Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Thomas Jefferson to William Ludlow: Monticello, Sept. 6, 1824

I googled Mr. Ludlow several times, but didn’t find anything particularly relevant. If anyone has any information pertinent to these reflections, paste links or references in the comments. The letter below is from here:

Sir -

The idea which you present in your letter of July 30th, of the progress of society from its rudest state to that it has now attained, seems conformable to what may be probably conjectured. Indeed, we have under our eyes tolerable proofs of it. Let a philosophic observer commence a journey from the savages of the Rocky Mountains, eastwardly towards our sea-coast. These he would observe in the earliest stage of association living under no law but that of nature, subscribing and covering themselves with the flesh and skins of wild beasts. He would next find those on our frontiers in the pastoral state, raising domestic animals to supply the defects of hunting. Then succeed our own semi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization, and so in his progress he would meet the gradual shades of improving man until he would reach his, as yet, most improved state in our seaport towns. This, in fact, is equivalent to a survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day. I am eighty-one years of age, born where I now live, in the first range of mountains in the interior of our country. And I have observed this march of civilization advancing from the sea coast, passing over us like a cloud of light, increasing our knowledge and improving our condition, insomuch as that we are at this time more advanced in civilization here than the seaports were when I was a boy. And where this progress will stop no one can say. Barbarism has, in the meantime, been receding before the steady step of amelioration; and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth. You seem to think that this advance has brought on too complicated a state of society, and that we should gain in happiness by treading back our steps a little way. I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. I believe it might be much simplified to the relief of those who maintain it. Your experiment seems to have this in view. A society of seventy families, the number you name, may very possibly be governed as a single family, subsisting on their common industry, and holding all things in common. Some regulators of the family you still must have, and it remains to be seen at what period of your increasing population your simple regulations will cease to be sufficient to preserve order, peace, and justice. The experiment is interesting; I shall not live to see its issue, but I wish it success equal to your hopes, and to yourself and society prosperity and happiness.

My guess – and it is only a guess – is that Jefferson’s later letters have to be read with an eye to their immediate audience. I want to use the above to argue that Jefferson is providing the rudiments of a gentlemanly response to what would be some sort of extremist nowadays, either right-wing (certain homeschoolers) or left-wing (unschoolers, as they like to call themselves). I am going to have to read too much into this letter to make that case, but hey, I’ve got time. Take a look at the end of the first sentence:

…the progress of society from its rudest state to that it has now attained, seems conformable to what may be probably conjectured.

I’ve italicized “may,” “probably” and “conjectured” for an obvious reason: does Jefferson actually believe man progresses in the stages he sets forth? “Tolerable” isn’t a vote of confidence in a “proof,” I don’t think [Jefferson would know a lot about more about the vocabulary of proof than I do, I concede this isn’t the greatest argument of mine]. Still, Jefferson doesn’t say what he puts forth about savages, the pastoral, “our semi-barbarous citizens” and “the most improved state” of man is “self-evident,” not at all. We note that the “most improved state” is closest to Europe! See Jefferson’s Travel Notes for Messrs. Rutledge and Shippen to see why I’m very skeptical about Jefferson’s invocation of an “improved state,” and if you don’t want to look that far, keep looking in the letter. Jefferson places himself in the “interior” of the country, in mountainous terrain; one wonders where the animals that were killed and tamed have disappeared: are they now more prominent within man himself?

Somewhat of the same tension that is in Rousseau’s First Discourse is at work here; man’s more savage self under the law of nature, as bold and admirable as it is, cannot be divorced from “civilization.” Things are a bit ambiguous here too – “cloud of light?” Not light parting clouds? The “cloud” is responsible for “increasing our knowledge and improving our condition,” and it has improved everything, including the mountainous terrain Jefferson says he was born upon. I think the key to this part of the letter is that early Rousseau – and an earlier Jefferson – cite individuals they admire, Francis Bacon and Issac Newton for example, as advancing knowledge. Here, Jefferson has kept the individuals from being named, and given what Ludlow wants to do – start his own tribe [perhaps with its own compound at Waco and a radio show and a heck of a lot of guns] – I think we can understand why Jefferson is giving agency to the “cloud” as opposed to any particular person or group.

Jefferson is truly a gentleman in this letter:

Barbarism has, in the meantime, been receding before the steady step of amelioration; and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth. You seem to think that this advance has brought on too complicated a state of society, and that we should gain in happiness by treading back our steps a little way. I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. I believe it might be much simplified to the relief of those who maintain it. Your experiment seems to have this in view.

Jefferson cites gentleness – “the steady step of amelioration” – as the reason why barbarism has declined. He then cites common ground with Ludlow: people should work and not leech off of others, government should be a bit simpler. But that common ground is a bit misleading; Ludlow’s experiment is conceived entirely in terms of “family,” or “tribe” – I’m sure Jefferson knew Aristotle’s Politics, Book 1, when writing –

…it remains to be seen at what period of your increasing population your simple regulations will cease to be sufficient to preserve order, peace, and justice.

Leo Paul de Alvarez has argued that in Aristotle, the family is necessary for political society (polis), but the polis is in a sense prior to nearly everything: it is the association that aims at the fundamental human good, happiness. In other words: if you try to cut government out of the equation when conceiving of the family, you end up with a family that is nothing but a straight-up tyranny. Don’t ask how many times I’ve seen this personally in my own life: try dating girls that have those sorts of parents.

Anyway, I don’t think I need to express my cynicism about “success equal to your hopes:” it’s a way of saying “you deserve whatever you get,” but I don’t think Jefferson means badly in saying this – you can wish someone “prosperity and happiness” even while being a bit miffed at what they are ultimately aiming for. One thing Jefferson, as a child of the Enlightenment, is pretty sure about is that people need to explicitly accept Enlightenment and progress, otherwise they could be aiming for “monkish ignorance” (his phrase, not mine). And if I were Jefferson, and I was hearing about this retreat from civic affairs when the country is so young, I probably would have thrown fire-irons at a servant or something. What exactly did we go through a war for, and sign that Declaration thingy? So that way everyone could go “government sucks” at any old time and live out in the middle of nowhere?

Again, if I’m right, Jefferson’s being a gentleman. Early on when I was blogging, someone who was pretty knowledgeable and very kind called me a philosopher. If I want to take that compliment seriously – it was meant as high praise – I have to say this: I’m no gentleman; I don’t have to be anywhere as nice to the radicals I’m dealing with now. It’s their job to show all of us they appreciate what we’ve got, and aren’t just a bunch of ungrateful, whiny babies.

2 Comments

  1. Dmitry Mikheyev, Moscow

    June 7, 2012 at 2:52 am

    Jefferson is amazing, he can drive crazy any attentive reader of his political writings. How could anybody angrily write “we have… too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.”[To William Ludlow, Sept. 1824] without reflecting on his own condition, without looking out of his study window and observing industrious people with dark skin?

  2. Very nice.

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