essays

Sep 1, 1982

Jeffersonian Optimism vs. Country Pessimism

“Jefferson…wanted government to offer protection to the personal realm, so that men might freely exercise their beneficent faculties.”

Joyce Appleby
University of California (Los Angeles)

“What Is Still American in the Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?” William and Mary Quarterly 39 (2) (April 1982): 287–309.

A great deal of scholarly effort has recently gone into construing the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and his followers as an American version of the English Country Party. This new interpretation rests on the foundation laid in Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. For Bailyn, however, the Revolution was an event which transformed traditional British concepts in the American colonies and gave them a distinctly American cast. The scholarship of the last ten years has, on the other hand, tended to delay this Americanization of politics more than thirty years. Thus, the celebrated clashes between Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson have been reinterpreted as a transatlantic replay of the battle between the great Court politician Robert Walpole and his Country opponent, Henry St. John Bolingbroke. Some historians have even pushed the continuation of classical politics in America back to 1815. Reacting against this trend, Prof. Appleby’s article stresses the numerous sharp divergences between Jeffersonian thought and the agrarian conservatism implicit in classical republican (“Country”) principles.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between Jefferson and the Country view lay in their divergent concepts of human nature. Country philosophy embraced the model of the eternal Adam with his penchant toward evil. Against this creature of dark passion, the forces of freedom and order had constantly to be on guard. The difficulty of guarding against him, of course, was that he existed in all of us. Jefferson, on the other hand, had adopted a conception of human nature that emphasized its benign potential.

Whereas traditional thinkers traced social evils back to wayward human propensities, Jefferson reversed the terms of this equation and ascribed man’s lowly state to repressive institutions. The environment might create either vice or virtue. The innate qualities of man however held out great promise for the cause of virtue. The purpose of government was thus not to increase its power to check the power of the populace, but rather to ensure conditions for liberating man’s self-actualizing capacities. Because of this positive view of human nature, Jefferson does not evidence the all-pervasive fear of the “mob” demonstrated by Country thinkers. As a result, he could write to Abigail Adams that his followers feared the ignorance of the people less than the selfishness of their rulers.

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Jefferson reversed the priorities implicit in the classical tradition on another basic political question. For him, the private had primacy over the public. Country philosophy had regarded the public arena as the locus where men rose above self-interest to serve the common good. Jefferson, on the contrary, wanted government to offer protection to the personal realm, so that men might freely exercise their beneficent faculties.

In addition, Jefferson did not share the classical fear of “luxury” and its corrosive effect on republican virtue. On the contrary, he extolled his nation’s enormous potential for plenty. In his writings, he described the enlightenment which would result from a populace comprised of comfortable, well-fed landowners, contrasting them with impoverished, ignorant masses of many European countries.

Finally, Jefferson dismissed Country-minded distrust of the large republic. Far from considering expansion as a danger to freedom, he encouraged it—provided that it was founded “not on conquest, but in principles of compact and equality.” Jefferson’s optimism led him to believe that an enduring republic was “built much on the enlargement of the resources of life, going hand in hand with the enlargement of territory, and the belief that men are disposed to live honestly, if the means of doing so are open to them.” This ebullient expression of hope helps us to judge how far Jefferson the American had moved from the crabbed pessimism and distrust of the British Country tradition.