Here’s to the Better Angels of Our Nature

Somehow Jefferson got it into his head that we were going to be a nation above politics. Decisions would be made by rational, modest, commonwealth-loving farmer citizens. If we ever disagreed, we would, in his words, “disagree as rational friends.” He always thought that he was above the fray—a source of great frustration to his detractors, who saw the Grand Lama of Monticello as a political strategist worthy of Machiavelli’s manual of unscrupulous manipulation, The Prince. Jefferson believed that he and James Madison and a few others represented the overwhelming majority of the American people, in his mind approaching 95% or better, so when he was elected third president in 1800 he let himself imagine that politics had essentially come to an end. He called his election the Second American Revolution. In his mind, The People had rescued the republic and retaken their government from a cadre of greedy and power-hungry monarchists, led by the Beelzebub of American life Alexander Hamilton.

Timothy Pickering, third Secretary of State. Portrait from the New York Public Library.

It is true that Jefferson’s election in 1800 marked the effective demise of the Federalist Party. John Adams was sputtering and muttering in retirement at Braintree, MA. The great patriarch George Washington was dead now, and on his way to nonpartisan sainthood. Hamilton had clipped his own wings with the notorious Maria Reynolds affair and the incredibly indiscrete pamphlet he had written against sitting president John Adams in the summer of 1800. By mid-July 1804 he would be dead, cut down by some combination of Aaron Burr (America’s true Machiavel) and Hamilton’s own colossal and prickly sense of honor. The rest of the Federalists were a bitter lot of angry old men, like Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution had been more hard-headed than the dreamer Jefferson, but even they too had anticipated a nonpartisan republic, so they didn’t bother to factor political parties into such institutions as the Electoral College. All the Founding Fathers were so busy disengaging from Great Britain that they mistook their revolutionary consensus for a permanent American Spring of harmony, mutual respect, and libertarianism. Well, all except John Adams, who had spent enough time drinking the nectar of Calvinism to know that human nature will out—and it is seldom pretty—no matter what software you try to run.

The Founders were all shocked—and disillusioned—when they discovered that factionalism was going to be a regular feature of American life, with its dark tools: character assassination, deliberate distortion of facts, self-serving rhetoric, opinion pieces disguised as objective news, the demonization of the opposition, innuendo, hired ruffians disguised as newspaper editors, a deliberate use of logical fallacies to whip what Rush Limbaugh calls the “low-information voters” into one baseless frenzy after the next. Am I describing then—or now?

Horace, portrayed by Giacomo Di Chirico. Painting from Wikimedia.

More shocked by political furor than everyone else, of course, was the Sage of Monticello Thomas Jefferson, who really wanted to live in his agrarian utopia, who wanted to dwell in a republic where men were virtuous in the old Roman sense: high-minded, generous, civil, and largely egoless. His model was the Latin poet Horace who shunned the sewers of Rome to live on his modest Sabine farm, where he worked in the soil by day and at night drank a couple of glasses of good-enough wine with his virtuous spouse before the fireplace in their modest cottage.

You can see Jefferson as a hypocrite—he could give as well as he got, on occasion—or you could see him as a ninny who had failed life’s introductory course, Human Nature 101. Or you can see him as an intellectual dreamer who had studied western civilization from its inception and had discovered Solon and Cincinnatus, Cicero and Cato, the best moments of Athenian democracy and the best gestures of the Roman Republic; who had found his demigods in Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, or more locally in Benjamin Franklin, David Rittenhouse, and James Madison; who believed, with the Enlightenment, that man was a rational animal, born good not evil, and capable as Jefferson put it of “indefinite perfectibility.”  Jefferson could not descend to acknowledge, with satirist Jonathan Swift, that man was only capax rationis, occasionally capable of rationality. When Swift discovered or thought he discovered this dark truth, it filled him with savage indignation. Jefferson was, by contrast, the Pollyanna of the American experiment.

Jefferson’s optimism about the human project may be a bit naïve, but it is, in the commentator Eric Sevareid’s words, not so wild a dream. Jefferson had a hard time acknowledging how grasping and griping and grunting and grudging a creature man can be. He had an even harder time recognizing the darker elements in his own soul. But America at its best has actually been Jefferson’s republic. We don’t get there very often any more, and we don’t linger in that rarified air, but whatever is best in us belongs to Jefferson and it is not his fault if “the worser angels of our Nature”, to paraphrase Lincoln, have been irrigated by men like Pitchfork Ben Tillman and George Wallace and the KKK and the John Birch Society and, well, you know who.

The public domain painting of Horace reading before Maecenas is by Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov (1827–1902), courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Edited by staff.