Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Future of an Illusion

The defining moment when changes in demography, and attitude made the United States "post Jeffersonian" is difficult to pinpoint. My placement of this moment would of a certainty be somewhere between 1890 and 1920, which was the time period during which the USA went from it's being a "national" nation, to it's being an "international" nation. With it's entrance into WW1, there was no doubt as to what it's future would now be. And while the US had become "post Jeffersonian" in its manifest; it had ironically remained, at least in the hearts, and minds of its people, the complete modern embodiment of the fully sanguine presence of it's most famous Founding Father. If Thomas Jefferson were to announce his candidacy for the POTUS 2012, there is not a doubt on my part that he would easily win the popular support of both, or either of the two major parties, and go on to win a historical landslide victory in the November election. I am not sure however, that the modern ship of state would be ready to accept the political implications of a happening of this magnitude were it to occur. The sea of change that separates his world from ours is such that not only have his core convictions been swamped by the tides of time, but also that the shape of the shoreline upon which the tides have washed has been completely reshaped, and reformed.

The proof positive that I offer for this posit is to be found in the fact that every single grassroots movement for the reform of government has been a dismantling operation that has been designed to "take out the trash" of built up political debris that has been accumulating since the founding of the republic. From the 1860's to the 1960's, from the Civil War, to the Goldwater revolution, to the Reagan revolution, to the "Contract with America in the 1990's, to the Tea Party revolt currently underway, the desire of "WE THE PEOPLE" has been the shifting of political power from the federal, to the state governments.It would seem that since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the present American government has replaced the old Soviet Union as our own domestic counterpart of the "Evil Empire".

And this is all pure Jefferson. Like Jefferson in 1800, modern grassroots movements are born with a morbid fear of any centralized authority;while,at the same time, blindly overlooking the legitimate reasons why centralization became necessary in the first place. For Jefferson,this was a sordid truth from the beginning(1787). For modern movements the date is more indefinite, and likely to be determined from one's own perspective. However, the consistency of logic throughout is that the federal "monster" that has developed in post-Jefferson America is both dangerous, and unnecessary. It is also becoming more aware in the hearts, and minds of many Americans that this "monster" is also outside of the walls of the prison that the Founders for good reasons, originally placed it in.

The problem, as I see it, is that up to the present, this posture has been one of argument rather than action. That while the present view of most Americans is that the federal encroachments on personal freedoms has gone too far, very few are seriously contemplating the elimination of Social Security, or the Federal Reserve, both of which are "federal encroachments", and are "monsters" outside the walls of the Constitutional prison in its original intent. And, that in truth,it is for this very reason, that the ongoing assault on the powers of the federal government have had zero effect on the growth of federal spending, or the size of the beltway bureaucracy. Nevertheless, before we throw away the baby with the bath water, I believe that it can be said that it is in fact the residual power of Jefferson thought, and philosophy that has kept government on the defensive, to the degree that it is, for all of these years, and further, that this potent thread of remnant Jeffersonianism is the driving force behind the Conservative/Libertarian wing of the Republican Party today. For the record, it would seem that a majority of Americans still concur with Jefferson in the belief that, as Carl Becker puts it, "the only thing to do with political power is to abate it".

With that in mind, I believe that Jefferson's most enduring, yet least understood legacy is the principle of religious freedom. This has been most recently defined via negative, and I believe thus counter to the Founder's intent, by the SCOTUS as the complete separation of church, and state. This is a point that would have greatly distressed Jefferson in light of his extreme distrust of this governmental branch. The principle in question has gone from the position that the government has "no business interfering with a person's religious beliefs, and practice" in the late eighteenth century, to the position where the government is the determinant of the parameters of a person's religious beliefs, and practice in the early twenty-first century. This reversal has been thinly veiled, and disguised as "protecting the rights", and thus the "freedoms" of a person to worship as they please, but has,in fact, produced the exact opposite result via "democracy"(read:mob rule). Note the subtle shift in authority here from the "God of the Bible"(Creator), to the "Lord of this World"(government). This strand of thought is a "bone of contention" that I will chew on farther down the road. It is, however, purely Jeffersonian in its form, and intent.

On the other hand, it flies in the face of all we know about Jefferson to equate him with the advocates of racial equality, or any modern multi-racial ideals. All existing evidence portray him as a staunch believer in white Anglo supremacy in all of its forms, as were most members of the revolutionary generation. In addition, it can be said that he went far in identifying the differences between the races as products of nature, and thus ordained by God, rather than products of environment which is the modern understanding of this phenomenon. It was Lincoln, rather than Jefferson that expanded the "natural rights" section of the Declaration of Independence to include men of color.This may explain why MLK chose to deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial rather than the Jefferson Memorial. And while it can be rightly said that he(Jefferson) was an enemy of slavery, it cannot be rightly expressed that he was equally a friend of integration, Sally Hemings not withstanding.

For all of these reasons, any invocations either past or present of Jefferson as "the apostle of freedom" are to some degree, misleading, and thus are inaccurate. Nonetheless, the truly powerful Jeffersonian legacy that has changed very little, and even yet remains strong with us is the parameters that contain the framework for all considerations of personal freedom. It should be noted that Jefferson was alone among the revolutionary generation in his seminal belief that government begins with an individual sovereignty that is a natural right from the Creator,and that this right was to be protected by the mechanisms of government. John Adams, James Madison, and even more so, Alexander Hamilton began with the assumption that in order for government to be effective, it must needs address individual freedoms within in a larger public context. Jefferson, on the other hand, believed that by the true expression of the highest form of individual liberty removed finally from all forms of feudal repression, a type of natural harmony of like interests would be produced that then would create invisible forms of discipline throughout the strata of society. The bulk of the twilight correspondences between Adams and he dwelt on Adam's failed attempts to apprise Jefferson of the truth of this illusory thinking. However, the temptation of this philosophy in the early years of the republic's boisterous optimism was simply too great for the idealogue that was Jefferson. It would not be seen until long after his death in 1826, that with the coming of the end of the Frontier Era, and the dawning of the inequalities of the Gilded Age, that his vision would finally be exposed for the "illusion" that it truly was. By then the Jeffersonian philosophy of individual freedom as a divine right was firmly established in the hearts, and minds of the people as a bedrock principle of American government, and thus the starting point of all future political dialogue. Thus, other than in times of great national distress, or crisis; individual sovereignty remains the heart conviction, and home base for all political thinking. It continues to be the framework for all political conversations in ways that have had us questioning all communal proposals for public rights in their various forms, and putting their promoters on the defensive perpetually. In short, Jeffersonian thinking in respect to the ideal of "self government", although a contradiction in its present application, remains the abiding belief of most Americans. That is why the telling of Americans that to improve their democracy they must "lose themselves in the comforts of a collective life" falls on deaf ears. In truth, there has never been any real notions of an "American democracy" without its equally accompanying thread of "American individualism", and nothing suggests that there ever will be save through subtle misrepresentation, and clever manipulation.

Like it or not, realistic or not, American political ideology will be forever framed in Jeffersonian language as an argument based on the absolute sovereign rights of the individual over the collective. As the years have passed, the simplicity of the Jeffersonian vision, "illusion" if you will, has only increased in its political, and moralistic implications, even as the size of the American electorate has grown larger, and more unwieldy. As a candidate for office, if we could ever persuade him to run, he would remain, as in the past, a formidable contender.

The Revolution has been televised.

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