The Jefferson Presidency
Summary & Analysis
We often link Jefferson with the principle of equality. While Jefferson's Federalist opponents have been branded as social and political elitists—conservatives who insisted that the views of common people must be filtered through the wisdom of the best-bred and educated—Jefferson has been celebrated as the champion of popular wisdom. And indeed, the central element of Jefferson's republican philosophy was his confidence in the moral judgments of the common man. He believed that all people possessed an intuitive sense of right and wrong, an innate ability to resolve fundamental questions of morality. Jefferson, college-educated, a philosopher and a scientist, even argued that on basic moral questions, a common farmer's moral instincts were the most reliable. "State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor," he wrote, and "the former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules."9
It was Jefferson's faith in the moral judgments of the common man that gave him a broader confidence in political democracy. For just as all people could resolve basic moral questions, they could be trusted to make basic political decisions, as well. But Jefferson's confidence in popular democracy was not unqualified; in fact, in many ways, he was just as much an elitist as his Federalist enemies. While he believed everyone possessed rudimentary moral and political abilities, he argued that more complex questions should be left to those of superior virtue and talents, members of what he labeled the "natural aristocracy." He drew a sharp distinction between this group and the "artificial aristocracy," a class elevated not by talent but through inheritance, a group Jefferson labeled a "mischievous ingredient" in history. By contrast, the people Jefferson called the "natural aristoi" were "the most precious gift of nature." And the responsibilities of governance should be rested upon them.10
Jefferson's countervailing democratic and elitist values were reconciled by his confidence in the electoral process. It was essential, Jefferson believed, that the artificial aristocracy be excluded from government—and equally essential that the natural aristocrats be identified and elevated. But Jefferson believed the people were capable of sorting all this out. Through free elections, the talented and virtuous would be selected to govern. In free elections, common people would draw upon their intuitive moral and political wisdom to choose the natural aristocrats.
Some have viewed Jefferson's democratic claims with cynicism; what Jefferson's theory boiled down to, they argue, was a faith in the people to elect leaders like himself. And indeed, Jefferson's celebration of popular wisdom was affirmed by his own election in 1801. But there was more to his thought than just a set of self-serving platitudes. Jefferson's democratic confidence was part of a more complex, multifaceted political philosophy—a coherent package of beliefs that framed his theory of government and his proposal for public education, and that enabled him to take a strikingly complacent view of even the most tumultuous historical crises.
Jefferson on Education
Jefferson's educational vision catered to both the democratic and elitist elements within his political philosophy. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), Jefferson recommended that the state provide primary education for all white children. He was partially inspired by a general belief that education contributed to human happiness. But his rationale was also political. The people, he argued, were the "ultimate guardians of their own liberty"—and an education would better equip them for this role. It was important, most of all, that children study history, for "by apprising them of the past," history would "enable them to judge of the future."11
While Jefferson called for all children to be guaranteed three years of primary schooling, the next level of education was to be made available more selectively. Jefferson recommended that the state should establish a smaller number of grammar schools (roughly equivalent to modern-day high schools) to provide higher training to a more select group of students—all those who could afford it, plus the very brightest among the poor, whose education would be subsidized by the government. "By this means," as he less gently put it, "twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually."12 These schools would provide the necessary preparation for college admission and prepare a corps of teachers to staff the primary schools.
The university lay at the top of Jefferson's educational plan. This highest level would be even more selective in choosing its student body. Again, all young men able to afford tuition could attend and, again, the most talented among the poor would be educated at the expense of the state. At this level, students would study "all the useful sciences" and secure an education "directed to their freedom and happiness."13 But as with the other educational levels, the university would serve a large political function: it would further identify and prepare America's "natural aristocrats" for their leadership responsibilities.
Through Reason, "Truth Will Prevail"
Most of Jefferson's educational vision would not be implemented before the Civil War. But the University of Virginia, a public school planned by Jefferson and opened in 1825, did embody his educational philosophy. (It also embodied his architectural vision; Jefferson designed the college's original buildings himself; nearly 200 years later, the campus is still considered to be a masterpiece of American architecture.) Founded on the principle that knowledge advanced only through the unfettered pursuit of all branches of science, Jefferson's university included more academic departments than any other college in America. Insisting that intellectual freedom included the student's right to choose and pursue his own course of study, the University of Virginia granted greater curricular freedom than any other college. And fearing that religion could disrupt the pursuit of knowledge, Jefferson's university was the first on American soil not to include a department of divinity.
Jefferson's vision of the university was deeply rooted in his particular brand of confidence in humanity. In his insistence that all branches of human knowledge be made available for study, and that all students should have freedom to choose their own courses, Jefferson expressed his belief in reason. For Jefferson, and others shaped by the Enlightenment, however, this meant more than a belief in our ability to think rationally. Reason was more than a power of the mind; it was also the character of the universe. Jefferson believed that there was a logic and a rationality to the physical world that gave it order and even beauty. Our ability to reason meant that we were capable of recognizing and unraveling the rationality of the universe, and, consequently, it was inappropriate to place any limitations on human inquiry. Given our ability to reason, all such restrictions could only be harmful; they obstructed our rational pursuit of truth and served to protect intellectual, scientific, and religious misconceptions. Restricting thought did not advance knowledge or eliminate dangerous ideas; it only fixed a person "obstinately in his errors." "It is error alone which needs the support of government," he argued, and only "free argument and debate" could defeat a dangerous or wrong idea.14
Jefferson's celebration of intellectual freedom has become a critical part of our national ideology. But the philosophical premise that informed all this for Jefferson should not be ignored. Jefferson believed that all discourse could be tolerated because ultimately "truth will prevail." He encouraged an unfettered pursuit of inquiry because he was confident that it would end in the identification of "Truth." Jefferson was not a philosophical relativist. He did not believe in the equal validity of all ideas; he believed that intellectual diversity could be tolerated because ultimately there would be intellectual agreement. Intellectual freedom was necessary because it was the only way we could approach the absolute truths lying within the universe.
Today, we continue to value intellectual freedom but Jefferson's underlying confidence in a universe of reason and truth is less widely shared. Between Jefferson's time and our own, the optimistic certainties of the Enlightenment have been challenged by thinkers from Marx to Freud to Foucault. Jefferson's rosy confidence in historical progress has been contested by historical theories emphasizing social regression and economic exploitation. Jefferson's confidence in the Man of Reason has been undermined by modern theories emphasizing the powers of the subconscious. The Enlightenment's extraordinary confidence in the human intellect and the scientific method have been challenged by modern theories that suggest that even "scientific truths" are informed by the values of particular societies. And history itself has intervened to give us a more sober sense of humanity and the universe. Through the nightmarish experience of World War and Holocaust, we have been reminded that history's course can be horrific, and that even an "enlightened," highly educated nation can commit unthinkable evil. As a result, contemporary celebrations of intellectual freedom often draw upon a very different set of premises. Free inquiry is defended as a fundamental human right, and intellectual diversity is cherished as a source of cultural richness. We tend to view intellectual variety less as a way station on the path to Truth than as an expression of the imperfection and relativity of human thought. But Jefferson's confidence in the universe and its rationality was fundamental to his belief in intellectual freedom, just as it informed his confidence in a minimalist government, one which left the people largely free to pursue their own reason-shaped paths.
Jefferson on Government
In Jefferson's mind, there was little need for much government. As humans were inherently moral and reasonable, they could be trusted to manage their own affairs. In developing these governmental theories, Jefferson was informed by England's Radical Whigs. The Radical Whig tradition, dating from the late seventeenth century, was a political movement and a philosophy of government. But most of all, it was an interpretation of history. Radical Whigs argued that history had been a long and repetitive process. People tried over and over again to construct governments that would protect their freedoms, but over and over again, these governments abused their powers and threatened the liberties they were designed to protect. Power was "grasping" and "tenacious," insisted the Radical Whigs, "like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour." Therefore, only the most rigorous public vigilance could protect a people against government's voracious appetite.15
For Americans of the Revolutionary era, this history lesson provided an important framework for interpreting British colonial policies. In Parliament's steady assertion of more and more authority over the colonies—in the introduction of new taxes, new court procedures, and more troops—Americans saw evidence of yet another government abusing its powers, until eventually they were forced to declare independence to escape tyranny.
The lessons of history and recent experience thus converged for many Americans to teach a vital point: government was inherently dangerous. But while some, like James Madison—Jefferson's fellow Republican and successor as president—emphasized that the solution to this problem lay in the careful balancing of governmental powers, Jefferson suggested something simpler: the powers of government should be severely reduced and the people should be left to manage their own affairs. Jefferson placed far greater confidence than Madison in human nature, virtue, and reason. Therefore, while Madison argued that liberty would be preserved only through a painstaking and meticulous balancing of governmental powers, Jefferson placed his confidence instead in the radical reduction of government power and in granting freedom to common people to pursue their virtuous and self-chosen paths.
A Little Rebellion Now and Then
Jefferson's faith in human reason and virtue was greater than that of most of his peers. It separated him even from fellow Republicans like James Madison. Moreover, this faith enabled Jefferson to assume a surprisingly stoic stance toward political and historical upheavals. Nowhere was this more evident than in Jefferson's response to Shays's Rebellion. In 1787, when farmers in western Massachusetts, hit by economic hard times and rising taxes, shut down the county courts and threatened to march against the state capital, many defenders of law and order panicked. But Jefferson responded philosophically and urged restraint. "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."16 Periodic uprisings like Shays's Rebellion, he argued, helped rid the political order of its defects. And even when misguided, they must be treated gently. Like a bad idea, they must be allowed to run their course; like a flawed religion, they must be tolerated. The people's reason would ultimately assert itself and political progress would resume.
Jefferson's confidence in the people and corresponding tolerance for instability were similarly reflected in his musings on the benefits of frequent political change. "The earth belongs to the living," he argued. No generation had a right to force its burdens, or even its legal principles upon the next; each had a right to chart its own course. Therefore, public debts, laws, and even constitutions should carry expiration dates. Calculating that the political life of a generation was nineteen years, Jefferson suggested that any law or constitution outlasting its creators represented "an act of force not of right."17 Granting to the public the power to amend or repeal old laws was not good enough; it was simply too difficult to organize the people and their representatives to bring about change in this fashion. The only real solution was the automatic termination of laws and constitutions after a certain period of time.
Jefferson's self-terminating laws and constitutions never made their way off the drawing board. Even his friend and fellow Republican, James Madison, was unnerved by the recipe for political instability contained within this particular idea. But Jefferson was typically more optimistic; he placed far more confidence in the ability of the people to work through the instability threatened by political change and chart their own progressive course.
Jefferson's confidence in human nature, the power of reason, and the possibility for historical progress was immense. But there was a catch, a certain contingency to Jefferson's confidence. The historical process could be twisted—and it had been in the past—by artificial aristocrats who diverted government from its proper purposes and by corrupt churches and governments that forced religious and intellectual errors upon the people. The people themselves could also lead history down the wrong path. While by nature they possessed the reason and the virtue to act correctly, their instincts could be corrupted or repressed. If they were not provided the freedom to tap into their intuitive sense of right or wrong, or if the independence they needed to judge right from wrong was compromised by economic or social subservience, the people's judgments and their political behavior could warp the direction of history.
Farmers: "The Chosen People of God"
History had, in fact, been an uneven process, with periods of progress followed by periods of regression. But America had the potential to be different. Even if the regressive tendencies of history could not be avoided completely, they might be minimized if Americans took advantage of their greatest asset. That asset, in Jefferson's judgment, was land. In America, unlike in Europe, land was abundant and it offered to Americans the possibility of remaining a nation of small farmers. Yeoman farmers were, as Jefferson famously put it, the "chosen people of God," and the most effective safeguard against political corruption. While history provided many examples of nations ruined by immorality and unreason, Jefferson wrote, the "corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example."18
Jefferson's celebration of the yeoman farmer, like his celebration of popular wisdom, can appear ironic. The owner of 10,000 acres and 200 slaves, he lived a life far different from the one he celebrated. But his paeans to the common farmer were not a celebration of the simple life. They were a celebration of the economic and mental independence that rural landownership guaranteed. The yeoman farmer was free, dependent on no man for his livelihood, and therefore able to exercise his reason and act upon his moral instincts without compromise. The city, on the other hand, fostered lives of economic dependence. Men were forced into wage labor for bosses in manufacturing or commerce, and thus lost their economic autonomy. The result, Jefferson warned, was politically disastrous. "Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition." Consequently, wage laborers made poor citizens; a republic filled with manufacturing employees would be quickly corrupted. So "let our workshops remain in Europe," Jefferson advised; only if America remained a nation of farmers might it "keep alive that sacred fire which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth."19
In the final analysis, there was a great deal of coherence to Jefferson's philosophy. His confidence in human reason, his theories of education, and his stoic response to political turmoil were all part of a coherent package. These ideas continue to influence and inspire Americans today. But the philosophical optimism and creativity that still intrigue us unsettled many of his contemporaries. To Jefferson's critics, his confidence in popular wisdom seemed naive, and his complacent response to political turmoil seemed irresponsible. And so, when he ran for president, his critics challenged not only his policies but also the philosophical temperament that shaped his ideas. He was better suited to teaching than leading, they charged, too speculative and impractical. And their criticism was not entirely unfounded. It is hard to imagine any other politician assuming such a nonchalant response to popular insurrection, much less suggesting that we toss out all our laws and constitution every nineteen years.
Jefferson's election in 1801 thus raised questions not just about the content of his thought, but also about the suitability of his temperament. Could a person of such wide-ranging and speculative intellectual tendencies handle the nitty-gritty demands of politics? Could a philosopher, an intellectual who helped shape many of our most fundamental political and social ideals, translate those ideals into effective policies and actions?