Friday, July 01, 2016

Jefferson and us

A few weeks before the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in the midst of the administration of John Quincy Adams, one Roger Weightman invited Thomas Jefferson, along with two other surviving signatories of the declaration, to attend a celebration in Washington.  Jefferson, now 83, was old, infirm, and possessed of one remaining ambition.  Like his old colleague, rival, and friend John Adams, he hoped only to live until the 50th anniversary, as both of them barely managed to do before passing away.  But Jefferson's mind was still sharp, and he took the opportunity of his reply to assess the significance of what he and his fellow signatories had done in 1776, fully conscious that they had taken a step forward for the whole world, and confident in the future.
A Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman
Monticello, June 24, 1826
      Respected Sir, -- The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. But acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. 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 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. 

      I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the city of Washington and its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachments.
      Th. Jefferson 

Jefferson, who had given his own vast library to the government to help reconstitute the Library of Congress after the British had burned the capitol, reveals himself here as an archetypal man of his extraordinary times.  An architect, musician, and amateur scientist himself,  he specifically associated the doctrines of the equal rights of man and self-government with the advance of science.  Superstition, he thought, was the only foundation of hierarchical government.  Reason, science and democracy were bound to spread together.  And even though Europe had turned its back on democracy in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, he remained confident--perhaps in part because of the overthrow of Spanish rule in Latin America--that the growing United States would remain a model for the peoples of the entire world.  No racial or religious differences, he seemed to say, would stand in the way of progress indefinitely.

190 years have now passed, and for most of that long period, Jefferson's prophecies seemed to coming true.  The great crisis of the mid-19th century--whose American face he had glimpsed six years earlier, when he characterized the debate over slavery in Missouri as "the knell of the Union" and lamented that younger generations would throw away the achievement of his own--led not only to a reaffirmation and extension of democracy in the United States, but to huge advances for self government in Italy, Britain, Germany and France.  By 1910 or so there was not one nation in Europe that did not live under some kind of constitution.  In the next thirty years, however, new political phenomena transformed the world again.  Communism in the USSR and National Socialism in Germany both claimed to represent the highest expression of human reason, higher even than western democracy.  The rights of man (and woman) lost ground in Europe during the interwar period and in 1940 disappeared from the European continent almost entirely.  But in the United States, Franklin Roosevelt--who built the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington--turned the great crisis into an opportunity for a further extension of democracy and, like Jefferson, insisted that its principles should govern the whole world.  In the wake of the Second World War, those principles were indeed extended to nearly all the former colonial territories in Africa and Asia.  When the Europeans tried to hang on to their possessions with military force they were defeated.

I have written here and elsewhere many times about the changes that have undone much of the postwar order in the last 50 years, and will summarize them now.  To begin with, our own democracy is now probably threatened as much as it has ever been by plutocracy, the danger that Jefferson foresaw.  It is appropriate that the musical Hamilton should have been the theatrical event of our decade, since it is Hamilton's vision of a strong financial sector and a wealthy ruling class that seems for the moment to have triumphed over Jefferson's more egalitarian one.  But more importantly, it seems to me, the momentum of the progress of science and reason has been halted--and in some parts of the world it has been reversed.  As another great American thinker, Henry Adams, predicted at the turn of the last century, the world has rejected scientific conclusions contrary to established beliefs and interests.  Even as the evidence of an impending climate catastrophe becomes overwhelming, the response remains inadequate.  Thomas Piketty's great insight--that the natural outcome of capitalism is to promote inequality--has not really penetrated the mainstream.  Austerity in public finance, which has never benefited the mass of the people,. is back in fashion in Europe.  And the British public has just rejected one of the twentieth century's most striking expressions of the idea of reason in politics, the European Union.

Meanwhile, in much of the Muslim world, the idea of reason has been in full retreat for decades.  Western ideas inspired the original revolts against tradition and tyranny in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and elsewhere, and they were the basis, in one way or another, of the Ataturk regime in Turkey and even the Ba'athist dictatorships in Syria and Iraq.  Now much of the Middle East is torn apart by a regional civil war between the Shi'ite and Sunni branches of Islam, and the United States government looks in vain for a significant faction that shares our values and interests.  The ideas of the twentieth century are in retreat elsewhere as well. Israel, founded as an expression of modern nationalism, is now much more based upon ancient religious belief.  The orthodox church is a pillar of Putin's rule in Russia.  And tens of millions of Americans regard revealed religion, not the enlightenment, as the source of the most important truths.  That above all, it seems to me, would make Jefferson shake his head in fear and disgust.

Jefferson made the classic mistake of so many of those who live through great historical change: he assumed that the beliefs of his age would simply continue to spread indefinitely.  But the Enlightenment principles in which he believed represent only one aspect of human nature, and not necessarily the most powerful.  Tocqueville, who was only a very young man in 1826, saw this far more clearly: he accepted democracy, by which he meant above all social and political equality, as the wave of the future, but he was as concerned by its weaknesses as he was inspired by its strengths.  There are natural rhythms in human affairs which prevent any set of beliefs and institutions from achieving eternal supremacy.  They include a tendency to oscillate between stronger and weaker forms of authority--as Roger Merriman, the historian who prepared young Americans for the Second World War at Harvard, taught his required history course--and the related tendency of generations of reject their parents' beliefs, regardless of their wisdom.  These tendencies do often move humanity backward, but they also provide new generations with the chance to do heroic things and leave monuments behind for centuries to come--as Jefferson did.


Unknown said...

There are not many who could write this post. It represents why this blog is so valuable to me. Thank you.

CrocodileChuck said...

+ 1

Gloucon X said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Unknown--this one is a true gem. Both the quality of your prose and your content can evoke tears. As can the fact that the son of a WW2 bomber pilot, and an ordinary working class person such as myself, was once in the presence of the sacred both at Jefferson’s library at Monticello and at his displayed books in the Library of Congress. Thanks.

ed boyle said...

We vacillate as human beings between reasonableness based on our frontal cortex, unique to us and unreasonabless based on our primitiive brain stem native to all creatures. I believe that evolution is a result of this jostling of influence between primitive and advanced, right brain, left brain impulse through a generational cycle which allows us to deepen self knowledge of our holistic self in terms of male/female, rational/irrational self. There is no such thing as pure progress or regress. If I say to my child as it reaches out for a hug or to my wife as she seeks my warmth in bed that they should be rational, this is misplaced. Similarly progress over nature, instead of with it. Pure romanticism, hippie culture was the other extreme, with LSD and abandon of responsibility. We learn however only through experience and each generation are unique actors in history which contributes to our human experience and without which the next generation could not 'react', often negatively to express their own individuality. Specific brain areals seem to be more used by each of the four generational types in succession. A specialist in brain studies could acquire in wikipedia a basic knowledge of the generational theory and exponate on this to us in due course. At any rate an analysis of the balance between these life phases in historical/cultural/mental development would itself be a deepening of the balance between rationalism/irrationalism. Know thyself applies to not only the individual but to species, life forms generally and all phases, generational archetypes, sexual identity, national/ethnic/religious identity which grow out of the flow of peoples and cultures into one another over time. Thee rational tendency belongs more to the hero generation like g.i. generation. This is overemphasized by the blog author. Boomers tend to overvalue emotionalism a nd my X generation skeptical distance. The silents become artists. Every man's perspective is its own truth. Each age has its own legitimacy. I f we experience a people's revolution against the global elite with blood in the streets it will be deemed neccessay, just as the followingconservative reaction. We are animals living and developing in cycles of feelings like night and day trade off with one another. This is like the tides, inevitable, unstoppable regardless of self observation by the few academics, like buddhist monks observing reality passing before them while the masses, in animal madness, follow the zeitgeist blindly.