1. Thanks to Ivan the K and the various threaders (including jwc) for their astute comments on Mr. Jefferson’s university.

2. One of Mr. Jefferson’s strongest stands was against any Calvinists teaching there. According to Tocqueville, that stand is typically Virginian. DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA almost begins by describing the two American colonial foundings. The Virginians were solitary, restless, and turbulent gold-seekers. They came to our shores without resources, without breeding, and without any sense of class (in the sense of being classy). They were completely free from idealistic or immaterial motivation, and they weren’t even ennobled with the bourgeois virtues connected with working for oneself. And apparently they were virtually without religion. So they readily accepted slaves and slavery, and their dependence on slave labor increased their haugtiness and laziness. Now over time  Mr. Jefferson and the Virginians acquired some aristocratic class and considerable philosophic enlightenment (due in part to the leisure the slaves provided), but Mr. Jefferson himself still identified idealistic religious moralism with both the hypocrisy of Plato and Platonism and “monkish ignorance and superstition.” He also identified it with the idealistic and tyrannical idealism of residually Puritanical, Calvinist, abolitionist New Englanders.

3. The Puritan New Englanders, of course, Tocqueville describes, quite poetically and instructively, as in every respect the opposite of the Virginians. That means they came to America as prosperous, enlightened, and with the order and morality characteristic of the best family men. They were also animated by an intensely religious and political egalitarianism, and they founded political communities that were socially homogeneous and based on a radically egalitarian or what Tocqueville called completely unprejudiced understanding of citizenship. The pollitical communities they founded differed from the democracies of Greece and Rome in beling based on not just the equality of citizens but on the equality of creatures and so, of course, in no way being dependent on slaves. But they were so insistent in using their freedom for goodness and justice and in improving men’s souls that they had bizarre and tyrannical laws that criminalized sin and invaded the freedom of conscience.

4. Jefferson’s friend Mr. Adams was no Puritan and no Calvinist. But he can be distinguished by how he was affected by his New England inheritance. He was for all practical purposes much more anti-slavery than Jefferson. And he didn’t believe for a moment that anything good could come out of the radically atheistic French revolution. He could see that what was wrong with the French was their fanatical effort to free themselves from all Biblical/Christian influence. The result wouldn’t be the genuine civic equality of a self-governing people but a tyrannical civil theology based on the denial of the true ground of human equality.

5. Tocqueville’s point seems to be that America at its best is a compromise of Virginia and New England—or Locke and Calvin—that preserves what’s best of each. The spirit of liberty depends on the spirit of religion and in neither being reduced to merely an instrument for the other.

6. That may be why Tocqueville doesn’t highlight the Declaration in some civic religious way. Its principled Lockean account of inalienable rights finally is weak on the moral or real impulse that devotes human beings to the proposition that all men are created equal. And so the Declaration was elevated by the compromises demanded by the more religious members of Congress to Jefferson’s Virginian draft—God becomes personal, present-tense, genuinely creative, providential, and judgmental in the manner of the Puritans. But rights and the free individual aren’t sacrificed to any form of fanatical political idealism.

7. Mr. Jefferson was finally weak in identifying an appropriately human and democratic understanding of happiness. Privately he was an Epicurean—finding happiness in the tranqulity beyond hope and fear, but that happiness, he thought, was available only to a philosophic few. He also, as Ivan explained, talked up a natural moral instinct (which he identified with the true or un-Platonic teaching of Jesus) that was a sort of a proto-Darwinian animal quality that we all share, one that could only be screwed up by any mixture with philosophy or Platonized virtue or any of the human qualities we all identify as higher. The middle-class Lockean individual he often celebrated in his public teaching, meanwhile, only futilely pursued happiness but never actually caught it. That individual, it seems, is cruelly stuck between philosophic transcendence and animal contentment.

Articles by Peter Lawler


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