For decades, Democrats across the country have been holding Jefferson Day dinners, filling their coffers by honoring their party's founder. Suddenly, along comes the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, snatches up poor old TJ, and says, "Sorry, he's actually ours. After all, didn't he say, 'That government is best which governs least'?"
Well, no, in fact he didn't. But perhaps he should have. He often expressed skepticism, and sometimes outright criticism, of the growing powers of the federal government. So which side in today's political divide is most entitled to carry the name of Jefferson on its banner? Exploring those questions led me to a surprising discovery: If we put the Tea Party's claim to TJ's mantle in the proper historical perspective, we come out not on the far right but on the far left.
It all began when I was re-reading Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution (trying to escape from obsessively tracking the DC rollercoaster.) As Wood observes, the Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians divided over basically the same issue that plagues us now: How much of a role should government play in people's lives? (Though the clash back then was so fierce, and split American society so sharply, that it makes today's politics look rather mild by comparison.)
But Wood takes us deeper into the substance of the issue. Jeffersonians were willing to limit government only because they assumed that there was "a principle of benevolence ... a moral instinct, a sense of sympathy, in each human being." They were founding an American nation upon the European Enlightenment's belief that "there was 'a natural principle of attraction in man towards man' [as Hume put it], and that these natural affinities were by themselves capable of holding the society together."
This was exactly the point that frightened Alexander Hamilton most. He summed up his opponents' view quite accurately: "As human nature shall refine and ameliorate by the operation of a more enlightened plan," based on common moral sense and the spread of affection and benevolence, government eventually "will become useless, and Society will subsist and flourish free from its shackles." Then Hamilton, the greatest conservative of his day, dismissed this vision of shrinking government as "a wild and fatal scheme."
The Republicans who now control the House obviously have a very different view of what it means to be a true conservative. But that doesn't mean they have become Jeffersonians. Not by any means. In many ways they would be closer to Hamilton, who scorned Jefferson's trust in human nature.
The Tea Party et al. don't defend their call for less government by claiming that we are all born with an innate sense of benevolence and sympathy toward all other people. On the contrary, they claim "the most sacred right to be left alone" largely because they don't trust people outside their own familiar circle, so they don't want those strangers meddling in their affairs.
Yet the current call for less government is a useful reminder of the worldview on which Jefferson and many of the Founding Fathers expected to build the United States. They assumed it was "natural to infer, that a disposition to do good, must, in some degree, be common to all men."
And this, Wood goes on to write, "was the real source of democratic equality." Every human being can be equally trusted to make wise decisions for the good of all (the reasoning went) because everyone, simply by virtue of being human, has a natural concern for the good of al—as long as that inborn sense of sympathy and benevolence is not corrupted by a misguided society. Let nature take its course and everyone will be taking care of everyone else so well that there won't be very much for government to do.
In the mid-19th century Henry David Thoreau drew that line of thinking out to its logical conclusion in his essay "Civil Disobedience":
I heartily accept the motto, -- "That government is best which governs least" -- and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, -- "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
How would men (and women, to be sure) get prepared for such anarchy, which was really Thoreau's ideal? He offered no simple rule, because there was none, in his view: "I would have each one be very careful and find out his own way." he wrote in Walden. "Explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s own being."
Within that private sea of our own being, though, Thoreau was sure that every one of us could find—each in our own way —the eternal, spiritual "solid bottom," of the universe. "Next to us the grandest laws ... all the laws of Nature ... are continually being executed." We can know those laws directly and be guided by them, as long as we "live deep and suck all the marrow out of life." Then we will find government superfluous.
Thoreau concluded "Civil Disobedience" by "imagining a State" that would let a few people
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live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
It would be a state of perfect Transcendentalist anarchy, where everyone would fulfill all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men not because they were following the government's laws but because they were letting nature take its course within them, living deep and sucking all the marrow out of life.
Today's right-wing extremists would probably run from Thoreau's view of life even faster than from Jefferson's. But there is no denying that their obsession with shrinking government stands in a long, distinguished line of American tradition where these two luminaries shine so bright.
Those same right-wingers would probably run fastest of all from another luminary, Walt Whitman, who was surely marching to his own drummer when he rhapsodized about his own transcendental moments: "From this hour, freedom! From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines." Where the Tea Party would erect fences stronger and higher, Whitman would have every fence torn down.
And in his imagined freedom, shorn of all defences, Whitman found "the joy of that vast elemental sympathy which only the human soul is capable of generating and emitting in steady and limitless floods." Even Jefferson could not have expressed the Enlightenment faith in benevolent human nature more eloquently.
Whitman gave classic voice to the link between the anarchic Transcendentalists and the Jeffersonians: Live free, follow your natural promptings, and you will spontaneously act upon the elemental sympathy for all that wells up from within you.
So it seems a fitting coincidence that I first heard this tradition voiced by friends at "Leaves of Grass," my local countercultural bookstore, back in the late 1960s. They summed it up by asking, in Whitman's words: "What do you need, Camerado? Do you think it is love?", and answering, in the Beatles' words, "All you need is love."
These friends were imagining something not yet anywhere seen: a society blending personal freedom and spiritual seeking with universal sympathy, so that everyone could suck all the marrow out of life. Most of them thought they were the first to even imagine it. They didn't know that they were only forging the next link in a historical chain of imagining—a chain of political mythmaking—stretching back to the American Revolution.
As for the size of government, I don't recall it being a burning issue back then outside a small circle of political philosophy wonks. For the rest of us, it seemed just a matter of common sense. The innate sense of sympathy, as well as direct contact with the marrow of life, had been stunted for far too long by a society that valued profits and material goods above people. It would be many years before everyone's genuine needs would be fully met by spontaneous acts of benevolence and love.
Until then, government should fill the gaps, since only government has the resource to make sure all are filled. But it should stay out where it does more harm than good—most obviously, back then, in Vietnam.
So if we drag the Tea Party and its fellow-travelers (kicking and screaming, no doubt) back into their proper historical context, we discover that the size of the government is not the crucial issue at all. They are here to remind us of something much bigger: a grand mythic vision that appeared at the very birth of the nation and has remained with us ever since, periodically blazing up in individuals or groups who have articulated it in clear and sometimes eloquent words.
So far the spotlight on the Tea Party has done much more to obscure than illuminate this mythic vision. But history has its way of playing unexpected tricks on us. Exhibit A: If it weren't for the Tea Party's vehement opposition, the U.S. would probably be dropping bombs on Syria right now, and very possibly sinking deeper into prolonged military involvement there.
So let's give thanks where thanks are due, recall the patriotic far right's true roots in America's radical history, and do what we can to cultivate those roots so that they’ll give rise to a healthier plant in the future.