If Only the Tea Party Crowd Knew Where Their Ideas Came from
Photo Credit: By WisPolitics.com (Flickr: P1050331 (Medium)) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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For decades, Democrats across the country have been holding Jefferson Day dinners, filling their coffers by honoring their party's founder. Suddenly, along comes the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, snatches up poor old TJ, and says, "Sorry, he's actually ours. After all, didn't he say, 'That government is best which governs least'?"
Well, no, in fact he didn't. But perhaps he should have. He often expressed skepticism, and sometimes outright criticism, of the growing powers of the federal government. So which side in today's political divide is most entitled to carry the name of Jefferson on its banner? Exploring those questions led me to a surprising discovery: If we put the Tea Party's claim to TJ's mantle in the proper historical perspective, we come out not on the far right but on the far left.
It all began when I was re-reading Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution (trying to escape from obsessively tracking the DC rollercoaster.) As Wood observes, the Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians divided over basically the same issue that plagues us now: How much of a role should government play in people's lives? (Though the clash back then was so fierce, and split American society so sharply, that it makes today's politics look rather mild by comparison.)
But Wood takes us deeper into the substance of the issue. Jeffersonians were willing to limit government only because they assumed that there was "a principle of benevolence ... a moral instinct, a sense of sympathy, in each human being." They were founding an American nation upon the European Enlightenment's belief that "there was 'a natural principle of attraction in man towards man' [as Hume put it], and that these natural affinities were by themselves capable of holding the society together."
This was exactly the point that frightened Alexander Hamilton most. He summed up his opponents' view quite accurately: "As human nature shall refine and ameliorate by the operation of a more enlightened plan," based on common moral sense and the spread of affection and benevolence, government eventually "will become useless, and Society will subsist and flourish free from its shackles." Then Hamilton, the greatest conservative of his day, dismissed this vision of shrinking government as "a wild and fatal scheme."
The Republicans who now control the House obviously have a very different view of what it means to be a true conservative. But that doesn't mean they have become Jeffersonians. Not by any means. In many ways they would be closer to Hamilton, who scorned Jefferson's trust in human nature.
The Tea Party et al. don't defend their call for less government by claiming that we are all born with an innate sense of benevolence and sympathy toward all other people. On the contrary, they claim "the most sacred right to be left alone" largely because they don't trust people outside their own familiar circle, so they don't want those strangers meddling in their affairs.
Yet the current call for less government is a useful reminder of the worldview on which Jefferson and many of the Founding Fathers expected to build the United States. They assumed it was "natural to infer, that a disposition to do good, must, in some degree, be common to all men."
And this, Wood goes on to write, "was the real source of democratic equality." Every human being can be equally trusted to make wise decisions for the good of all (the reasoning went) because everyone, simply by virtue of being human, has a natural concern for the good of al—as long as that inborn sense of sympathy and benevolence is not corrupted by a misguided society. Let nature take its course and everyone will be taking care of everyone else so well that there won't be very much for government to do.