Natural vs. Artificial Aristocracy and Why Jefferson was Wrong

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.

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12 Responses to Natural vs. Artificial Aristocracy and Why Jefferson was Wrong

  1. Fr. John says:

    Interesting observation, but may I add my own?

    I think Jefferson was fundamentally correct, in that, by his day (1770-1820’s) much of the BRITISH aristocracy had become deists, pleasure-seekers (think of Bath Spa, Barry Lyndon, Barchester Towers) and the whole ‘fop’ and ‘painted ladies’ scene in much of English society.

    In short, the inability of the Aristocracy to ‘breed better’ (morally, intellectually, and vigor-wise) led to Queen Vitoria giving hemophilia to most of the ruling houses of Europe!

    Looked at by the times in which Jefferson lived, our ‘rough ways’ and ‘homespun’ vigor, was the key (Jefferson thought) to establishing a NEW ‘Aristoi,’ much like the Greeks in Athen’s Golden Age! I believe Thomas J. wanted rural ‘farmer-philosophers’ much as he was… and, after having visited Monticello, I understand HOW and WHY such a thing was possible, in his view.

    I think you may be a bit too hard on our former Third President. And, coming as I do, as an hierarchical cleric, I really like Monarchy! But it DOES have it’s problems….

  2. Frank says:

    Jefferson’s right: the most virtuous, wise, and capable are wanted.

    The current system is not at all what Jefferson would have wanted. The current system is founded largely on wealth and ability – not virtue, wisdom, and ability.

    Plato. Republic. Book 3:

    And when they were quite finished the earth as being their mother delivered them, and now as if their land were their mother and their nurse they ought to take thought for her and defend her against any attack and regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self-same earth.

    While all of you in the city are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet God in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious—but in the helpers silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. And as you are all akin, though for the most part you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire and that the rest would in like manner be born of one another. So that the first and chief injunction that the god lays upon the rulers is that of nothing else are they to be such careful guardians and so intently observant as of the intermixture of these metals in the souls of their offspring, and if sons are born to them with an infusion of brass or iron they shall by no means give way to pity in their treatment of them, but shall assign to each the status due to his nature and thrust them out among the artisans or the farmers. And again, if from these there is born a son with unexpected gold or silver in his composition they shall honor such and bid them go up higher, some to the office of guardian, some to the assistanceship, alleging that there is an oracle that the state shall then be overthrown when the man of iron or brass is its guardian.

  3. Frank says:

    This is akin to the Chinese system. It also goes well with Christianity (there are few who aren’t depraved), and it’s akin to training monks. The threat of Jefferson’s system would be nepotism (those with power using it to help kin).

    According to elite theory, you either give the best power or the best take it. So, it fits within that.

    This is good intent by Jefferson. I very much have the same intent as Jefferson.

  4. Frank says:

    I’m not a monarchist like Fr. John. I generally favour aristocracy over a distributist nation-state, albeit with a balance of power.

    If there isn’t a nation-state, then you risk divide-and-conquer by a bad ruler. At the least he must always balance the nations within, which is very much not freedom.

    Aristotle and Plato both encourage nation-states, Plato especially (you can see that in part from the above quote). Such is true freedom within an organic whole. Certainly there should be further divisions within – nation-state doesn’t have to mean Enlightenment nation-state.

  5. thewhitechrist says:

    But both Aristotle and Plato were pagans, albeit Greek/Western pagans! And when I say I find much in monarchy favorable, it is only because God Father is the ‘Pater Arche’ from whence all ‘patriarchy’ is derived (per St. Paul). The Orthodox construct of the Autocrat being the ‘Little Father’ over his racially unified people is what I was referring to, not despotic rule by a man who cares little for his racial compatriots.

    In that, I believe there is much within Washington, Jefferson, and Adams that fulfills that function. And an aristocracy of righteousness, beats an aristocracy of mere flippancy, any day….

  6. Frank says:

    When the Israelites asked for a King, they were asking to be like the pagans around them, right?

    Aristotle argued that a government is just that serves the whole. It’s the same as what you say reg. the Little Father.

    I favour aristocracy because a group of men is more inclined to favour tradition and preserve a people. Whereas one man is needed to found or reform an institution (such as the state). Ah, I’m just restating Machiavelli in his Discources (early part of the book). Machiavelli I suppose you’d say was a Christian, though I’m doubtful he was a true Christian. Regardless, such doesn’t make him wrong. He gives reasons for these stances; for example a group of men isn’t likely to agree when founding an institution, so he actually defends Romulus for killing his own brother in the founding of Rome. End justifies means to the extreme!

  7. Frank says:

    The pagans did experience life though. And there can be no explanation but they were guided partly by the Holy Spirit. For they were not totally depraved, nor were the Nordic pagans even though our tales say otherwise. All wasn’t destroyed, so we can see somewhat what they were. The tale of Baldr is not evil. They were yearning in the darkness.

    Similarly, in reply to another post, while it might be right to burn a particular heretic or pagan who is using lies and force to work his evil, it isn’t right to burn them all. We should simply send out missionaries I think and allow conversions to take place on their own.

    Anyway, we’re at a point today where we’re probably in need of a king to set us straight. But he should establish an aristocracy. Though I don’t like Franco for his attempts at ethnic cleansing, Franco is a good example in how he didn’t continue his monarchy.

    I’d be fine with monarchy were it a good monarchy. It’s somewhat of a gamble though.

    As Machiavelli also points out though: there’s need for a balance of power to prevent fallen man from abusing power. If the opportunity exists, most will abuse it.

    Also though, people often don’t know quite what they’re doing, even if they mean well. If a system develops and is fairly good, it should be preserved and only slowly changed. It’s too much of a gamble to continually have new kings, risking revolutions and turmoil.

  8. Frank says:

    I’m not writing as an authority. Such are merely my current views.

    My desire is to encourage thought. I’ve read enough to know I’m not well read :P

  9. thewhitechrist says:

    “Machiavelli I suppose you’d say was a Christian, though I’m doubtful he was a true Christian.”

    NO, if he is Italian of that century, he was a Romanist. Which is not a Christian.

  10. With usual arrogant bluster, “Father” T. W. C. is pointing out who is and isn’t Christian. So audacious it isn’t worth replying.

    What I’m interested is the topic from O. P. “Shotgun”. These so-called Founding Fathers have written a lot about their ideas of nascent government. It seems that a lot of it was colored (discoloured, in my opinion) with anti-monarchist and reactive sentiment. There are cultural undercurrents which placed these men with their beliefs in positions of authority during the American Revolution and these, I believe are the most important factors to get the most thorough understanding… but back to the topic at hand which is what is the Christian understanding of aristocracy?

    It would be necessary to break out of Mr. Jefferson to refute it as a man living in 21st century being that my people of today have been sold a story that tells us we live in a meritocracy. From a Christian standpoint, you could even throw Mr. Jefferson a bone by bringing up the episode where the rich man questions Christ Jesus about the most assured way to get to heaven. Remember that the rich man, after breezily answering Christ that he “had kept these commandments since [he] was young” and then is told that he must give away his possesions to follow the Lord. That is a clear demonstration of how character trumps station, a station of wealth.

    But, it seems to me that the real answer lies in different parts of Christianity. In the New Testament, the most highly developed characters are those of the apostles. And, if Christ himself is to be the King of Kings, well, then his apostles surely rank as some type of nobility, right? Except for one, of course – the betrayer Judas Iscariot. The example of betrayal teaches that while appointed often serve their Lord with integrity and other good characteristics, it isn’t impossible for one to turn traitor. The end of that particular traitor’s life ends in madness and suicide, right before he drops into an afterlife full of hellfire. Later in scripture, we learn that St. Barnabas, Judas’ replacement, works well in the ministry of the Church. What can be learned, in summary, is that oftentimes individuals are put into postions of power that are wrong for them, but to be good disciples we must weather through them in the service of the Lord of Lords.

    So, while Pres. Jefferson may have written about proto-“meritocracy”, he can be forgiven since society was in a state of tumult, with mercantile influences strongly in play. It’s true that the phrasing “virtue and talents” has seductive pull, but we can rest assured that those associations aren’t inherently Christian in nature. There are many, many examples of aristocracy in the Hebrew Bible, most notably King David who rose by his own deeds, but was then fitted seamlessly as the messianic progentor.

    Of course, the best example of “artificial aristocracy” is the Father-and-Son relationship in the Trinity itself…

  11. SGT Caz says:

    I know this is an old post, but I think it should be mentioned that “individualism” in his time WAS familial in modern terms. The male householder was the individual in question, and while Jefferson and Adams moved to prevent aristocracies based on primogeniture from developing, their view of the family was as a autonomous political and economic unit which included wife, children, slaves, and assorted relatives with nowhere else to go. Structurally speaking, time has created a problem where “individualism” means very different things to different people. Historiography lesson #1: the past is a foreign country.

    • I agree with you fully here – the “natural aristocracy” Jefferson spoke of needs to be applied on a clannish scale, rather than on an individual scale. But given that emphasis, we’d have medieval feudalism, with all its supposed evils of primogeniture.

      I wonder why Jefferson found it so uncomfortable when it worked well enough for hundreds of years? Blaming it all on guns sounds a little naive to me.


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