Whither American Character?

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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.

And here we are. Can you be a republic when 80% of Americans have widescreen TVs? On any given day, you have x hours of discretionary time. After adding in sleep, personal grooming, food preparation and consumption, and work, most of us have between three and seven hours per day we can in some sense call our own. What you do with those hours tells you who you are. It’s Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

If your treasure is a patch of peas or a woodworking shop or reading your way through the complete works of Dostoevsky, you might be a Jeffersonian. If your treasure is a home theater on which you binge watch NCIS or Real Housewives of New Jersey, you’re probably not a Jeffersonian. I repeat: we have only so many discretionary hours and how we use them tells us who we are.

When Jefferson envisioned the American character, he saw a kind of idealized agrarian republican.

The American people have gotten sloppy and complacent—we are awash in more stuff, more distraction, more mindless entertainment, more ritualized violence, more free-floating rhetoric than any people who ever lived on earth. We are over-fed physically and under-fed metaphysically. I do not speak necessarily to you who are listening at this instant and perhaps feeling a little squirmy or annoyed, but on average today’s American citizen is toxic. Some more some less, but our capacity to live in a Jeffersonian republic depends on our taking ourselves more seriously than we now do.

Watch half an hour of MSNBC followed by half an hour of FOX. Or just follow the national debates about health care, foreign policy, immigration, or Islamic terrorism for an hour and ask yourself: is this a republic?

The devotees of the Tea party, now the Freedom Caucus, rightly hunger to return us to some past glory they have extrapolated from the “give me liberty or give me death,” and the “live free or die” mythology of American history, but it is not clear they want to do the hard and disciplined work of living like people who want to thrive in a republic.

The fallacy of our times is the notion that if we could only reform government we’d restore America. But our national recovery has nothing to do with government. The only way we are going to reclaim anything like Jefferson’s republic is to begin by looking in the mirror. Another great reformer said, “Take up your bed, and walk.”

"A print depicting a road, houses, barns, ducks, cows, horses with riders, wagons, trees and a pond with reflections," by Frank F. English (1854-1922). From the New York Public Library.