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Monday, October 28, 2013
Is there such a thing as a natural aristocracy? If so, what are its components and why was Thomas Jefferson interested in it?
He was interested in part because John Adams also was, and the two friends disagreed over it.
They had become friends at the time of the Declaration of Independence and continued their friendship in Europe in the mid-1780s when Jefferson was the American minister to France and Adams the minister to England.
On Oct. 28, 1813, in a single burst of intellectual energy, Jefferson wrote a remarkable letter to his old friend.
Although Jefferson doesn’t mention it in his letter, he and Adams both knew that natural aristocracy was a problem in political theory that went back to ancient Greece, to a time when Aristotle classified governments as run by the one, the few or the many.
Aristotle’s scheme was a matrix. Along one axis were the three forms of government. On the other axis were a “good” and “bad” version of each.
“The many” meant a democracy, for which Aristotle had no sympathy: “It is a government in the hands of men of low birth, poverty and vulgar employments,” he wrote. In Jefferson’s letter to Adams, the word “democracy” plays no part.
In other ways, Aristotle’s scheme was too constricting for Jefferson and Adams. They agreed, for instance, that one ruler implied either a monarchy or a tyranny, but these terms were not applicable to the United States.
When it came to the few, however, Aristotle’s scheme fit America better. He divided the few into an aristocracy, which meant rule by the best, and an oligarchy, which meant that a faction was running the government for personal gain.
What Jefferson and Adams disagreed on, then, was whether there existed an aristocracy by nature whose members should, by reason, become the leaders of a government (Jefferson’s position) or whether there existed an artificial aristocracy (Jefferson’s term for Adams’ position) that should not ascend to leadership.
Jefferson’s natural aristocracy might today be called a meritocracy, although a meritocracy typically depends on selection by résumé rather than by nature.
In Adams’ state of Massachusetts, Jefferson wrote, there seems to be “a traditionary reverence for certain families, which has rendered the offices of those families nearly hereditary.” But in Virginia after the Declaration of Independence, the state passed laws that “laid the axe to the root of Pseudoaristocracy.”
At the same time, Jefferson prepared a bill on “the general diffusion of learning” in Virginia. If the bill had become law, which it didn’t, it would have established levels of schooling up through the university that selected out the best students, or natural aristocrats, for the governance of the state.
“Worth and genius,” he continued, “would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and [thus the students would be] completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”
Jefferson also pointed to a great difference between America and Europe. In the United States there was freedom for most men to own land — Jefferson’s yeomen farmers.
In Europe, men were crowded into cities. But even so, in Europe science had “liberated the idea of those who read and reflect,” because science “is progressive, and the tinsel-aristocracy will finally shrink into insignificance.”
“I have thus stated my opinion on a point on which we differ,” Jefferson gently told Adams at the end.
This was “not with a view to controversy, for we are both too old to change our views, which are the result of a long life of inquiry and reflection, but on the suggestion of a former letter of yours, that we ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”
In their exchange of letters, Adams in half a dozen letters, Jefferson in a single letter 200 years ago today, the two men had done just that.
Friends should treat each other so seriously and so kindly in our time.
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