United or divided – we celebrate together

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

At first glance, you might not think that a book about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would have much to do with business or the attitudes and values of the USA 250 or so years later.

Adams and Jefferson worked together on the founding documents of the USA and the legal/procedural aspects of separation from Great Britain, but they had major philosophical differences which divided them – and to a large degree, many of these same beliefs still divide us.

Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood

Friends Divided
by Gordon S. Wood

Thomas Jefferson hated and feared the rise of big banks and real estate speculators. His vision of the United States was one of independent small farmers who wanted – and had – near zero interference or direction from any larger government than his (and it would have been a male) state.

Jefferson’s view of the national government was that its domain was at and beyond the borders of the country and any dealings with foreigners. Everything else was a state issue.  (1*)

Jefferson hated debt and was convinced that it was an unfair burden on future generations. He insisted that each generation pay off its acquired debts and hand a clear balance sheet to the next generation. Anything else was ”swindling futurity on a large scale.”

An emphasis on investment and debt invited dangerous speculation, as opposed to productive labor that would be the basis of a durable and dependable economy instead of an economy driven by fear, fads or fashion.

Jefferson wanted the nascent American economy to provide “essentials” like food, cotton and timber to Europe in trade for “luxuries” like tea, linens and other products. Now, of course, we would see that same distinction in different ways – raw materials and finished goods. We usually define “finished good” as the preferable (and more profitable) aspect. Raw materials have been historically defined as the base products of a secondary, if not tertiary economy – certainly not a global economic powerhouse.

Jefferson was convinced that a mutually productive global exchange of goods and services would be the only basis for an enduring peace.

Robotics, technology, big box retailers and historically cheap labor may return the global economy to one that privileges handmade and local over industrialized mass production of affordable goods. Jefferson may have been right after all. The revival of artisan breads, craft breweries and locally based farmers markets is certainly a trend Jefferson would have welcomed.

Jefferson distrusted banks because, in his mind, they created – or drew out – humanity’s worst instincts and tendencies and would create a privileged group of non-producers, people who got rich by handling paper money rather than through practical and productive work. Banks, to Jefferson, were the perfect medium for corruption and conspiracies as businessmen would find it profitable – and expedient – to cultivate questionable partnerships with the government.

Jefferson and Adams were united in their dislike (and distrust) of Alexander Hamilton whose vision was of a unified national banking system.

Jefferson, the sunny optimist, unlike the more realistic, if not pessimistic, Adams, firmly believed that freedom and progress were humanity’s unstoppable destiny. Toward the end of life, however, as Jefferson’s enlightened democratic utopia seemed dimmer by the day, Adams’ more dour and practical view seemed to take a firmer shape along with executive power and federal regulation.

While both men initially opposed monarchy, Jefferson’s near-infatuation with the “power of the people” faded as he got older (and perhaps more cynical) and Adam’s distrust of monarchy dimmed as he began to see the essential positive aspects of an anchored executive for an extended term – in fact Adams was horrified at the prospect of messy recurring elections and proposed life-time terms – if not hereditary dynasties – for America’s chief executive.

Jefferson believed in what we would now call “the wisdom of the crowd” and the global power of practical self-interest as expressed in “American commerce.” It was trade, and in particular, long term, mutually beneficial trade that would bring about peace, progress and humankind’s unwavering move towards honesty, decency and equality of opportunity.

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford

As the author emphasizes, it was Jefferson’s words that inspired dreamers and revolutionaries across the centuries, however naive, impractical and perhaps even impossible they were: his premise that no generation should have to live under the laws and obligations of a previous generation, for example.

Adam’s words did not inspire – he ranted and raved, criticized, complained and warned.

Philosophically, Jefferson is, for most of us, more appealing. Adams is perpetually that dark voice reminding us that humans do not always act out of their highest and best motives; greed, deception and corruption are always one step, one conversation, one decision away.

Jefferson’s optimism did not wear well. His discouragement at the muddled, incompetent if not outright corrupt expression, not only of politicians and politics, but also of his much vaunted “common man” led him to withdraw from public view and retreat for his final years into depression and isolation.

We see the philosophies of our current politically divided landscape reflected in the thoughts of Jefferson and Adams. Most “liberals” function out of a legacy that goes back to the Enlightenment period and its influence on Jefferson and the founding fathers. The Enlightenment was always inconsistent and embedded with inherent contradictions. It championed “inalienable rights” for all, even when “all” excluded African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, women, and many others. There is another fatal shortcoming of the Enlightenment era: it assumed that we as human beings are fundamentally rational creatures. And, as Jefferson presumed, education and culture would lead each individual and every nation to perpetual, inevitable peace, freedom, fair trade and progress.

The social and cultural fractures we still deal with, and Jefferson and Adams were yet to deal with, took shape long before our Civil War.

Jefferson defined the values and character of the North and the South in 1785. Southerners, he wrote, were “fiery, voluptuary, indolent, unsteady, independent, zealous for their own liberties but trampling on those of others, generous, candid, [and] without attachment or pretensions to any religion but that of the heart” while Northerners were “cool, sober, laborious, persevering, independent, jealous of their own liberties, and just to those of others, interested, chicaning, superstitious and hypocritical in their religion” (pg 18).

Jefferson embodied (even as he critiqued) the southern states. Adams, from Massachusetts, upheld the values and virtues of the northern states.

Jefferson, as an idealistic, if not optimistic philosopher, did his best to look past the messy contradictions of his own life – especially his “ownership” of literally generations of slaves – as he sought the glimmer – if not mirage – of irreversible progress and egalitarianism. As Jefferson put it, he always preferred “the dreams of the future better than the history of the past” (pg 410).

We need reason, rationality, and logic, and we are truly lost without them. But we have a deeper, richer and probably stronger impulse of emotions, passion, fear, wonder, awe, rage, compassion, love, and other sensations that defy and transcend “rationality.”

This is what many politicians have always understood well and so many liberals have a hard time with today. Politicians understand that the key is to appeal to people’s emotions, their passions, their fears, and their hopes. Whether on the right or the left, politics is also the appeal to the realm of what makes us human beneath/beyond logic and rationality. These soundbites and slogans stir our passions, inspire our beliefs and defy literal definition. Some examples are; “Yes, we can!”, “Make America Great Again!”, ”It’s morning again in America”, or  “A city on the Hill!”

Each of these “inspiring” slogans is subject to interpretation – in other words, they are free of any actual content and mean essentially whatever we want them to mean – which means that they are ideal political slogans, free of any meaning except what we give them.

There are those who say that we, as Americans, are still, and perhaps perpetually, re-fighting our Civil War (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/the-civil-war-isnt-over/389847/?utm_source=atlfb) but the issues that divide us are central to the issues that unite and define us – and they have been front and center since the very beginning.

To be an American is to embrace and stand by what makes us truly honorable and a land of opportunity. Adams and Jefferson disagreed on many things, but what united them was the firm belief that a “real” American was one who upheld and defended American beliefs and values – it was never a matter of color, heritage, ethnicity or religion.

Not everyone could move to China, for example, and become “Chinese,” but anyone could, in fact, move to America, and become an “American.” That was, to Jefferson at least, the working definition of “American exceptionalism” – a term he was the first to use and promote.

Adams, in contrast, believed that “Americans” were emphatically NOT “exceptional” and were as prone to any and all of the failings of humanity as any other culture in history.

We still struggle with the conflict between the actual and the ideal, what is or what could, or should be and who is, or who should be allowed to be, a “real” American.

“United we stand, or divided we fall” has never been more true or more important.


(1*)    This is the premise of the 10th Amendment – any decision or policy within the states should be decided by the states or by the people.