"I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study
Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy."
John Adams to Abigail Adams
May 12, 1780
One of my favorite themes is the quest to be Jeffersonian. By that I mean something like, a: committed to rationality; b: rooted in the land in some dynamic way; c: devoted to books; d: optimistic about the human project; e: suspicious of government as a routine answer to human problems; f: self-sufficient; g: civil; h: respectful of science, knowledge, evidence, learning, scholarship, and the use of reason as the chief tool of human progress.
I know people who prefer pro-football to reading, and jet skis to gardening. Fair enough. The great paradox of freedom is that people are free to pursue happiness in ways we don't necessarily admire. (And I always remember: they regard me/us as the inexplicable outlier in the quest for happiness. As long as you remember that, you will do well in America.)
But the people who admire the life and achievement of Thomas Jefferson, the people who listen to the Thomas Jefferson Hour, are usually either Jeffersonians or people who aspire to the Jeffersonian.
I'm often asked to name Jeffersonians in American life. Names like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, the late Carl Sagan, and others usually come to mind. But this is not, at least with respect to public figures, a very Jeffersonian time.
But my interest at the moment is young Jeffersonians, new Jeffersonians. People who admire gadgets and gimcracks as Jefferson did. People doing interesting things in wine. People who are making bold innovations in the culture of the book and the library. Young agrarians who are engaged in the farm to table movement. Architects, paleontologists, archaeologists. People who are fascinated by modern networking and cultural dissemination, including the dissemination of revolutionary ideas. Young political leaders who have adopted Jeffersonian principles. Explorers like Jefferson's protege Meriwether Lewis. People interested in space. And so on.
I'm not interested in narrow professionals. What made Jefferson Jefferson is that he was a gifted amateur, who took all knowledge to be his province. He was equally adept at designing a skylight as he was at writing a state paper. He was as precise in organizing his garden as he was in organizing the Library of Congress. He had (one definition of genius) "an infinite capacity for taking pains."
If you know of such young people, please let me know about them. I want to meet them and interview them on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, even if they do not regard themselves as Jeffersonians, or have no particular Jefferson interest.
It is abundantly clear to me that the Baby Boomers have had their chance to create the Age of Aquarius, and it turns out to look pretty much like a much more materialistic version of the world they inherited, and certainly more narcissistic. I'm interested in finding young Jeffersonians, and asking them to help us see the world through a clearer lens.
Read the rest of John Adams' letter to his wife Abigail (Portia).
Becoming Jefferson's People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century
by Clay S. Jenkinson