Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Civic Hacker Profile: Thomas Jefferson

Yesterday's post featured Alexander Hamilton, an early American civic hacker. Today's post will present a few ways in which Thomas Jefferson was also an important civic hacker.
Thomas Jefferson

One reason to publish these civic hacker profiles is to show ways in which people can participate in civic hacking even if they don't program computers or write code. As Catherine Bracy says in her TED video, the definition of civic hacking is evolving to mean helping build or improve government, bringing "a 21st-century tool set to bear on the problems that government faces." The term government here means all aspects of making and administering of the public policy and affairs of a city, county, state or country, instead of limiting the term to just the politicians, bureaucrats and buildings that many people refer to when they say government.

Many of the founders of America could be considered civic hackers. They saw something in the existing governing situation they felt needed changing, and they worked to make changes they thought would be good for their country. As Bracy frames civic hacking, "It's the idea that if you see a problem, you work to fix it, and not just complain about it." The American founders usually worked with others to fix the problems, but these civic hackers didn't all agree with each other. For example, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson didn't agree on the relationships between the federal government and the states, or between the federal government and the individual citizens. Hamilton believed in a strong central government for America.

Thomas Jefferson took pretty much an opposite view. He strongly supported his new country, the United States of America, but he also believed deeply in the rights of the individual -- as Wikipedia put it:
"Thomas Jefferson was an American Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the third President of the United States (1801–1809). He was a spokesman for democracy, and embraced the principles of republicanism and the rights of the individual with worldwide influence...A proper government, for Jefferson, is one that not only prohibits individuals in society from infringing on the liberty of other individuals, but also restrains itself from diminishing individual liberty as a protection against tyranny from the majority...And what country can preserve its liberties, if the rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance?...To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means."
Jefferson was deeply committed to civic hacking, including writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, cofounding the Democratic-Republican political party, developing a plan for decimal currency in the US, acting as President of the US for two terms, organizing the Louisiana Purchase and doubling the size of the US while he was president, and founding the University of Virginia.

One of his earliest civic hacks was being the primary author of the US Declaration of Independence. It appears he wrote that document at the urging of others, rather than because he sought out the opportunity, but it turned out pretty well.
"Jefferson served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress...He didn't know many people in the Congress, but sought out John Adams who, along with his cousin Samuel, had emerged as a leader of the led to the drafting of Jefferson to write the declaration of independence. When Congress began considering a resolution of independence in June 1776, Adams ensured that Jefferson was appointed to the five-man committee to write a declaration in support of the resolution...the committee decided that Jefferson would write the first draft...Over the next seventeen days, Jefferson had limited time for writing and finished the draft quickly."
In another political civic hack, Jefferson and James Madison organized the Democratic-Republican political party in 1791.
"Democratic-Republican Party...was the second political party in the United States, and was organized by then United States Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and his friend and compatriot James Madison, (then serving in the House of Representatives) in 1791-93, to oppose the Federalist Party run by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The new party controlled the Presidency and Congress, and most states, from 1801 to 1825."
Jefferson also hacked the US financial system. He wrote the "Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States," recommending that the US use a decimal system of currency. If we hadn't followed Jefferson's proposal for coinage, I might have bought my coffee this morning with guineas, pounds or shillings. The Continental Congress had actually established the decimal dollar, but Jefferson reinforced that position and his document was a defining document early in the country's history. (On a side note, his recommendation to follow the decimal system for weights and measures was debated but pretty much ignored.)

Jefferson was a key player in the Louisiana Purchase. The $15 million deal was complicated, and many people were opposed to it, but six US states and parts of nine other states came from that land deal. It also spurred the westward expansion of the US, and our country might be quite a different place now had Jefferson not gone ahead with that deal. Following the Purchase, Jefferson organized the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as two other missions to explore the country's western territory and boundaries.
"The Louisiana Purchase occurred during the term of United States President Thomas Jefferson. Before the purchase was finalized, the decision faced domestic opposition as some argued that it was unconstitutional for President Jefferson to acquire the territory. Jefferson agreed that the U.S. Constitution did not contain provisions for acquiring territory, but decided to proceed with the acquisition, being advised that the Louisiana Purchase was within the strictest interpretation of the Constitution, which allowed the President to negotiate treaties. The purchase included an agreement to remove France's presence in the territory and protect U.S. trade access to the port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River...Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, a French nobleman, began to help negotiate with France at the request of Jefferson. Du Pont was living in the United States at the time and had close ties to Jefferson as well as the prominent politicians in France. He engaged in back-channel diplomacy with Napoleon on Jefferson's behalf during a visit to France and originated the idea of the much larger Louisiana Purchase as a way to defuse potential conflict between the United States and Napoleon over North America...Because the western boundary was contested at the time of the Purchase, President Jefferson immediately began to organize three missions to explore and map the new territory. All three started from the Mississippi River. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804) traveled up the Missouri River; the Red River Expedition (1806) explored the Red River basin; the Pike Expedition (1806) also started up the Missouri, but turned south to explore the Arkansas River watershed."
Jefferson was also a hacker/maker in non-government areas. He was a self-taught architect who designed and built his relatively famous residence that appears on the back our American nickel.
"In 1768, Jefferson began construction of his primary residence, Monticello...on a hilltop overlooking a 5,000 acre plantation. Construction was done mostly by local masons and carpenters, assisted by Jefferson's slaves, who also played a major role...Turning Monticello into a neoclassical masterpiece after the Palladian style would be his continuing project.As there were no architecture schools then, Jefferson learned the trade on his own from various books and by studying some of the various classical architectural designs of the day. His "bible" was Andrea Palladio's The Four Books of Architecture, which taught him the basic principles of classical design."
Thomas Jefferson's story ends thusly:
"During the last hours of Jefferson's life he...called the rest of his family and friends around his bedside and with a distinct tone he uttered: "I have done for my country, and for all mankind, all that I could do, and I now resign my soul, without fear, to my God, – my daughter to my country." After falling back asleep, Jefferson later woke at eight o'clock that evening and spoke his last words: "Is it the fourth yet?" His doctor replied, "It soon will be." On July 4, at ten minutes before one o'clock in the afternoon, Jefferson died at the age of 83, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and a few hours before John Adams, whose own last words were, "Independence forever," and "Thomas Jefferson survives.""
You may not have the influence of Thomas Jefferson in your city, state or country, but there are probably civic hacks he did which could inspire you to create 21st century ways in which you and your neighbors could be better governed, ways in which your government can better work for its citizens rather than in spite of them or against them.

Between now and the June 6th "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015," I plan to write several more posts featuring civic hacker profiles.

If you know a civic hacker you think should be profiled, and you can connect me with that hacker, please send an email regarding that to Bob Waldron at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com. I'll contact them and ask if they'll do an interview so I can profile them on the blog. Thanks!


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