The greatest enemy of government power in the early American republic was Thomas Jefferson. It is no wonder, then, that Jefferson has been so aggressively vilified by the partisans of political correctness. Jefferson was likewise disdained by many in the 19th and early 20th century who, quite rightly, saw his ideas as an obstacle to the extensive national regime they wished to build.

How sad it is to recall that the current occupant of the White House bears the middle name “Jefferson”—though the real Jefferson taught his nephew Peter Carr:

Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming an untruth, by an injustice . . . It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth.

William Jefferson Clinton’s disdain for the truth is matched by his contempt for another Jeffersonian principle—the importance of arms to a free people. In the same 1785 letter to Peter Carr, Jefferson advised the 15-year-old about building character through sport shooting:

A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.

Jefferson’s views on the importance of arms in the training of youth remained strong two decades later. As he wrote in his 1818 Report of the Commissioners of the University of Virginia: “the manual exercise, military maneuvers, and tactics generally, should be the frequent exercise of the students, in their hours of recreation.”

Jefferson believed that the benefits of early training in arms extended to more than good character. As he pointed out to Giovanni Fabbroni in 1778, the Americans had a lower casualty rate than the Redcoats. “This difference is ascribed to our superiority in taking aim when we fire; every soldier in our army having been intimate with his gun from his infancy.”

Even so, Americans were not as well armed as Jefferson wished. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), Jefferson explained the arms shortage that had developed during the Revolutionary War:

The law requires every militia-man to provide himself with arms usual in the regular service. But this injunction was always indifferently complied with, and the arms they had have been so frequently called to arm the regulars, that in the lower parts of the country they are entirely disarmed.

So, as President, Jefferson successfully urged Congress to appropriate federal funds to provide firearms to state militiamen who did not own their own guns. Congress complied, and during Jefferson’s second term and Madison’s first, “public arms” were supplied at federal expense to state militias all over the nation.

The militia was intended to prevent the conquest of America, not only by a foreign power but also by a centralized national government and its standing army. At his first inaugural, Jefferson explained that “a well-disciplined militia” is “our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them,” and also a guarantee of “the supremacy of the civil over the military authority.” For Jefferson, there was an intimate connection between sovereignty and the possession of arms. As long as the people were armed, the people would rule.

In an 1811 letter to Destutt de Tracy, Jefferson acknowledged that demagogues could arise. But while the force of a demagogue

may paralyze the single State in which it happens to be encamped, sixteen other, spread over a country of two thousand miles diameter, rise up on every side, ready organized for deliberation by a constitutional legislature, and for action by their governor, constitutionally, the commander of the militia of the State, that is to say, of ever}’ man in it able to bear arms; and that militia, too, regularly formed into regiments and battalions, into infantry, cavalry and artillery, trained under officers general and subordinate, legally appointed, always in readiness, and to whom they are already in habits of obedience.

In France, thought Jefferson, the republicans fell because there were no local centers to resist national control.

But with us, sixteen out of seventeen States rising in mass, under regular organization, and legal commanders, united in object and action by their Congress, or, if that be in duresse, by a special convention, presents such obstacles to an usurper as forever to stifle ambition.

Without arms, the weak fall prey to the strong, as in the feudal system of Europe, where the largest and the strongest made quasi-slaves of the rest. But as Jefferson explained in his famous October 1813 letter to John Adams, the proliferation of firearms had allowed an aristocracy of virtue and talent to supplant the aristocracy of brute force:

For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent. Formerly, bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, the politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground for distinction.

Because arms and sovereignty were so bound together, Jefferson argued that property ownership should not be the sole basis for voting rights. As he wrote to Samuel Kercheval on July 12, 1816, anyone who served in the militia deserved the vote: “Let every man who fights or pays, exercise his just and equal right in their election.” Indeed, as Chilton Williamson, Sr., detailed in his 1960 book, American Suffrage from Property to Democracy, 1760-1860, arguments like Jefferson’s were used throughout the United States to broaden suffrage.

What of those excluded from the polity? Jefferson recognized that, if the slaves were ever armed, slavery would end. As he wrote to Edward Coles in 1814:

the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time. It will come; and whether brought on by the generous energy of our own minds; or by the bloody process of St Domingo, excited and conducted by the power of our present enemy [England], if once stationed permanently within our Country, and offering asylum and arms to the oppressed, is a leaf which our history has not yet turned over.

Modern gun-prohibition advocates sometimes assert that guns, while they might have been all right in Jefferson’s time, are so often misused today that ordinary citizens should not be allowed to have weapons. The most sophisticated version of this theory has been developed by Indiana University law professor David Williams in articles in the Yale, Cornell, and New York University law reviews. Since Americans today are no longer virtuous and united, they are no longer “the people” envisioned by the Second Amendment, Williams writes; accordingly, the Second Amendment right to arms has disappeared.

Jefferson would not have agreed, for he was familiar with the frequent misuse of guns. Writing to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, he emphasized the necessity of

never entering into dispute or argument with another. I never saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument. I have seen many, on their getting warm, becoming rude, & shooting one another.

If the widespread presence of guns in Jefferson’s Virginia led to needless deaths over petty arguments (just as it would on the 19th-century American frontier, or in the 20th-century inner city), how could Jefferson still champion the right to arms? The answer is simple: He recognized that a disarmed people would not, in the long run, remain an independent, responsible, and free people. The price of trying to save fools from their folly would be the loss of liberty for all.

In June 1776, three weeks before the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s draft constitution for Virginia set forth the first constitutional proposal in human history to provide for a right to arms. (The 1689 English Bill of Rights included such a right, but that measure was only a statute.) Jefferson’s proposal that “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms within his own lands or tenements” was not adopted that year. But the Jeffersonian intellectual revolution was only beginning. Writing in 1824 to the great English Whig John Cartwright, Jefferson could observe: “The constitutions of most of our States assert, that all power is inherent in the people; . . . that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.”

A few days before his death on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—Jefferson could see that the revolution he had helped to spark was burning throughout the world:

All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, 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. These are the grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

This Fourth of July, take some time out from baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet, and ponder what the holiday really commemorates: the American Passover, the beginning of a long national journey toward freedom, founded on the truth that God created man to be free. What will you do to nurture the legacy of freedom and responsibility bequeathed to you by Thomas Jefferson?