Nearly 50 years later, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that, “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”
This week we discuss the American character with President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson believed that the American character would be the best in the history of the world: because of our agrarianism, our distance from the havoc of the Old World, our public education, and our resourcefulness that we needed to develop because there were no outside experts. While Adams felt that without a strong American character, "the strongest Cords of our Constitution [would be broken] as a Whale goes through a Net." John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were dear friends; they disagreed about many things. One thing they agreed upon was that this experiment would only work if we had unique character.
- Founders Online: From George Washington to Elias Boudinot, 18 February 1784
- Founders Online: From John Adams to Massachusetts Militia, 11 October 1798
- Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
Whither American Character?
The Jefferson Watch
When Jefferson envisioned the American character, he saw a kind of idealized agrarian republican—someone who lived quietly on the land, achieved self-sufficiency, participated in local self-government without ego or ambition, read books, believed in liberty so firmly that he would flare up at any sign of corruption. Jefferson saw a sturdy American who took charge of his life, who worked hard to reduce his dependence on any person, entity, or institution outside of his modest farm. Like most of the rest of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson worried that luxury—too much material addiction—would transform us from lovers of liberty to lovers of security, order, prosperity, stuff.
Read this week's Jefferson Watch essay, "Whither American Character?".