Ever wonder who might have been added to Mount Rushmore if there’d been room for a fifth man and that man didn’t have to have been president?
With a certain wildly popular Broadway musical opening its local run in Minneapolis on Aug. 29, I think I can guess your candidate.
Yup, Alexander Hamilton has exploded in recent years — blown up, as we say in these celebrity-conscious days — much to the detriment of the man second from the left on Mount Rushmore.
Yup, Thomas Jefferson.
Our third president is remembered today mainly as a slaveholder and sire of mixed-race children by his longtime mistress Sally Hemmings. But Jefferson had other distinctions. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence, wherein he asserted man’s inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That last right remains the most controversial of the three.
Some scholars think Jefferson got the idea from the first and second articles of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, whose author, George Mason, got the idea from Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. In the late 1700s the notion that happiness even mattered, much less happiness for all humans (not just the king and his court), represented a paradigm shift.
No government had ever set out to define the fundamental “natural rights” of mankind. Now here’s this independence manifesto promising to make them sacrosanct.
In our time, Mason and Jefferson both are viewed as reactionaries (so much for “right” vs. “left”) because they supported states’ rights. I think, were Jefferson alive today, he’d belong to the progressive, Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party and, like Sanders, would have strong sympathies with those who voted for Donald Trump. I know that sounds counterintuitive.
Wasn’t Jefferson a slaveholder, and aren’t undocumented (unprotected) immigrants working in agriculture today no better than slave laborers?
I like to think Jefferson was captive to his era’s prejudices regarding race, which were, ironically, science-based. Jefferson thought Africans incapable of functioning effectively in a modern, “civilized” society, notwithstanding his rather more enlightened view of Native American peoples, who he thought could be “trained” to be “proper” citizens.
Shame on him. But again, judged in the context of his own times, he was a true idealist who worried that a strong federal government along the lines that Hamilton would propose was too close for comfort to the British imperial system the colonists had just thrown overboard. Jefferson diverged from Mason’s vision in that he agreed with Benjamin Franklin, who wrote that protection of “property” should not be a goal of government because property was a “creature of society” that should be taxed for the greater good. (Since when does the greater good go hand in hand with small government? Not since issues like slavery, suffrage for women and abortion rights required federal action and sometimes federal troops to get intransigent states in line with enlightened social policy.)
Hamilton did not oppose upper-class privilege but rather the barriers to its attainment that the British system imposed. He, too, took his inspiration from Locke, although while Locke advocated for the right of men to pursue “life, liberty, health, and the indolence of body,” as well as “the possession of outward things,” Hamilton emphasized the outward things and differed — emphatically — on the matter of indolence. Jefferson was hardly a man of leisure and joined Hamilton in rejecting unfettered indolence, but for different reasons and in a way that Hamilton regarded as insincere.
How could Jefferson not see the connection between his own “happiness” and his worldly possessions? Hamilton had been born in the West Indies, a place far less squalid than the Hamilton myth suggests. The island colony’s leisure class enjoyed the fruits of an enormous slave labor force, and its export trade dwarfed that of the colonial U.S. The system’s inequities were less abhorrent to Hamilton than that he himself was not one of its beneficiaries. He meant to set that right, to prove his own worth, in part by abolishing slavery altogether. This would level the playing field with those indolent slaveholders, including U.S. Southerners, in particular Jefferson.
While the Declaration of Independence worked well as an emotional anthem, Hamilton knew that the devil lies in the details, not in lofty rhetoric, and that the future of America would be determined by what was set forth in its legal documents. To that end he helped persuade another Virginian, who happened to be a longtime ally of Jefferson’s, to author the Constitution. James Madison was a far more successful and hardheaded plantation owner than his old friend Jefferson. When it came to happiness, his definition proved to be closer to that of his Virginia neighbor George Mason.
Hamilton’s views carried the day.
Thus, the central dispute that set Jefferson’s Republicans against Hamilton’s Federalists didn’t revolve solely around state vs. federal power. It didn’t revolve around agriculture either, though I think present conditions on the planet might suggest that Jefferson’s vision of a self-sufficient nation of small farms wasn’t as nutty as those who celebrate Hamilton’s vision think it was.
Yes, the pillars of that Hamiltonian vision — a strong executive branch, a central bank, a professional army to protect U.S. business interests overseas, unrestricted interstate commerce and hands-off capitalism — did create an industrial superpower. But are Americans “happy”? And has our influence resulted in happiness across the world?
How do we account not just for the fact that we’re exterminating species at an unprecedented rate and fouling our own habitat, but for that inconvenient truth that half the global economy is owned by eight men, five of them American?
We hear constantly about our domestic economy’s robust health, but for whose benefit? What is the state of our domestic democracy in a world where power has leapfrogged the interests of a single nation?
The measures Jefferson sought to curb federal authority predicted this very outcome. He believed the best restraint on tyranny is a system of preventive and ever-vigilant “checks” that would be flexible enough to adapt to change and not stifle creativity but at the same time would monitor and protect the fragile balance between individual happiness (that ineffable thing that the Founders used interchangeably with an even more abstract notion, freedom) and “group” happiness, including that of the poor and even the willfully indolent.
Hamilton believed in survival-of-the-fittest, while Jefferson thought “natural law” enabled all species to coexist peacefully by prioritizing ecological balance. Could a government modeled on nature raise humans and human society up a notch through force? Jefferson thought it could. He wanted to create a whole new kind of society, one that was itself exceptional.
In a way, he was the most conservative of the Founders in that he wanted to go back to the time before commerce and wealth accumulation created centralized governments with all-powerful kings and privileged aristocrats who lorded it over the “lesser” humans — the serfs, slaves, servants and so on — who lived like animals and were regarded as such. Mankind, thanks to our species’ ingenuity in making farms more productive and people healthier, was well-positioned in 1800 to take a giant leap forward politically. It was suddenly possible to eliminate artificial class distinctions, to let everyone enjoy liberty and equality and a plot of earth.
In Jefferson’s America, the goal would be to lift everyone up, in other words, instead of grouping them in a hierarchy that would inevitably concentrate more and more power in fewer and fewer hands. That he thought of “everyone” as white and male does not mean that he wanted white male privilege to be set in stone. He wanted nothing set in stone — except that the system be flexible enough to accommodate scientific inquiry and its inevitable power to reshape long-held opinions. This is clear from his writings.
He would have been appalled by the strict constructionism of today’s Supreme Court and deeply embarrassed that his contemporaries were not more prescient on this important matter. He would have been incredulous that corporate money could have been allowed to so thoroughly corrupt the political process and silence constructive discussion of such never-before-possible (and now economically inevitable) entitlements “for the greater good” as universal health care and free public education and his fondest dream, a wholly self-sufficient domestic economy.
The latter is, ironically, the stated goal of our largest trading partner. China plans to achieve economic independence by 2025. Whereas when Jefferson’s failed Embargo of 1807 sought to restrict trade in protest of British abuses (his effort only delayed the inevitable War of 1812 and strengthened his Federalist opponents), such restrictions on trade were manifestly a bad idea. America needed overseas trade then.
But that model faces overwhelming challenges, most of its own making, as low-value-add commodities are proving toxic to the environment and to us. What better time than now to follow China’s lead (and Jefferson’s vision) and slowly phase out our reliance on overseas markets and resources? No nation on Earth is better positioned to make that shift, not even China, but China seems to be forcing our hand. Better a thoughtful and deliberate transition to sustainability that puts a healthy planet and the greater good as our top priorities — not GDP, job growth or a booming stock market — even if it does involve short-term hardship (and even if it means some multinational corporations pull up stakes and move) than to leave all but the richest Americans unmoored and desperate in the long term.
The alternative to enhancing our self-sufficiency, and that of all nations, is a draconian “correction” in human population. Automation combined with a shift to high-value-add products (including life-extending technologies and healthy food) renders the traditional labor force obsolete and unprotected from climate-related disease, famine and war. This may sound dystopian but there’s a reason such predictions are staples of popular entertainment. They may be banned from “polite” political discourse, but we all know, especially the young, that they are as plausible as any other future scenario.
Science just hadn’t caught up with politics back in 1809 when a weary Thomas Jefferson headed home to Monticello. It would. And did, though a Civil War came first. Old ways of doing things die hard, because for every person who benefits from a change that improves things down the road, there will be others (sometimes lots of others) who will lose.
Only a government dedicated to ensuring the right of happiness for all its citizens stands between a decent albeit difficult future and global disaster for all but a few.
Bonnie Blodgett, of St. Paul, specializes in environmental topics. She's at firstname.lastname@example.org.