I recently read Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty by John B. Boles. If you have any interest at all in the Founding Fathers or the American Revolution, I highly recommend it. The factual content of Jefferson’s life is told in a thorough but readable way, but the real gems come from the discussions of Jefferson’s points of view on different things. I won’t get into all of it or how someone who was such a proponent of emancipation could himself have owned hundreds of slaves in his lifetime, but there is one point I want to discuss because I think it’s an important one: Jefferson’s take on what today we would call the American Dream.
Jefferson and his fellow Founding Father John Adams were once great friends. Prior to George Washington becoming the first president of the United States, Adams and Jefferson generally saw eye to eye on most things relating to how the new American government should function. Things took a southward turn largely based on how each man viewed the role of the president versus the role of the common man.
Adams believed that a powerful president was a good thing, and that generally speaking men of higher birth were more suited to run the country. Jefferson, on the other hand, believed in an robust and active government (provided it conformed to the confines of the Constitution) and that the common man should be more involved in the country’s leadership. This led to disagreements during Washington’s terms as president, which were then exacerbated during Adams’s term because of Adams’s strong desire to silence and imprison dissidents. Then after Adams had served only one term, Jefferson was elected in an unusual manner under Article II of the Constitution, which basically meant the House and Senate got Jefferson elected. This, of course, infuriated Adams and Jefferson’s subsequent actions in office appeared to sever the friendship forever.
However, after Jefferson had left office and spent several years in retirement, the two old friends began corresponding cordially and the proverbial hatchet was buried, with each man at peace with the fact that he would not change the views of the other.
The Natural Aristocracy
Both Jefferson and Adams believed in what they called the “natural aristocracy” of man. That is, men who were wise and talented would, naturally, progress further in life and become better leaders. This is a sort of merit based “aristocracy” by which positions of power are occupied by people who earned them through hard work and good deeds. This is, essentially, the American Dream. A good example of a president who lived the American Dream is Abraham Lincoln, who came from a poor pioneering family to become a respected lawyer and politician who probably did more for this country than any politician outside the original Founding Fathers.
The American Dream did not exist for all Americans in the 1820s. Black men and women were enslaved servants, and even those who were free were generally viewed as a lower class of human and had difficulties buying land, using banks, making their voices heard, opening businesses, and finding work that paid well enough to exist. These were, of course, abhorrent points of view and circumstances that persisted way too long in human history. Even after slaves were freed and slavery was made totally illegal in the 1860s, no reasonable person could claim that life for Black citizens was on par with that of a white person. Many of those fights continue to this day, sometimes even made more complicated by the disputable consequences of things such as civil rights legislation, Supreme Court, and the wealth disparity evident in most American metropolitan areas.
The American Dream also did not exist for women of any race for many years. Sure, white women had societal and legal advantages over their nonwhite counterparts, but ultimately white women were second class citizens as well. Women didn’t even get the right to vote until 1920, about 55 years after Black men got the right. (I know that many Black men were disenfranchised through poll taxes and other discriminatory voting laws, but I’m simply talking about theory here.)
But in the 200 years since Adams and Jefferson discussed this natural aristocracy, the playing field has been levelled significantly. The number of Black owned businesses is up, the number of female CEOs is up, and generally speaking spots at the table of power are opening up more and more to folks other than white men. And all of that is good. We live in a diverse country and it only makes sense that we should strive for leaders who are diverse and competent. We still have a ways to go, but we’re heading in the right direction. In fact, when I hear the phrase “American Dream,” I think of Oprah Winfrey. She was born into poor and difficult circumstances and eventually went from a local news anchor in Nashville to one of the most famous people on the planet. That’s incredible.
Jefferson considered the natural aristocracy to be “the most precious gift of nature,” which I can get behind as well, provided we’re extrapolating that to include the nonwhite, non-male population that was absent from Jefferson’s original thoughts. But what about the other aristocracy?
The Artificial Aristocracy
Jefferson warned of a second type of aristocracy, one based more on things given rather than things earned. “There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.” He was speaking of people born into money or political or social standing who assumed positions of power for which they were unqualified or otherwise given without the need to earn.
And even new money fit this bill. A rich person is not inherently fit to be a leader, just as a poor man is not inherently fit to be a follower. Leaders and followers are forged through life experience, not born into a given class. We should all be able to agree that just because someone’s last name is Kennedy or Bush or Clinton does not mean they are a natural leader. Likewise, we should all be able to agree that just because someone has Bezos, Musk, or Gates-level money does not mean they are a natural leader. I want to make it plain I am not commenting on any actual Kennedies, Bushes, Clintons, Bezoses, Musks, or Gateses, I’m just using those well known names as examples.
But the bottom line is that any sort of artificial aristocracy is bad. It’s also rampant in this country. The artificial aristocracy has led to a congress with an approval rating of 31% but a reelection rate of 96%. For whatever reason, voters appear to assume that people with recognizable names or lots of wealth just belong in positions of leadership. Maybe that’s why we’ve had presidents who were relatives: John and John Quincy Adams, James Madison and Zachary Taylor (who were cousins), John Henry and Benjamin Harrison, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and George H.W. and George W. Bush. Sure, that’s only ten relatives, but when you consider that there have only been 45 different presidents (because Grover Cleveland served nonconsecutive terms), that’s a lot; it’s about 22% of all presidents.
And that’s just the presidency. If we were to examine the federal and state houses of congress, federal and state judgeships, governorships, and the myriad of private but elite entities such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, which seem to be highly involved in legacies, a clearer caste system could be seen. Don’t get me wrong: if people who happen to come from one of these artificially aristocratic families get into a position of power because of merit, I have no problem with that and I don’t think anyone else should, either. But people attaining positions of power just because they come from an artificially aristocratic lineage is a very bad thing.
But Jefferson understood the particular danger of having such an artificial aristocracy involved in government. In the same letter to Adams in which he applauded the natural aristocracy, Jefferson said, “[t]he artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendency.” In other words, he wanted some way to ensure that the men and women who lead this nation are leaders because they have earned that right, not because it has been handed to them. He wanted to make sure that the people elected were elected because they possessed wisdom, experience, reasoning, and other leadership qualities that are so necessary to the efficiency of government.
But the Founders were themselves quite wise, and most of them understood that such an artificial aristocracy, while unpleasant, would probably exist in some form, which is why there are many checks and balances in place to prevent one faction of government from becoming too powerful. Even the length of terms for representatives prove that. The fact that a representative is only elected for a two-year term is indicative that the authors of the Constitution foresaw quickly changing tides and knew that the House, as the legislative body most tied to the common man, would probably suffer somewhat violent swings of the political pendulum. Similarly, federal judges, as arbiters of disputes and interpreters of the law, are appointed for life so that they, once appointed, have autonomy to interpret the law as they see it instead of being beholden to one political party or the other.
Speaking of political parties, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are the two biggest stains in this whole mess. The party system has led to the creation of machines in which a person who is put up for election is the person who is most willing to bend to the will of the party rather than the person who is actually best for the job. Do you think Democrats would have willingly nominated Joe Biden if he wasn’t such a party man? I don’t. I think Joe Biden is probably viewed by most Democrats as a placeholder who was capable of beating Donald Trump in an election. But Biden also had the backing of the Party and the powers behind the throne did what they could to make sure he ended up with the nomination.
Same thing goes for Republicans. Donald Trump is a little bit of an exception and an enigma, but let’s go back to some people a little more conventional. Republicans ran John McCain in 2008, probably because McCain was a former Democrat with a history of working across the aisle, which they needed because George W. Bush’s approval rating was incredibly low during his last year plus in office. I don’t think Republican voters really believed in McCain’s message that much, but he was, according to Republican kingmakers, the most likely way the GOP could distance themselves from George W. Bush and still compete in the 2008 election. In 2012, Republicans again ran a moderate Republican in Mitt Romney, who had overseen a single-party healthcare system when he was governor of Massachusetts and who had worked with legislators on the Left at the state and federal level. Does that mean most Republican voters would have chosen Mitt Romney? No. It means the GOP wanted Romney to get the nomination, so he did.
So what we have devolved into is a country where the two biggest political parties use the artificial aristocracy to their advantage to try and keep their positions as the only viable political parties. Make no mistake about it: Republicans need Democrats and Democrats need Republicans. Neither could exist without the other. Republicans would push for a Democrat over any other Leftist party because for one it’s the devil they know, and for another they know that the rise of a serious third party—any legitimate third party—threatens both of the existing big parties. Likewise, Democrats would likely prefer a traditional Republican over any other economically conservative group like Libertarians because the rise of any third party could lead to the extinction of the existing parties.
This is not a partisan post. Frankly, Republicans and Democrats are just two sides of the same corrupt coin. I hate both parties equally. I don’t think there has been a Republican or Democrat since Calvin Coolidge that I would have voted for if given the choice. It is in the best interest of the two major parties that they be the only two parties to exist.
And people will justify it however they will. “I don’t agree with the Republican platform but I vote Republican because I disagree with more of the Democratic platform.” That’s dumb. It is just dumb. First off, it’s not like things would change much either way. You can’t honestly tell me the world is that much different right now than it was this time last year, with the exception being that Joe Biden doesn’t tweet every stupid thought that enters his head like Donald Trump did. But otherwise things are about the same. Plus, why would anyone use their vote to vote against a person or party rather than for a person or party they actually believe in? I’ve used this example before:
You go to a diner that says they are having a contest to choose what pie they will be serving next month based on a ballot completed by their customers. The diner serves apple pie, chocolate pie, and lemon pie. The waitstaff have formed two factions, one pushing apple pie and one pushing chocolate pie. You decide to cast a vote. Let’s say you prefer lemon pie, but you’ll reluctantly eat chocolate pie and you don’t like apple pie at all. Chocolate pie and apple pie are neck and neck, and lemon pie is in a distant third. Would you honestly vote for apple pie even though you prefer lemon pie just in the hopes that chocolate pie wouldn’t win? Is having a pie you don’t even like all that much better than having a pie you actually enjoy if it means the pie you hate is definitely not on the menu? I don’t think so. Why wouldn’t you just vote for lemon pie and have a clear conscience no matter what pie wins? Or what if you decide to throw your support behind apple pie, it wins narrowly, then the first batch of apple pies that come out give everyone food poisoning? Will you feel good about your vote then?
Back on Track
Those who know me personally know I could keep crapping on Republicans and Democrats for several hours without losing steam, but to avoid that and stave off the arthritis that is surely forming in my hands from typing this much, I will cease for the moment.
The point of this whole thing was just not to dump on political parties. Sure, I take every chance I can to do so, but really this was about the two systems of political power that exist in this country. The natural aristocracy is a good thing. It will continue to broaden as more and more formerly and presently oppressed people get the recognition they deserve for their acts of valor and merit. Men and women of unshakeable integrity, broad intelligence, sage wisdom, and bottomless work ethic deserve to be leaders. Not because they are white or Black or men or women or Harvard alumni or Texas A&M Corpus Christi alumni, but because they are people of integrity, intelligence, wisdom, and work ethic.
The day will come, eventually, when leaders are chosen solely on qualifications. I will, in what is probably an expected and somewhat archetypical move right now, leave you with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who so eloquently made the point that myself and others like me have tried to make for many years: We need to quit looking at color, gender, and other physical attributes, and start examining people by their actions, beliefs, and merit. Dr. King never saw his dream come true, but I hope with every fiber of my being that his dream will one day be my reality.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
. . .
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Let’s go out there and do what we can to dismantle the artificial aristocracy that exists in the world today and make the United States a true place of equality, equity, and brotherhood.