Books to read: Jefferson and American virtues (1)

Anyone who doubts the influence an individual can have on the moral direction of a community should consider the thoughts and words of Thomas Jefferson.  They read like a template of the American spirit.

Jefferson considered himself a hard-headed materialist and Epicurean, yet he espoused principles of morality and government that required the most idealistic assumptions about human nature.  He perfected the pose of disinterested gentleman patriot, yet behind this mask he engaged in a take-no-prisoners approach to political conflict.  He feared and loathed the power of the Federal Government, yet as President he applied this power without scruples to purchase the Louisiana Territory.  He was wrong about slavery, which he thought could be ignored for a generation, and he was wrong about the future of the American economy, which he expected to see in agriculture; but he was possibly the greatest winner in our history, and not, in my opinion, merely because he laid low all political opponents.

Jefferson was a legislator in the old, Greek sense of the word:  his moral vision became our moral foundation.  Or to flip around the terms of the equation:  to the degree that we Americans share a single moral community, it is grounded on Jeffersonian idealism.

For this reason, we would be revealed to ourselves if we could reconstruct Jefferson’s moral ideals in the context of his own time and experience of life.

Lo, I’ve finished a book that does just that:  Jean M. Yarbrough’s American Virtues:  Thomas Jefferson and the Character of a Free People, published in 1998.  It should be mandatory reading for every American – certainly, for anyone interested in the play between morality and freedom in this country, which in a Jeffersonian world should equate to every adult citizen.

Yarbrough is a professor at Bowdoin, but her prose is free of turgid academese and, on occasion, approaches eloquence.  American Virtues flies at an altitude perfectly suited to its subject:  nothing is simplified, but the intelligent reader willing to make the effort will come away with a richer understanding of Jefferson’s moral universe, and therefore of his own.

The author seems incapable of striking poses.  Jefferson has been used and abused by such disparate causes as slave-owning secessionism and FDR’s New Deal, but Yarbrough approaches her subject with a sincerity that seems, even to my cynical eye, devoid of agendas.  She’s not uncritical.  She calls out Jefferson’s evasiveness on slavery.  But she brings to the story a strange mix of naivete, scholarship, and historical imagination that can make even the notion of “agricultural virtue” appear plausible.

Such a book should not be reviewed but reflected on.  I intend to try, on the installment plan, and I feel obliged to start with the most famous and elusive of Jefferson’s phrases:  the pursuit of happiness.

John Locke proposed a triad of rights:  life, liberty, property.  By changing the last of these to the “pursuit of happiness” Jefferson, in Yarbrough’s words, “introduces an element of radical subjectivity” into the founding principles of our nation.  What did he intend by the change?  The pursuit of happiness can be construed to mean the pursuit of self-interest, or of sensual gratification and consumerism.  In fact, it has been so construed.  We might also leap back two centuries and justify the construction of “personal moralities” by the pursuit of happiness:  could Jefferson, an inventor of odd devices, have invented postmodernism?

Not quite.  As a general proposition, Jefferson is quite clear how happiness is attained:  “The order of nature is that individual happiness shall be inseparable from the practice of virtue.”

We can approximate happiness only by living decent lives.  Relentless selfishness or sensuality will destroy the tranquility of a person’s mind – and nothing was more important to Jefferson, one feels, than mastery over the swirl of destructive passions.  When smitten with Maria Cosway, he wrote her a famous “dialogue between the head and the heart”; whatever the philosophical conclusions reached, Cosway understood that she was being ditched because she overstimulated the philosopher’s passion.

But what did the “practice of virtue” consist of?  Here Jefferson was at his vaguest.  If Yarbrough is right, he espoused the “social virtues,” the belief that we are happiest when pursuing the happiness of others.  He grounded the belief in human nature, which a Benevolent Creator so formed as to confound duty with pleasure.

I must admit that I find this the most perplexing and irritating feature of Jefferson’s moral world:  he simply refused to acknowledge the possibility of moral conflict, of two rights assaulting one another, of self-mastery leading to loneliness and pain, of virtue being a heroic achievement.  To maintain his much-prized serenity, he invariably equated truth with goodness, duty with happiness, and self-interest with service to others.

All in all, Jefferson was the type of Enlightenment figure that haunts postmodernist nightmares.  He emphatically denied any attempt at innovation in morality.  Though rooted in human nature, morality in every important detail flowed from the right habits and traditions, from community and convention:  from history.  Innovation meant corruption, and corruption meant the surrender of freedom.

Jefferson’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” should be construed as an appeal to the community, final arbiter of right and wrong.  The circumstances of American independence, Jefferson argued, fell in line with the long train of English tradition, and from the fixed point of that tradition’s moral perspective, the consequences – our country – must be judged as virtuous.  The American Revolution’s alignment with moral tradition kept it distinct from the French Revolution – a distinction with a difference, which Jefferson, in one of his most egregious misjudgments, took a lifetime to acknowledge.

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