In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson gives us a glimpse of the underlying motivations inherent in his political ideology. Specifically, we can see his view of aristocracies:
For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground of distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent it’s ascendancy.
Because I know how people hate to read those big blocks of quoted text, I’ll explain what Jefferson is saying here:
Nature (in all its wisdom) has determined that certain people will have more talents and virtue than others. These people will naturally rise to the top of society. Jefferson wants the state to be ready and waiting for these folk and foster their inclusion into the ruling elite. The naturally-selected aristocracy, says Jefferson must be separated from the old-world aristocracy (consisting of blood ties and family bonds), as “the wheat from the chaff.” All of Jefferson’s zeal for localism and independent communities, arises from his desire to see a natural aristocracy replace the previous system in Christendom.
For the most part, his dream has come to fruition, especially in America.
But is this really the way that best fosters nature? More importantly, is this the most Christian way?
I would argue that Jefferson’s view makes the individual (not the family) the most fundamental unit of society. The individual lives and moves within the confines of the various systems of governments he finds himself in, but he does so as an individual.
This is in stark contrast to the Biblical idea of society and the Biblical notion that the family is to be the foundational unit of society (not the individual.) I’ll not attempt to show this point from Scriptures (at least in this post) and will simply presuppose it for now in order to contrast this view with the view of Jefferson.
On the Biblical view, a family owns property. God has ordained this to be the case. In some cases, a family is able to take hold of a very large amount of property. So much so, in fact, that others (non-members of the family) choose to come and work for the family. The family then becomes something of an aristocracy. Those related to the family by blood find themselves in a different position than those merely laboring on the land. In one sense, they are better off and have more freedoms and privileges. In another, very profound sense, these children find themselves married to the land, maintaining certain responsibilities and duties toward their workers.
This is a rough sketch (at least in my opinion) of the natural way in which an aristocracy arises in a Christian society. In his discussion of “natural aristocracy” Jefferson overlooks the importance of the family unit in nature and he overlooks the importance of private property.
Since Jefferson’s system has prevailed, we no longer have an aristocracy of blood that has a personal sense of ownership and pride towards a particular people and location. Instead, we have an “every-man-for-himself-ism” and those who supposed to represent particular people and places, do so out of desires that are NOT tied to their family interests, but rather to ideological or self interests. They rule in such a way as to get re-elected, or in such a way as to bring themselves the best benefit.
Much more could be said and one day, I hope to master these arguments and issues.
But for now, I will keep my eyes open for any intellectual who throws off Biblical presuppositions in favor of naturalistic assumptions about reality and I’ll hold their political systems suspect.
Give me Jane Austen (and her characteristic favoring of the aristocracy) over Thomas Jefferson any day.