Thomas Jefferson would probably not have supported the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, at least in his own time. Don’t get me wrong. He loved the arts. He read in seven languages. In fact, he was reading Thucydides in ancient Greek, without a grammar or dictionary, in the 83rd year of his life. In his own state of Virginia, Jefferson wanted public libraries to have art collections that you could literally check out and display, this painting or that sculpture, in your own home for a time. He gave his life to the promotion of public education. In fact, he regarded his founding of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as one of the three prime achievements of his life.
Thomas Jefferson was America’s Leonardo da Vinci.
Jefferson believed that a national debt is a national disgrace, and he believed that the federal government should only do those things that were absolutely “necessary and proper” as the Constitution puts it, and not that which is delightful, life-affirming, useful, or personally satisfying.
Jefferson told Charles Willson Peale, the father of the American museum system, that we must not contemplate creating a national museum of the United States (effectively the Smithsonian) until such time as we had paid off the entire national debt and also passed constitutional amendments to authorize such things as a national museum or a national university.
Ok, we get it. No president was as fiscally Draconian as Jefferson.
But that was then and this is now. Now we have the CIA, the National Security Agency, billions of dollars of black-ops that never appear in the budget of the United States. We have the Consumer Product Safety Board, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the US Bureau of Reclamation, Radio Free Asia, the National Forest System, National Monuments, and on and on and on. Some of these things can rightly be called Jeffersonian. Some are so dark that it would be a slur against Alexander Hamilton or even Aaron Burr to say they might favor them. The United States government funds a great deal of what might be called Enlightenment. But the United States government also funds an enormous amount of darkness-regime change, political assassination, arsenals of chemical and biological weapons, cyber-terrorist shops, extraordinary renditions, entities so horrific and so appalling that they make the NSA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the CIA look like a gathering of Girls Scouts.
We are no longer Jefferson’s nation. We are not, in any meaningful sense, a republic any longer. In 1909 Herbert Croly, in a book called The Promise of American Life, said we would only become a Jeffersonian nation if we adopted Hamiltonian means. From today’s ominous perspective, even that might seem cheerful and naïve.
People often ask me what is the most Jeffersonian thing in America. My answer is invariably the same. If we rule out Monticello, Poplar Forest, or the University of Virginia—all great candidates—or the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which is maybe the most magnificent public building in America, my vote goes to that small cluster of cultural entities including: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, public television, America’s public libraries, and our fabulous national state and local array of public museums.
For me, above all else, it is the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Don’t tell me we don’t need the NEH, the NEA, public radio, or that the work those entities do is not patriotic enough, or that the NEH and NEA are not much more than welfare for scholars and artists. Baloney. The endowments represent that very thin gossamer of Jeffersonian thread that lifts our national culture to civility, nuance, context, thoughtfulness, and public engagement. The NEH costs less to run per year than any one of the dozens of weapons systems, from unnecessary tanks to the failed F-35 jet fighter program, that the Defense Department itself asks Congress to cancel as inefficient, over-priced, over-budget, or no longer useful; programs and engines of death that members of Congress keep funding, not because we need them, but to please their pals in the military industrial complex.
My life has been marked, my life has been made, by the existence of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and its 57 affiliated state and territorial humanities councils. Imagine living one week without National Public Radio, without the National Air and Space Museum, without the films of Ken Burns, without that local ballet performance by young girls and boys who would have nowhere to develop their talents without the town’s $1,432 grant from the Utah Arts Council.
Do we absolutely need the NEH and the NEA? That depends on how you frame the question and what you think a great civilization needs. Did we need the MX missile, or the ABM defense system, or the most recent of our wars in Iraq? As King Lear says, “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.”
American civilization has been lifted immeasurably for pennies on the dollar, indeed pennies on tens of millions of dollars, parceled out as competitive grants by the NEH and its state affiliates. To go after them because we need to balance the national budget is insane. To go after them because some simpleton thinks all art should be accomplished without institutional funding would be to deny the Vatican the Sistine Chapel, deny Florence Michelangelo’s David, deny St. Louis the national Gateway Arch, deny PBS the great genius of our finest public historian Ken Burns.
If you love the Thomas Jefferson Hour, or the republic Thomas Jefferson sought to create, you must fight to maintain funding for America’s cultural agencies, for they truly are the most Jeffersonian thing in America.
The photograph of Michelangelo's David is by Jörg Bittner Unna, CC BY 3.0 from Wikimedia. Edited by staff.