Jefferson enslaved people for most of his life. Historian Forrest McDonald observes, "By all accounts Jefferson himself agonized a great deal over the conflict between his professed belief in human liberty and his ownership of slaves… agony or no, he retained his slaves and lived in splendor off their labors."

We find a similar clash between conviction and conduct regarding Jefferson and sodomy. The same man who prescribed castration for a particular form of consensual sex wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others." Jefferson reiterated this narrow conception of political purview in a letter to Francis W. Gilmor: "No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him." (It should be noted that these sentiments manifested after Jefferson authored Virginia’s anti-sodomy law, whereas his anti-slavery sentiments manifested concurrently with his enslavement.)

Plainly stated, Thomas Jefferson is not the most consistent individual in American history. Jefferson’s dichotomous character mirrors his America, a land that exalted liberty while denying elemental autonomy to those of a darker hue.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can separate the Jeffersonian wheat from the Jeffersonian chaff. Just as Jefferson’s ownership of slaves does not negate the validity of his anti-slavery words, Jefferson’s anti-sodomy authorship does not negate the validity of his pro-freedom prescriptions. We should emulate him accordingly.

Sodomy and homosexuality as vices involve the issue of legitimate political mandate. In Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty, the great abolitionist Lysander Spooner distinguishes vices from crimes: the former exist where "man harms himself or his property," the latter where "man harms the person or property of another."

The distinction is central to justice, for if government may criminalize vice, no human action is beyond political control. As the seminal economist and thinker Ludwig von Mises notes, "[O]nce the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments." Suffice it to say this is not conducive to freedom.

Whether sodomy or homosexuality are vices or not, these are matters for cultural deliberation, not political proscription. Those who would enlist state power to abolish vice will fail in their crusade and condemn future generations to tyranny.

I oppose efforts to coerce inclusion of homosexuals in private associations such as the Boy Scouts; I oppose the expansion of anti-discrimination law to homosexuals; and I oppose anti-sodomy laws. I oppose all of these policies because I believe property rights are indispensable to freedom, and the expropriative essence of these policies makes despotic inroads on the rights of property (to borrow Marx’s usage).

America should not be implementing The Communist Manifesto. Therefore, sodomy should not be a crime in America.

Myles Kantor is a columnist for FrontPageMagazine.com and editor-at-large for Pureplay Press, which publishes books about Cuban history and culture. His e-mail address is myles.kantor@gmail.com.

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