I would hope the states would handle that and the government of the United States would only serve as a referee.
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

Tune in to your local public radio or join the 1776 Club to hear this episode of What Would Thomas Jefferson Do? This episode responds to a question from Mark Kissinger. Have a question for President Jefferson? Please submit your inquiry here.

Listen to this week's episode.

The following is a rush transcript.

David Swenson: 00:00 Good day, citizens, and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson, who is seated across from me now. Good day to you, Mr. President.

Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson: 00:13 Good day to you, citizen.

DS: 00:15 Mr Jefferson, we received an inquiry from Mark Kissinger. He wants to know about water and the federal government. He talks about developing renewable energy resources using pumped water. Which technologically may be a bit beyond your time, sir.

CSJ as TJ: 00:32 Indeed it is, and let me say that I begin to reject the proposition immediately when you talk about federal distribution of something like water.

DS: 00:42 Well, he says these systems could be used to pump water from, say, water surplus watersheds into deficit watersheds to mitigate potentially damaging long term droughts. Now, as a farmer yourself sir I can't imagine that you would be not in favor

CSJ as TJ: 00:57 I certainly understand the problem, but let me give you an example. When I was becoming a young man in Virginia, I noticed that the Rivanna river, which went right past my boyhood home at Shadwell, was not suitable for moving grain to the James River into market, and so I took a canoe down the Rivanna to try to ascertain what its problems were as a navigable stream. I made a catalog of those and realized that we could make it navigable if we removed some obstructions and so on. Rather than going to the national government for this or to the British government, I went to my neighbors and said let's take up a subscription and let's as volunteers each put in a certain amount of money so that we can pay for the channelizing or the clearing of the obstructions in the Rivanna River, and we did it. That was done without any government activity of any sort. It was done by the people who were most involved in that river. This wasn't done by people who lived on the Rappahannock river or on the Shenandoah river or on the Potomac or on the Hudson river. This was done by the people whose lives and economic fortunes were dependent upon the Rivanna. We did it without any attempt to get a grant or to look to some outside entity, particularly government, to do this on our behalf. I think that's the model that should. That should be used at any time that's practicable.

DS: 02:23 I understand Mr Jefferson. We've talked of this before, but you must give Mr Kissinger his due and understand why he thinks this would be a good idea, that the federal government is the only body that can really attempt these large scale public projects. So having said that, sir, could you explain to him in a little more detail why you think it's dangerous for the federal government to take charge of a project like this?

CSJ as TJ: 02:51 Well, I will say that the commerce clause of the constitution means that if, let's say Maryland and Virginia are interested in the canal, there may be some room for federal supervision of that because it involves interstate commerce and commerce is one of the enumerated powers of government in our constitution.

DS: 03:08 So you're not completely. Not completely opposed. You just think it should be done with great caution?

CSJ as TJ: 03:14 Indeed, and the. I'm a strict constructionist and I believe in radically limited government as you know, even as president, I called the national government, the foreign department. I want the states to do everything that was practicable within their own portfolio. So I'm not against this necessarily, but I do think that anytime you give a grant of power to the federal government to do something like this, that increases the potency of the national government. It creates a potential monster because when you grant these powers to government, government then wants other corollary powers. It takes tax money to make this happen. The central government grows at the expense of the state governments and at the expense of local governments, and even more importantly, the national government grows with the expense of local volunteer initiative. And then suddenly everyone's looking to the national government to solve all of our problems - you see the point.

DS: 04:10 I understand and I take your point - at the same time, Mr Jefferson, being a farmer, you need good soil and you need water. And if the federal government can, in a big sense, ensure that you have a supply of water, it's tough to understand why you would not want that to happen.

CSJ as TJ: 04:29 Well, first of all, America is a big country and most of it is so well watered that you don't need irrigation or redistribution of water to make that work. However, if you do want to make the areas that Mr Lewis in the West thought could only bloom with irrigation, I would hope the states would handle that and the government of the United States would only serve as a referee.

DS: 04:50 Thank you very much, Mr Jefferson.

CSJ as TJ: 04:54 You are most welcome, sir.

More from the Thomas Jefferson Hour