Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” & His Defense of Protesting Rubes

14 03 2011

It’s useful to take the time to look into history sometimes. Particularly when details of that history are shorn of context and held bare in a spotlight as proof of current righteousness.

We get it.

I don’t begrudge the tea party activists their protests; though I get the sense they feel that only their protests “count,” that theirs is true populist rage but nothing else is. If you want to protest taxes you perceive as too high, hey, that’s a long tradition in America. Go buck wild. But don’t then look at the massive protests for immigration reform, labor rights, against the war, and pretend they’re less meaningful because they’re somehow un-American or not “real.”

We get it.

The Tea Party campaign has taken the powerful and expansive ideas of the revolution and dulled their power by limiting them to being “anti-government.” The Founding Father’s weren’t “anti-government.” They were anti- lots of different things. Some were practically monarchists, others French-style Jacobin democrats. There was one thing common to almost all of them, though: they were radicals. By the measure of the time, they were progressives and they were radicals. This is a bald fact. They wanted to engage in social engineering, to undo the entire social, political and economic system and rebuild it according to commonly-held principles. They wanted to form the first republic in the history of civilization to officially forbid government interference in religion and vice versa. It is not at all a debate that within the at-time “modern” world, America’s revolutionary leaders were radicals–revolutionaries, after all.

Guess what we get?

And Jefferson, who provides right-wing activism with some of its most potent rhetoric, was on the radical end of that radical group. Jefferson rested his theory of government on a foundational need to formally limit the power of three classes (said another way, he really fucking hated the following groups of people): aristocrats, clergy, and creditors. He wasn’t a fan of slave traders either, but coming from a slave owner that’s not really compelling.

It.

Aristocrats to Jefferson were not a political class as much as an economic class. They were the landowners. They weren’t powerful because their title was a magic word; their title was powerful because it represented ownership of property that was impossible to dislodge from their grip. As to clergy, he said once there would have never been a single infidel if there had never been a single clergyman. He used the phrase “monkish ignorance.” You get it. That one’s obvious. Creditors–sometimes “bankers,” some times other wacky 18th century nicknames for them, like “stockjobbers,” though that one is specific to London–he loathed probably because he was in debt his whole life. But also he saw the hold of debt by one free person over another as a threat to democracy. Prior to industrial economies of scale, the creditor was most responsible for the economic misery of the working class husbandman or tradesman. It was a vacuous freedom to Jefferson to work all your days for the benefit of another who expends no labor.

Which brings us to his “Tree of Liberty” letter to William Smith, Read the rest of this entry »





Man, at Cape Disappointment: Love, Disappointment, and American Adventure

30 07 2010

Why didn’t I learn from America?

I think I believed in the restorative properties of travel and adventure.

I thought, as America once did, that looking west, that adventure and sojourn, could heal what hurts, could mend what was broken, could give you the vision and wisdom and experience to make what was wrong, right. But it can’t. What is rotten still rots.

I imagine Thomas Jefferson wracked with worry about the unsolvable problem of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and the bruising partisanship of the 1800 election, gazing westward and seeing in that expanse a salve. But discovery without can’t reverse or allay rotting within, can it?

Jefferson is both America’s mightiest revolutionary thinker and biggest hypocrite. The ideas embodied in The Declaration, the Summary View of the Rights of British North America, the Autobiography, and his personal semi-public correspondence with public intellectuals of the time would be expressed in some form by democratic revolutionaries for centuries afterward. The same man who owned inherited slaves wrote that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living” and that

[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

This from a man whose greatest political nemesis was not Alexander Hamilton or John Adams but John Marshall whose theories of judicial power allowed for just the type of flexibility Jefferson advocated for.

He was also probably America’s biggest debtor President, a fact that is more telling than at first blush. He suffered under immense debt his entire adult life, constantly wriggling his way out comeuppance, unable to finish the wildly expensive Monticello, and finding himself unable to manumit, or free, his slaves at his death due to his huge number of creditors. His procrastination and anxiety over his debt is mirrored in his attitude towards America’s chattel slavery system. He likened it to “[having] the wolf by the ears”, both unable to continue it nor end it.

Instead, he assumed unprecedented executive authority and expanded the American experiment, dispatching two young men, Lewis and Clark (or “Clarke” as it is in his letters), to physically explore America’s future, to provide a new challenge, a new adventure, to a young nation done with revolutionary fervor and in need of self-evaluation. I imagine Jefferson saw in that challenge the solution to the problem; that by committing America to an adventure of exploration and discovery, it could overwhelm with new experience the corrupting influence of its original sin.

Adventure and exploration is hard, but growing up is infinitely harder.

When your heart’s been broken, or things seem to be swirling downwards–that patina of anxiety creeps over you as everything you’ve tried at, you’ve failed at, or worse, you failed to try at, adventure is the solution. By getting out of your “element”, by throwing off your moorings and setting into unknown–you’ll get “distance” and “clarity” that will help you fix what hurts. Will you? There’s no doubt that getting away can help you with context and perspective, but that context and perspective can just as often make things worse as make things better.

Read the rest of this entry »