Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom 8

Such was Jefferson’s immediate reaction to the Constitution. But soon, characteristically, as he studied the ways the Constitution would actually work, he transcended this initial response and began to recognize the document’s virtues. Within a few weeks he saw enough good in the Constitution to declare himself “nearly a neu¬tral” on ratification. Soon thereafter he said he hoped that the requi¬site nine states would ratify, thus putting the Constitution into effect, but that the other four should hold out until amendments were made. Finally, after conferring with Lafayette and Paine, and con¬vinced that the states’ recommended amendments would quickly be enacted, he declared that outright ratification was “absolutely neces¬sary” and that the American Constitution was “unquestionably the wisest ever yet presented to men.” “We can surely boast,” he con¬cluded, “of having set the world a beautiful example of a govern¬ment reformed by reason alone, without bloodshed.”
So, gradually Jefferson came to accept the Constitution’s basic propositions: that power could be created and constrained at the same time; that internal balances between essential rights and neces¬sary powers could be so constructed as to be self-sustaining; that the power of a centralized, national, self-financing state could be com-patible with the safety and freedom of ordinary people. The mechanics of this plan had not been the product of a grand theory. No one had designed the Constitution. It had been arrived at by a complex process of adjustments, balances, compromises, and modi¬fications. And therefore it is perhaps more surprising that Jefferson came so fully to accept the Constitution, and later himself to use so skillfully the executive powers that it created, than that he opposed it when it first appeared.
For the fear of power—the very heart of the original Revolution¬ary ideology—was an animating spirit behind all of his thinking, and ultimately the source of the deepest ambiguities. Though as presi¬dent he never hesitated to use the full authority of his office, at times to use powers his opponents claimed he had no constitutional right to use, he never ceased believing that the only truly free governments were small ward-level units in which power scarcely existed and in which ordinary citizens could easily participate in government.
He struggled to eliminate aristocracies of birth and inherited wealth because, he believed, they inevitably created arbitrary power—irrational and unjustifiable power that, as he saw so vividly in Europe, could crush every impulse of ordinary people’s desire for self-fulfillment. The evils of hereditary power profoundly moved him, and propelled his eloquence to extraordinary heights. In Amer¬ica, he wrote from France, there had never been legal distinctions among freemen “by birth or badge.” Of such distinctions, “they had no more idea than they had of the mode of existence in the moon or planets.” But in Europe the full horror of aristocracies of birth could be seen on every side. It was a world, Jefferson wrote,
where the dignity of man is lost in arbitrary distinctions, where the human species is classed into several stages of degradation, where the many are crouched under the weight of the few, and where the order established can present to the contemplation of a thinking being no other picture than that of God almighty and his angels trampling under foot the hosts of the damned.
But Jefferson was an aristocrat himself. He enjoyed an inheritance of lands and slaves, and he shared the planter class’s fear of mobs and of the rule of mass democracy. Salvation, for him, lay in the rule of natural aristocracies, elites of talent and wisdom, devoted to the public good. But he recognized that in America as in Europe the leisure and education that nurtured talent were traditionally prod¬ucts of inherited wealth. It followed therefore, by a logic he found compelling all his life, that a massive, systematic structure of public education that would identify and nourish native talent would be necessary if America were to retain its freedom.
His Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (1779) he always considered one of his most important contributions to the comprehensive revision of Virginia’s laws, and he never ceased hop¬ing that its provisions would be enacted and reproduced on a national scale. But they were not. Even in Virginia he was defeated— by parsimonious legislators; by the parochial interests of religious denominations; and by the popularity of what he called “petty acade¬mies” that seemed to be springing up on all sides and that inculcated in students, he said, “just taste enough of learning to be alienated from industrious pursuits, and not enough to do service in the ranks of science.” Public education, “to bring into action that mass of tal¬ents which lie buried in poverty in every country, for want of the means of development,” was an essential means of eliminating arbi¬trary power. The provision in Spain’s short-lived, liberal constitution of 1812 that literacy would be a prerequisite for citizenship excited his greatest admiration. “Enlighten the people generally,” he said, “and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” But he did not live to see that dawn, nor could he conceive that a strange, unsystematic melange of schools— public and private, parochial and secular—would one day create the universal education he so passionately desired.

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