Full Context    INTERVIEWS


David N. MAYER

Vol. 10, No. 3 (November 1997)

The following excerpts are from Karen Reedstrom's interview with David Mayer, published in the November 1997 issue of Full Context.

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Q: Where did you grow up and what kinds of ideas influenced your early intellectual development and interests?

Mayer: In Flint, Michigan, where I was the only child of older parents. My mother and father were in their 40s and 50s during my childhood years—which meant that I grew up in a mostly adult world, not having much contact with kids my age until I started school. It also meant that, like Kira in We the Living, I learned "the joy of being alone." I think the most valuable thing I’ve learned from my father was the virtue of self-reliance. He’s quite literally a self-made man, was forced to quit school by 8th grade to begin working full-time, and to this day doesn’t use credit cards because he follows the philosophy of "pay as you go." From my mother, I acquired a love of books and of learning—intellectual curiosity about everything from dinosaurs to politics. Neither of my parents are religious, in the conventional sense—my mother was nominally Lutheran; my father was raised a Catholic but left the church soon after he married my mom because the church treated her so badly—so I grew up in a rational home, without religion. My parents allowed me to formulate my own philosophy, which I did in reaction to the books I read and the television programs I watched as a kid. I attended fairly mediocre suburban public schools, but I was fortunate to have some very good teachers, especially my 8th- and 11th-grade English teachers, who taught me to write well, and my high school debate coach, who helped me become a good public speaker. My experience on the debate team also helped spark my interest in politics: I had been a "Goldwater Republican" (the 1964 presidential election was the first one that I, a 4th-grader at the time, noticed), and probably by the time I graduated from high school was essentially a libertarian, although I wasn’t familiar with the word at the time and probably would have labeled myself "conservative." I wasn’t especially interested in politics as a teenager, though; science was my real interest, and when I began college I was pre-med and planned to major in chemistry, perhaps with a minor in philosophy. Because neither of my parents were able to complete their formal education (my Mom did graduate from high school but was financially unable to go on to college), they made it their priority to send me to college, and began setting aside money for my college fund the day I was born! Little did they know at the time that I’d spend 11 years as a college student: 4 years undergrad and 3 years of Law School at the University of Michigan, and then 4 more years as a History graduate student at the University of Virginia.

Q: How were you introduced to the writings of Ayn Rand?

Mayer: I read Anthem for my 11th-grade English class and was profoundly moved by it. Then in a bookstore I discovered Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness and read all the essays while I was still in high school. Then, during the summer following my freshman year in college, while I was interning in Washington, D.C., I read The Fountainhead. It was an eventful summer—the summer of 1974—and I observed the downfall of Nixon’s presidency by day, and read about Howard Roark at night. I followed up with Atlas Shrugged over winter break during my sophomore year. By spring of that year, I was a subscriber to The Ayn Rand Letter and began buying and reading all the other Rand books, both fiction and non-fiction. By that time, I’d also changed my major to history. Both the experience of being a Washington intern (I worked at the Library of Congress, where I got a good insider’s view of what’s wrong with the federal government) and reading Rand helped shape my interest in political philosophy; and at the University of Michigan at that time, the best courses in that subject weren’t in the philosophy department but in the history department.

Q: You attended The University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson. What was it like attending that school? Are there any "Jeffersonian" values still in place or has it, through the years, deteriorated intellectually and spiritually?

Mayer: Sadly, I think, the most "Jeffersonian" aspect of the University today is its architecture: as I said when I spoke at U.Va. on Jefferson’s 250th birthday in 1993, Americans seem to have done a better job preserving what Jefferson left us in bricks and mortar than we have in preserving his ideas. U.Va. generally is like most American universities in having a faculty largely dominated by the so-called "liberal" left, although the University may be a bit less "politically correct" than most other large state universities. Jefferson’s vision of the University as a bastion of "republicanism"—by which he meant the American philosophy of limited government, with all the constitutional checks diffusing its power—largely has been abandoned in the 20th century, given the statist bias of most of its faculty and administrators. However, Jeffersonianism still lives to some extent among the students. I’m glad to say that the libertarian student group that I founded there in the early 1980s is still going strong, and that it’s one of about a half-dozen libertarian groups at U.Va. today. Maybe that’s the best thing one can say about Jefferson’s University: that it fosters a student environment of intellectual diversity, in which free-market ideas can flourish.

Q: I believe you were a tour guide at the university. Can you tell us some interesting history about the school?

Mayer: Actually I volunteered as a tour guide at my other alma mater, the University of Michigan. At U.Va. I never formally joined the University Guides, but as a "Jefferson buff" I informally gave many tours to friends and acquaintances when they visited Charlottesville. The Lawn and its buildings—which Jefferson designed as an "academical village," where students and faculty could live in a kind of community of scholars—is interesting, both for its architecture and as a model for what a University ought to be. Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece, the Rotunda, is a splendid adaptation of classical form (essentially a half-scale replica of the Pantheon in Rome) to the needs of an American university: he designed it to be the Library, the center of the University. It was virtually destroyed by a fire in 1895 and rebuilt with a new interior design; Jefferson’s original design was restored in the 1970s, just in time for celebration of the American Revolution Bicentennial in 1976. One of the first official guests of the "restored" Rotunda was Queen Elizabeth II: how ironic, considering how anti-British and anti-monarchical Jefferson was. Another interesting bit of Lawn history involves the murder of a professor there in the early 1840s, a tragic event that prompted the establishment of the University’s Honor System, which to this day is still entirely student-run.

Q: How did you become interested in the Founding Fathers, Jefferson in particular, enough so to write a book?

Mayer: One of my favorite professors at Michigan, Shaw Livermore, taught a course in early American political history which introduced me to Jefferson’s philosophy of government, which absolutely fascinated me. I was struck most, I think, by Jefferson’s championing of individual liberty and his abhorrence of concentrated political power; when I first read the famous line from his First Inaugural Address—where he called for "a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits"—I cheered out loud, just as I had when I first read Rand’s Anthem. I followed up the course with an independent study with Professor Livermore, for which I read all of Jefferson’s published political writings, and that research served as the basis for my senior honors thesis, on Jefferson’s political thought. In law school I continued my Jefferson studies, delving into his "Whig" understanding of English history and the English constitution. My interest in doing my Ph.D. dissertation on Jefferson’s constitutional thought brought me to Virginia, where I studied under the great Jefferson scholar, Merrill Peterson—and, in fact, I was his last Ph.D. student, for he became an emeritus professor before I completed my dissertation.

Q: Tell us about your book, The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson. How is it different than other books about Jefferson and why should we read it?

Mayer: As I wrote in the preface, my book is the only comprehensive study of Jefferson’s constitutional thought: the only book that thoroughly explores Jefferson’s philosophy of government, on its own terms. That’s amazing, when you consider that Jefferson was a central figure in virtually every significant constitutional issue of his time; and since that was the time of the Founding, those issues are still with us today. To be sure, there have been dozens of biographical studies of Jefferson as well as several books focused on particular aspects of his thought (for example, his notion that the First Amendment religion clause erected, in his famous words, a "wall of separation between church and state"), but none that examined his overall constitutional thought. I suspect this omission in Jefferson scholarship is directly related to the ideological biases of modern American scholars, as I suggested in my article, "The Forgotten Essentials of Jefferson’s Philosophy," in the April 1997 issue of IOS Journal. Most historians, as statists, frankly dislike the essence of Jefferson’s constitutionalism—which emphasizes the need to limit the power of government, especially the federal government—so they dismiss it as old-fashioned, inappropriate for modern industrial (or, as some say, "post-industrial") America. The small minority of historians who are conservatives may like Jefferson’s ideas about limited government, but they’re disdainful of Jefferson himself because he based his philosophy on reason and on the nature of man rather than on religious faith. So, I think, as an Objectivist, I’m in a unique position to really understand Jefferson and all aspects of his thought, including those that other historians, as liberal or conservative rather than libertarian, tend to ignore. I take seriously Jefferson’s fundamental concern for limiting the power of government because I appreciate that it’s grounded in his desire to allow men to live as they should live, in freedom and with reason as their guide.

Q: Books, especially on famous figures, tend to be redundant with their facts. Is there any new research you have uncovered on Jefferson during the writing of your book?

Mayer: Histories, especially of subjects as popular as Jefferson, do tend to be original not in their discovery of new facts but rather in the new interpretations they give to the facts. What’s most original in my book, as I’ve said, is its interpretation of Jefferson’s ideas about government as essentially libertarian. Besides that, however, Chapter One of the book contains a synthesis of the "radical Whig" historical and political tradition in which Jefferson’s early intellectual life was steeped. I actually read the books that Jefferson read while he was a student—radical Whig histories of England, books on government and law—and summarized their ideas to make them accessible to modern readers. I know of no other Jefferson books that have done that.

Q: Do you have another book planned?

Mayer: Yes, my next book—still a few years off—will be a treatise on the Constitution, from an Objectivist perspective. The idea for the book actually came from one of Rand’s essays, "Censorship: Local and Express," where she criticized the Supreme Court for "context-dropping." I think the essential problem with modern American constitutional law is that it fails to appreciate the essential "context" of the Constitution, as a limit on the power of government, securing the rights of individuals. My study of Jefferson, in a sense, was a prelude to my next book, because I consider Jefferson’s theory of constitutional interpretation to be contextualist, or holistic. That’s why so many scholars have difficulty pigeonholing him as either a "strict-constructionist" or a "liberal," for though he seemed to interpret the power-granting clauses of the Constitution quite strictly, he also gave liberal interpretation to power-limiting or rights-guaranteeing clauses, such as the First Amendment. To many scholars, who think that one must always be either a strict or a loose constructionist, this seems inconsistent, and they conclude Jefferson had no consistent constitutional theory at all. But, from a contextualist perspective, it makes perfect sense that he should interpret power clauses differently than rights clauses: because he understood that the overall purpose of the Constitution was to limit power and protect liberty. Both conservatives and liberals miss this point. So, what I’d like to write is a book that would respond to both Robert Bork and Laurence Tribe—a book that would present a coherent view of the Constitution from a libertarian, Objectivist perspective.

Q: Philosophically speaking, what did Jefferson do that none of the other Founding Fathers did?

Mayer: He genuinely believed in "self-government," that is, in the rights of individuals literally to govern themselves, free of government’s interference with their lives. None of the other Founders had as much confidence in people; like politicians today, whether conservative or liberal, the other Founders tended to regard the people as children, as either helpless or dangerous if left on their own, and thus believed that government was necessary to guide them. That paternalistic attitude was hard to escape, for it had centuries of political thought behind it; Jefferson truly epitomized the American Enlightenment, for he understood that the Revolution meant a break with this paternalistic past. Perhaps he said it best in a famous passage in his First Inaugural Address: "Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question."

Q: What was his major accomplishment as President?

Mayer: To me, his major accomplishment was to restore respect for the limits that the Constitution imposed on the office, both the limits on the presidency itself (particularly separation of powers) and the limits on the federal government. In other words, I think his presidency was more important for what he didn’t do than for what he did. Let me give some examples. He refused to enforce unconstitutional laws, such as the Sedition Act, which his predecessor John Adams used to silence his opposition. He abandoned his predecessors Washington’s and Adams’ practice of delivering the annual message (what we call the "State of the Union" address) in person, because he thought it made the president seem too much like the British monarch addressing Parliament from the throne; instead, he sent a written message, which a clerk read to Congress. That practice persisted throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, until Woodrow Wilson resumed the in-person address. Jefferson’s practice might seem a small thing, but it’s important symbolically in keeping the presidency down to size. Another controversial action he took as president was to call upon Congress for its permission to authorize Navy actions in the Mediterranean during the so-called "Barbary War"; because he respected Congress’s constitutional prerogative to declare war, he—unlike modern presidents—was reluctant to start a war on his own, without the cooperation of Congress.

Q: Intellectually, which is the more fundamentally philosophical document, the Declaration of Independence written by Jefferson or the Constitution written by Madison?

Mayer: Clearly, it’s the Declaration, which is a philosophical document and which, even with the changes made by the Continental Congress, was Jefferson’s expression of "the American mind," a justification of the American Revolution to the rest of mankind. The Constitution, on the other hand, I’d regard as not a philosophical document at all. Although it reflects some of the basic principles of American constitutionalism—federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, and so on—it’s also the result of political compromises made among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. It’s much more a practical, political document, peculiar to the American experience, than is the Declaration, whose famous second paragraph ("We hold these truths to be self-evident...") speaks to all people, of all nations, at all times.

Q: How original was Jefferson as a thinker? Was he just a popularizer of the ideas of others and the quiet Madison really the brains behind the ideology? Or did he contribute some significant ideas of his own?

Mayer: As I mentioned earlier, I regard as Jefferson’s most important contribution his genuine devotion to the principle of self-government. Virtually all the other aspects of his political and constitutional thought derived from this fundamental principle, which was unique to Jefferson—certainly to the extent that he carried it, for none of the other Founding Fathers, Madison included, so trusted the people’s ability to govern themselves. In the particulars of his thought, Jefferson’s originality was mostly in the way he synthesized ideas derived from others: from the English radical Whig philosophers of government, primarily John Locke and Algernon Sidney; from Enlightenment thinkers, particularly the Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophers; and from French anti-mercantilist philosophers, such as Destutt de Tracy, who profoundly influenced Jefferson’s mature views on government and political economy. But Jefferson really was the intellectual, as well as political, leader of his Republican Party—something that Madison would be the first to admit. In many ways, Jefferson and Madison complemented each other: Jefferson was the more idealistic, theoretical thinker, while Madison was much more the political realist. A good example is another matter on which they disagreed: constitutional change. Jefferson liked the idea of frequent constitutional change, advocating that each new generation adopt anew its laws and constitutions; Madison, on the other hand, was skeptical of such change, because he understood the importance of stability in the law. Madison also, like most of the other Founders, had a deep-rooted fear of the people, and did not trust them to re-make the Constitution every 20 years. He feared that important rights—especially property rights—might be lost; and I think he was right. So, when it comes to understanding the danger of what Tocqueville called the "tyranny of the majority," yes, I do think Madison was a more profound thinker. Sadly, I think, Jefferson’s unlimited confidence in the people was misplaced.


David MayerDavid N. Mayer, Ph.D. is a tenured Professor of Law at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. A Michigan native, Mayer attended the University of Michigan, receiving an A.B. in History in 1977 and a J.D. from the UM Law School in 1980. Mayer pursued graduate study in history at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and also worked as an associate attorney for a Washington, D.C. law firm. He completed his doctoral dissertation during his fellowship at George Mason University’s Institute for Humane Studies in 1987-88. Mayer’s considerable scholarly output includes a landmark treatise on Thomas Jefferson entitled The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson, published in 1994 by the University of Virginia Press. Earlier this year, his writing has appeared in Liberty and in the IOS Journal. Mayer has become a regular on the Objectivist conference circuit, presenting talks at the 1996 and 1997 IOS Summer Seminars and at the recent celebration of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in Washington D.C. He regularly addresses college and think-think audiences on Jefferson’s libertarian legacy, and on restoring the Founders’ vision of limited government.

This excerpt represents less than 1/3 of the interview with Prof. Mayer. To read the transcript of the interview in its entirety, you may request a copy of the November 1997 issue of Full Context here.

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