Saturday, November 06, 2004

Jefferson and Adams

In conversation, excerpted from Patriot on the Kennebec: Major Reuben Colburn, Benedict Arnold and the March To Quebec 1775.

“Science is progressive, and talents and enterprise on the alert.”
Thomas Jefferson

For Jefferson, the debate with John Adams continued until their simultaneous deaths in 1826. For the Puritan Adams, the belief in “Divine Providence” of a ruling class was tantamount. He continued to scan the annals of ancient history for evidence of this but in frustration never really could to his satisfaction. Adams was much more prone to belief based on myth than was the scientifically inclined Jefferson, who leaned toward a Franklinesque curiosity about the world. Adams begs Jefferson’s approval of his theory.

“It is not only permitted but onjoined upon us mortals to address you,” Adams wrote. “Why should not our divines translate it. ‘It is our duty and our privilege to address the throne of thy grave and pray for all the needed lawfull blessings, temporal and spiritual.’ Venus was the goddess of justice, decency, and right; the wife of Jove, another name for Juno. She presided over all oracles, deliberations and counsels. She recommended all mortals pray to Jupiter for all lawfull Benefits and Blessings.

“Now is (so far forth) the essence of Christian devotion? Is not this Christian piety? Is it not an acknowledgement of the existence of a supreme being? Of his universal providence? Of a righteous administration of the government of the universe? And what can Jews, Christians and Mahommetans do more! Adams was reaching here and Jefferson knew it. He chooses a more earthly analysis of the facts.

In this reply of Oct. 1813, Jefferson is analyzing the inherited aristocracy through this belief of divine providence versus a natural ascension to power by all men.
“For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men,” he writes. “The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly, bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground for distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?”

Jefferson, ever vigilant for the common man continues his thesis:

“The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendency. On the question, what is the best provision, you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging its errors. You think it best to put the pseudo-aristoi into a separate chamber of legislation, where they may be hindered from doing mischief by their co-ordinate branches, and where, also, they may be a protection to wealth against the Agrarian and plundering enterprises of the majority of the people. I think that to give them power in order to prevent them from doing mischief, is arming them for it, and increasing instead of remedying the evil.” He concludes; “I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the really good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society.” But in Adams’ Puritan remnant Massachusetts he notices similarities to England that remained in that year.

“From what I have seen of Massachusetts and Connecticut myself, and still more from what I have heard, and the character given of the former by yourself, who know them so much better, there seems to be in those two States a traditionary reverence for certain families, which has rendered the offices of the government nearly hereditary in those families. I presume that from an early period of your history, members of those families happening to possess virtue and talents, have honestly exercised them for the good of the people, and by their services have endeared their names to them. In coupling Connecticut with you, I mean it politically only, not morally. For having made the Bible the common law of their land, they seemed to have modeled their morality on the story of Jacob and Laban. But although this hereditary succession to office with you, may, in some degree, be founded in real family merit, yet in a much higher degree, it has proceeded from your strict alliance of Church and State. These families are canonised in the eyes of the people on common principles, ‘you tickle me, and I will tickle you,’” He writes, “

In Virginia we have nothing of this. Our clergy, before the revolution, having been secured against rivalship by fixed salaries, did not give themselves the trouble of acquiring influence over the people.”

This divine-right to rule is the opposite of what Jefferson always had long believed to be the correct course; in New England an underlying desire to hang on the theocracy of a state-sponsored religion existed, still. Colburn knew this all too well and remained with the Jeffersonian school of thought on this separation, to his last days. It is the very essence of this aspect of Congregationalism that he carried with him in the canoe to Georgetown in those early days.


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