Jefferson: Science, Progress and Permanent Revolution

This will be the final post in my series on the political thought of Thomas Jefferson.  We have explored some of the key tenets of his political philosophy, and now we will see how they all fit together to mold what was a very radical vision of society.

In a letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, dated March 3, 1818, Jefferson wrote:

When I contemplate the immense advances in sciences and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life, I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were, and they than the burners of witches.[1]

This passage is particularly revealing of many aspects of Jefferson’s personality and belief system.  It demonstrates Jefferson’s optimistic view of the inevitability of human progress.  It also reveals a certain snobbery to things of the past, ie. “burners of witches.”  Above all, it is an example of Jefferson’s idealism.

Jefferson was a man of science, thoroughly interested in all forms of scientific discovery.  Though other Founders were certainly scientifically curious, Jefferson, along with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, stood above the rest.  This passionate love of scientific discovery motivates his equally passionate belief in human progress.  It is a thread that ties together all of Jefferson’s political philosophy, as it also drives him towards a theory of what could be called democratic perfectionism.  Only leave man to his own devices, and there are no limits to what can be done.  Jefferson’s creed is one that ignores much of the past and looks wistfully upon the future.

Jefferson’s outlook in these matters is quasi-utopian.  Jefferson, in his speeches and writings, seems to indicate that there is indeed an ultimate good end, and that some degree of human perfectibility can be attained.  As Boorstin notes, whereas Christianity taught that the “soul is to receive its proper recognition with some future life, in Jeffersonianism man’s destiny was somehow to be realized on this earth and right here in America.”[2] This belief spurs Jefferson towards a belief system that emphasizes constant revolution and radical egalitarianism in the interests of creating a near-perfect society.

Jefferson sees man’s ability for self-government as the greatest security against tyranny, and he does not fret when people act in a rebellious manner.  Jefferson was not as concerned as his contemporaries over Shays’s Rebellion, the seminal event that contributed to the call for a constitutional convention.  Cautioning Madison about stifling liberty, he writes:

Even this evil is productive of good.  It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.  I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.  Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them.  An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much.  It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of the government.[3]

Rebellions ought not to be punished too severely for they demonstrate an engaged and involved public.  It shows that the citizenry cares about public events.  As Claes Ryn comments about this statement, “At the bottom of this lack of concern for the orderly process of government as a protection against arbitrariness lies a belief in the soundness or even goodness of the uninhibited popular will.”[4]

He later repeats this sentiment to Abigail Adams.  “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions,” he writes, “that I wish it to be always alive.  It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than no exercised at all.  I like a little rebellion now and then.  It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.”[5] While Shays’s Rebellion spurred the Framers to create a Constitution that curtailed the majority will, Jefferson saw it as a wonderful example of the people exercising their right of expression.  Jefferson seemed to relish the event’s occurrence.

And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted?  I say nothing of it’s motives.  They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness.  God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.  The people cannot be all, & always, well informed.  The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive.  If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.  We have had 13 states independent in 11 years.  There has been one rebellion.  That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state.  What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion?  & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?[6]

Startling as this sounds, he then writes one of his boldest lines.  “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.  It is it’s [sic] natural manure.”[7]

Jefferson’s rhetoric sounds somewhat bloodthirsty, but it demonstrates his commitment to the cause of liberty, as well as his belief that blood must be shed in order to preserve liberty.  Jefferson remained committed to the cause of liberty even after the events of the French Revolution turned ugly.  In the struggle to overthrow the Jacobins, both the innocent and guilty were put to death.  He writes to William Short that these were deplorable events, “but I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle.  It was necessary to sue the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree.”[8] And despite the amount of bloodshed, “was ever such a prize [liberty] won with so little innocent blood?  My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather that it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.  Were there but an Adam & an Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than as it now is.”[9]

Despite the horrors taking place in Europe, Jefferson remains convinced that the French revolutionaries were winning the battle for freedom, and he remains a passionate defender of the French even as circumstances appeared to deteriorate.  As with Shays’s rebels, whatever the French did was good because it represented freedom.  Jefferson’s bold support for the revolutionary ethos stirs Connor Cruise O’Brien to quip, “It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the twentieth-century statesman whom the Thomas Jefferson of 1793 would have admired most is Pol Pot.”[10]

Though O’Brien’s comment may appear hyperbolic, Jefferson’s revolutionary fervor is constant and firm.  He promotes the idea of a perpetual revolution.  Writing to John Adams decades later, he observes that the “generation which commences a revolution can rarely compleat it.  Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to the kings and priests, they are not qualified, when called on, to think and provide for themselves and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often, in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides to defeat their own rights and purposes.”[11] It is up to future generations to finish what was started.

Jefferson offers an apocalyptic vision of what lies ahead.  Revolutions are:

now well understood to be a necessary check on kings, whom they will probably think it more prudent to chain and tame than to exterminate.  To attain all this however rivers of blood must yet flow; and years of desolation pass over.  Yet the object is worth of rivers of blood, and years of desolation for what inheritance so valuable can man leave to his posterity?[12]

This stark imagery represents some of Jefferson’s boldest writing.  He appears willing to overthrow the existing social order, and it is no surprise that he remains sympathetic to the French revolutionaries long after many of his fellow countrymen had abandoned hope in their cause.[13]

It is this devotion to revolution, or at least the utilization of such radical revolutionary image, that also represents some of Jefferson’s most idealistic writings.  His rhetoric has certain romantic overtones of a glorious worldwide revolution which will establish liberty throughout not just the United States and Europe, but indeed the entire world.  And if this represents Jefferson at his most idealistic, it also represents Jefferson at his most unrealistic.  As O’Brien comments, it seemed that Jefferson was more concerned with the “idea” of revolution, especially as it pertains to France.  He largely ignored what was taking place and instead admired what it represented.[14]

Jefferson’s idealism shines through in his revolutionary rhetoric.  Carl Becker notes this idealistic streak and how it disconnects Jefferson from the real world.  It was natural for Jefferson to feel at home in Paris.  Jefferson was very much like the Encylopaedists, “those generous souls who loved mankind by virtue of not knowing too much about men, who worshipped reason with unreasoning faith, who made a religion of Nature while cultivating a studied aversion for ‘enthusiasm’ and strong religious emotion.”[15]

Joseph Ellis notes how this idea of sentimentality can be seen in Jefferson.  Jefferson reveals himself as an adherent to the Whig interpretation of history in his Summary Views, speaking of an “idealized past” when writing about the Norman Conquests of 1066, “a long-lost time and place where men had lived together in perfect harmony without coercive laws or predatory rulers.”[16]

Jefferson’s life on Monticello fed Jefferson’s imagination, to the point where perhaps he built up an idealized vision of the world.  “Both the expectations that Jefferson harbored for his private life in his mansion on the mountains, as well as his way of trying to design and construct it, suggested a level of indulged sentimentality that one normally associates with an adolescent.”[17] Many of Jefferson’s youthful letters also indicate a “juvenile romanticism” that reflected Jefferson’s romantic cast of mind.[18]

Here Jefferson is caught up in the same sort of daydream reverie that afflicted Rousseau.  Babbitt’s description of the romantic imagination could very well apply to Jefferson.  “Nearly every man cherishes his dream, his conceit of himself as he would like to be, a sort of ‘ideal’ projection of his own desires, in comparison with which his actual life seems a hard and cramping routine.”[19] Jefferson may not be conjuring up an ideal world to escape from his own life, but his idealism tends to cloud his judgment regarding real world political affairs.

Peter Viereck warns that this idealistic and perfectionist attitude threatens to lead towards totalitarianism.  “So long as people believe in the perfectibility of man, they will continue to use those freedom-destroying ‘bad means’ (totalitarianism) that promise the quickest shortcut to this ‘good end.’”[20] J.L. Talmon describes this tendency as democratic-totalitarianism.  He describes it this way:

The totalitarian democratic school, on the other hand, is based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics.  It may be called political Messianism in the sense that it postulates a preordained, harmonious, and perfect scheme of things, to which men are irresistibly driven, and at which they are bound to arrive.[21]

One should be cautious with terminology.  It is difficult to believe that a man like Jefferson, whose overriding concern was liberty, would have ever conceived that he was laying the groundwork for totalitarianism.  Even the term “perfectionist” is a bit misleading.  Certainly Jefferson did not believe we could literally create a perfect world.  In fact few if any who are called perfectionists have held or hold such a belief.  But Jefferson is highly optimistic about our ability to achieve much in the way of scientific and political progress.  And though he may not have ever dreamed of constructing a totalitarian system, there is a sense in which his fundamental belief system tends towards that direction.

Jefferson’s Second Inaugural exhibits both this sense of idealism and quasi-totalitarianism.  In this speech he expresses his conviction that all will come around to republican principles, while he simultaneously displays a snobbish attitude to opposition viewpoints.

With those, too, not rallied to the same point, the disposition to do so is gaining strength: facts are piercing through the veil drawn over them; and our doubting brethren will at length see, that the mass of their fellow citizens, with whom they cannot yet resolve to act, as to principles and measures, think as they think, and desire what they desire; that our wish, as well as theirs, is, that the public efforts may be directed honestly to the public good, that peace be cultivated, civil and religious liberty unassailed, law and order preserved; equality of rights maintained, and that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry, or that of his fathers.[22]

He makes the case that, at heart, all Americans really value the same things.  This statement is at least partially accurate.  There is a universal human longing for peace and security.  But people certainly do not agree about the means to achieve those ends, and he glosses over important differences in order to make a very idealistic point.  But even this vague expression of commonality ends with a rather condescending opinion of his opponents’ beliefs.

When satisfied of those views, it is not in human nature that they should not approve and support them; in the meantime, let us cherish them with patient affection; let us do them justice, and more than justice, in all competitions of interest; and we need not doubt that truth, reason, and their own interests, will at length prevail, will gather them into the fold of their own country, and will complete their entire union of opinion, which gives to a nation the blessing of harmony, and the benefit of all its strength.[23]

The tone suggests that Jefferson fully expects all Americans to have a rather unified political outlook.  It is certainly not uncommon to hold one’s own system beliefs in high esteem, and to look down upon other points of view.  One might say this is an American tradition.  But Jefferson goes further with it.  He earnestly thinks that his opponents will be and should be completely obliterated.

This view is in tension with Madison’s vision in the tenth Federalist Paper of quarreling factions.  Madison envisioned a polity where the multiplicity of factions would prove to be a bulwark against majority tyranny.  In essence, it was vision of a pluralistic system where multiple factions would constantly be in conflict.  Jefferson, meanwhile, holds to a political vision where the majority swallows the minority whole.  This is not a Madisonian system of factional discord, but rather a unified polity governed by the majority’s will.

Jefferson maintains that the only reason all have not turned to the Republican Party is because they have been duped.  “The spirit of ’76 is not dead,” he wrote Thomas Lomax, “It has only been slumbering.  The body of the American people is substantially republican.  But their virtuous feelings have been played on by some fact with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful manoeuvres, & made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves.”[24] The allusion to “chains” once again calls to mind Rousseau, who wrote “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”[25] Here it is Jefferson and his political creed that will rescue man from his chains.

Convinced of the rightness of his own cause, Jefferson even begins to brand those who disagree with him as heretics.  He repeatedly uses that term in his discourses.  In 1791 he criticized fellow countryman for worrying over the French Revolution.  “I still rely [sic] that the great mass of our community is untainted with these heresies, as is it’s [sic] head.”[26] Again, he depicts the Federalists as heretics, and the masses as slumbering people ready to overthrow these heretics.  This dichotomy is played up even more in his letter to Philip Mazzei:

In place of that noble love of liberty and republican government which carried us triumphantly thro’ the war, an Anglican, monarchical and aristocratical party has sprung up, whose avowed object is to draw over us the substance as they have already done the forms of the British government. The main body of our citizens however remain true to their republican principles, the whole landed interest is with them, and so is a great mass of talents. Against us are the Executive, the Judiciary, two out of three branches of the legislature, all of the officers of the government, all who want to be officers, all timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty, British merchants and Americans trading on British capitals, speculators and holders in the banks and public funds a contrivance invented for the purposes of corruption and for assimilating us in all things, to the rotten as well as the sound parts of the British model. It would give you a fever were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England. In short we are likely to preserve the liberty we have obtained only by unremitting labors and perils. But we shall preserve them, and our mass of weight and wealth on the good side is so great as to leave no danger that force will ever be attempted against us. We have only to awake and snap the Lilliputian cords with which they have been entangling us during the first sleep which succeeded our labors.[27]

Jefferson pits the Federalists – including, by implication, George Washington – against the masses, and he predicts the ultimate victory of the republican point of view and the repudiation of Federalist principles.

Jefferson’s intense hatred of political opponents is hardly unique.  In fact, one might say it is part of the American fabric.[28] Jefferson’s idealism and concurrent frustration with those who hold separate opinions are not entirely uncommon.  And the hatred certainly was a two-way street considering what the Federalist press was writing about Jefferson.

But Jefferson’s sentiments seem to run even deeper.  He is deeply worried about the prospects of all progress being stopped.  His plan can only be carried out so long as certain conditions prevail, and anything which hinders the advance of democracy and scientific progress will in turn hinder the development of a more perfect Union.  Again, this unease bordering on restlessness is a distinct American trait, and both Alexis de Toqueville in the nineteenth century and Daniel Boorstin in the twentieth century capture this aspect of the American personality perfectly.[29] It is a restlessness of spirit that drove the Progressives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and which dramatically transformed the American political landscape.

Jefferson’s democratic exuberance, his anti-traditional outlook, and his fervor for scientific progress are the hallmarks of his political philosophy, and these are all traits which Americans have picked up.  But these tendencies were not shared – at least fully – by most of his contemporaries.

But that’s for another series.


[1] Silvio A. Bedini, Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1990), 496.

[2] Daniel Boorstin, Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1948), 59.

[3] Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, 30 January, 1787, in Jefferson Writings, 882.

[4] Claes Ryn, Democracy and the Ethical Life: A Philosophy of Politics and Community, Second Edition  (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990),, 186.

[5] Jefferson to Abigail Adams, Paris, 22 February, 1787, in Jefferson Writings, 889-890.

[6] Jefferson to William S. Smith, Paris, 13 November, 1787, in Jefferson Writings, 911.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jefferson, Letter to William Short, Philadelphia, 3 January, 1793, in Jefferson Writings, 1004.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Connor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), 150.

[11] Jefferson to John Adams, Monticello, 4 September, 1823, in Jefferson Writings, 1477.

[12] Ibid., 1478.

[13] O’Brien, 145-150.  O’Brien notes that Jefferson remained faithful to the revolutionary cause, and rebuked friends who showed signs of worry.  The overthrow of the monarchy only strengthened his favorable view of the revolution.

[14] Ibid.,137.

[15] Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922), 219.

[16] Ellis, 32. Ellis writes that these claims are wholly imaginative and were perhaps fed by Jefferson’s reclusive youth.

[17] Ibid., 35.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1919), 68.

[20] Peter Viereck, The Unadjusted Man: A New Hero for Americans (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956), 302.

[21] J.L. Talmon, The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952), 1.

[22] Jefferson, “Second Inaugural Address,” in Jefferson Writings, 522.

[23] Ibid., 522-523.

[24] Jefferson to Thomas Lomax, Monticello, 12 March, 1799, in Jefferson Writings, 1063.

[25] Rousseau, “Social Contract,” 141.

[26] Jefferson to George Mason, Philadelphia, 4 February, 1791, in Jefferson Writings, 972.

[27] Jefferson to Philip Mazzei, Monticello, 24 April, 1796, in Jefferson Writings, 1036-37.

[28] See especially Peter Wood, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (New York: Encounter Books, 2007) for an excellent examination of partisan rancor in America as it has developed in recent years.  Wood is of the opinion that anger is a more prominent aspect of American culture now more than ever, though the election of 1800 was certainly, for example, a bitter affair.

[29] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley, trans. Francis Bowen (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 2:136-40; and Daniel Boorstin, Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Vintage Books, 1973).

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 9:39 pm  Comments Off on Jefferson: Science, Progress and Permanent Revolution  
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