Aristocracy and Meritocracy

We strived for that. We may not have achieved that.
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

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The following is a rush transcript.

David Swenson: 00:01 Good day citizens and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson, who is seated across from me now. Good day to you, Mr. President. 

Clay S. Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson: 00:15 Good day to you, citizen. 

DS: 00:17 Mr. President, I was thinking about the terms of American society, how men like you and Adams decided how society, how government should work. 

DS: 00:29 And I know you and Mr. Adams had many discussions about aristocracy and I'm wondering if you could explain that to me, and where merit fits into that picture. 

CSJ as TJ: 00:41 Since the beginning of time, wherever we have a historical record, we see that there is a struggle between the few and the many, and the few usually defined themselves as an aristocracy. Sometimes that's an aristocracy of talent. 

CSJ as TJ: 00:55 More often that's an aristocracy of birth, and it's a nuisance because a commonwealth needs to take care of the needs and the aspirations of all of its citizens, and when you select a small, usually self-selected faction that regards itself as better, smarter, more honorable than the mass of people, this creates a very toxic social milieu, and so our experiment in self government was designed to create a maximum of equality that, at least before the law, every citizen would be a cipher. 

CSJ as TJ: 01:36 There would be no rich or poor. There would be no handsome or not. There would be no black or white. There would be no gender – that a person coming to the law would be citizen x and the law would treat everyone who came to it identically without any attempt to ascertain the social background or origin of of that person. 

CSJ as TJ: 01:59 We strived for that. We may not have achieved that. Then in addition to that, you look for a broader social equality or an economic equality. That's harder. 

CSJ as TJ: 02:08 The one thing you can guarantee in a Republican form of government is to treat everyone identically in the machine of the law. Guaranteeing social equality and avoiding the problems of aristocracy proves to be one of the most difficult challenges of any society. 

DS: 02:23 Well, when we talk about meritocracy, what exactly does that mean, Mr Jefferson? 

CSJ as TJ: 02:29 We didn't use the term in my time, but I had a similar term. Adams and I had a long correspondence beginning in 1812, and fairly soon on, we talked about this issue and Adams view was aristocracy is inevitable, that it begins with the strongest man or the tallest person or the most beautiful or seductive woman or the most talented farmer, or whatever it is, that aristocracies emerge in every society, that no matter how you shuffle the deck, some people will emerge as the strongest or the people with the greatest industrial discipline, the most beautiful, etc. 

CSJ as TJ: 03:05 And that you may as well, said Adams, you may as well accept this as an inevitability. That there can be no truly equal society, no matter how much social engineering you attempt. I disagreed with that, but I, but if that's true, that there is some sort of a class distinction amongst humans, then I want it to be based on merit, not on birth. 

CSJ as TJ: 03:32 And in a letter that I wrote to Adams, I said, we should take the pseudo aristocracy, people born into wealth and privilege, and make their lives more difficult. And we should, as a society, give encouragement to a natural aristocracy. People who may be born in obscurity, but who have special talents, they're poets, or they're philosophers or they have a gift for leadership or they're scientific agriculturalists, or perhaps they're sculptors, musicians, whatever it is, we should find merit irrespective of where it's born, and encourage it. But we should discourage artificial distinctions between this person and that person based on wealth and privilege. 

DS: 04:16 Well, there are those that are more [meritorius] if that's the right term, sir, there are differences in individuals who are not all equal.

CSJ as TJ: 04:24 That is correct, but we don't want our government making these choices for us. We don't want government intruding into this system and finding people that it particularly wants to protect against merit. If the government were simply encouraging merit, that would be one thing. But more often it protects an artificial aristocracy, what I call a pseudo aristocracy, that has a nuisance effect on the larger needs of the commonwealth. 

DS: 04:54 Thank you very much Mr. Jefferson. 

CSJ as TJ: 04:55 You are most welcome, sir.

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