On behalf of the Second Continental Congress in declaring America’s independence, Jefferson in the first paragraph of the Declaration drew upon authority greater than the Crown, the British Empire, and the long traditions of English law and government. “With a firm Reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” he and those present staked “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” upon “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”
Taking Jefferson’s words at the face value that men risking their lives and the fates of their families would, one must ask in what language did they read the divine message that convinced them of natural law? Certainly in the language of the Bible and the works of philosophers, but also in everything they experienced day and night, in nature itself, in the derivative circumstances and construction of the world around them. Their beliefs—and their courage—came not just from reading the works of man, but also from a direct reading of creation. Not insulated by technology and cities of concrete, steel, and glass, they were never far from the elemental intensities of nature that have led man since the beginning to apprehend a divine presence.
No deterministic school of thought can wholly explain why Virginia well into the eighteenth century was as English as Banbury, but then produced a violent and almost reflexive rejection of England; or how it was that a hundred years later Henry Adams could write, “One might stay in no end of country houses without forgetting that one was a total stranger and could never be anything else. One might bow to half the Dukes and Duchesses in England, and feel only the more strange.”
Yet another century on, I found myself the graduate student of Oxford’s Hugh Trevor-Roper, trying to make a connection through the impenetrable layers of my ignorance and his contempt. I might speak earnestly for ten or fifteen minutes—to my amazement, he made the subject of my tutorial Hermetic mysticism—but after my discourse he would announce, with sadistic pleasure, “I’m terribly sorry, but I was unable to understand a single word you said,” as if I were not speaking English.
Only once did he let his feigned inability to find me intelligible slip, and that was as I spoke of my love for the beauties and vastness of the American landscape, and of how I missed the forests and ice-covered rivers of my youth. There I had enjoyed, at least in recollection, perfect tranquility in a seeming infinity of terrain and in the harshness of climate, in surprise encounters with wild animals, in the rushing of waters and the clarity of the air. This moved him beyond the game he was playing at my expense, and seemed to please him. “Yes,” he said, with some admiration, “I see.” And then, in a contributory spirit, “I love a landscape that is well manured” (in the sense of cultivated). For the first time, he had not treated me as an inferior. At least at that moment, he had understood that I was not lacking in civilization but that we were of different branches of the same civilization. I had unintentionally forced him to that by my spontaneous declaration of an American glory that matched or surpassed anything British.
This episode suggested to me that in regard to the origins and development of nations, some natural realities are not credited as perhaps they should be. And it is thus with our own country.
The gifts of equipoise and foresight that the authors of American independence received and then gave in such abundance could not have been possible absent the evolution of human thought, the exercise of logic, and the workings of inquiry—obviously. But just as it is unavailing to imagine benefits accruing from the study of the book of the world absent reason, logic, and the precedent of human thought, so it is unavailing to imagine these latter operating beneficially without reference to the former. The prize is gained in the interaction of the two, and civilization is slighted in the denial of one or the other. A favoring wind of nature, custom, and circumstance made the world in which the writers of the Declaration and the Constitution lived day by day. That world contributed to the unique character that in their own time separated them from their mother country and now distinguishes them advantageously from us, their inheritors, in the quality of thought and expression.
Modern times were born when nature ceased to appear limitless at every turn—when the ocean lost its mystery as a relentless swallower of ships and could be crossed on schedule, in comfort, and in days; when the forests did not seem to stretch infinitely into regions where unknown aboriginal peoples spoke languages that no European had ever heard, and lived lives that no European could imagine, amid natural phenomena that no European had ever seen.
An eighteenth-century view from the Wren Building to the Capitol would have shown the mile-long Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg to be just a dirt road. The little houses along it were largely obscured by trees and gardens, the sky was open, and wilderness lapped at the side streets. When a Frenchman in France looked east toward the immense hinterlands of Europe and Asia, what occurred to him was Germans. When a German looked east, what occurred to him was Poles. When a Pole looked east, he shuddered at the thought of Russians. Russians in turn were habituated to fear the Golden Horde, and the Golden Horde had always to contend with the Han Chinese. In short, every space was taken, and every moment had its precedent. But when an American looked toward the vast expanse of his continent, whether north, south, or west, he saw only potential, only open land to which he knew no limit. And this was not merely a positive encouragement; it was an escape from the negative.
For without understanding nature’s metaphors of infinity, man looms far larger in his own eyes than he would in their insistent presence, and, as history shows, comes to believe not only that he is the measure of all things but the maker and judge of life, death, and everything in between. And as there is an obvious difference between this century and the colonial period in regard to the omnipresence of lands without apparent limit, so was there a difference between America and England, where no point is more than eighty miles from the stark border of the sea. England, like Japan, was and is a tight little island when compared to the vast North American continent, and this had consequences. Man reacts in the presence of limitlessness. He is buoyed immensely on tides of freedom—freedom of movement, of action, of opportunity, and from constraint—but is at the same time humbled by his physical insignificance. The balance is automatic: One need only stand in the midst of ever-flowing wilderness to sense simultaneously both power and humility. And the balance of both—the conviction that man is powerful enough to change history but that his insignificance and, therefore, imperfection mean that he dare not give his every impulse free rein—was the hallmark of the era in America, imparting a sense of equilibrium still present in every great document as one gracious sentence after another rolls forth without fault. It is present in their philosophy, their courtesy, their style, and even their penmanship. It touched everything, as of course it would, for it was everywhere.
Though one can associate this effect of spaciousness with the ancient Hebrews, the Greeks, and many other peoples, what of the spacious conditions that saw no concomitant developments of political philosophy—the Mongols in Central Asia, the disaster of South American political culture despite its vastness—or, conversely, notable advances in less favorable conditions in the Italian city-states or the Low Countries? Quite simply, neither nature nor thought is by itself sufficient. There is a garden, and there is a seed, and neither can produce without the other. Although much more attention has been lavished upon the seed, here the subject is the garden.
And the garden was mainly wilderness in its natural state. In 1790, the population density of the thirteen states was roughly 4.5 people per square mile, or one-eighteenth of what it is now in all fifty states. But even were all the land out to the Pacific neither incorporated nor charted, it was there nonetheless, and, with it included, the 1790 population density becomes approximately one person per square mile, which is one-eightieth of what it is now, and 1/145 of what it was then in England and Wales, where, clearly, going one’s own way in disregard of fixed social patterns was more difficult than in a distant land that was yet a tabula rasa.
Whereas a horse walking over a long distance will cover about five miles per hour and by means of spirited intervals increase that to seven, a car on a highway can easily average fifty miles per hour, an equivalent of seventy if one takes into account the flattening of hills and bridging of rivers and ravines, not having to rest the car, and so on. Leaving out airplanes entirely, travel is, conservatively, ten times faster in the twenty-first century than it was in the eighteenth. Thus, an “isolation quotient” of relative population density (80:1) times speed of travel (10:1) might reasonably be taken to be eight hundred times greater in 1790 than what it is today.
Add to the equation the telephone, Internet, television, radio, cell phone, email, fax, and other forms of instant connection to others without experiencing their physical presence, and the isolation quotient of 1790 becomes thousands of times greater—it is impossible to tell how many thousands—than what it is today. The resultant tranquility, forced by fact, had emotional and intellectual manifestations, including intimacy with and knowledge of other people and human nature. One could not choose new associates hour by hour, and had to know, face, and depend on one’s neighbors. And because communications were so slow and the population so dispersed, the idea that government should in the main be local was formed and guaranteed at least as much by geography as by philosophy. Micromanagement, had anyone been impelled to commit it, could not have stretched from Federal Hall to Staten Island, much less to the Northwest Territory.
Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were, some might say, a bit more contemplative than our more recent presidents, and to good effect. They were given this advantage in temperament in part by an omnipresent encouragement to contemplation stimulated and guided by nature. The patterns of human settlement tended universally to village or household groupings, and thus the isolation quotient and amount of virginal land were more than just what the low population density would suggest (accounting for population concentration in cities and towns, perhaps five to seven times more), even excluding the territory west of the Appalachians. Not many people now have experienced the hours of silence and solitude that such a landscape provides.
I was fortunate to have grown up in the midst of a thousand relatively untouched acres along the Hudson, and in summer to have entered into the wildernesses of the North and West. The lessons I learned and convictions I embraced were taught by things such as the infinitely varying behavior of the Hudson and its tributaries; by observation of animals more complex and magnificent than any work of man; by the richness and taxing demands of climate; by views and prospects from summits and down alleys of fragrant trees; by the noise of the wind in patient evergreens; by the warmth of sun upon rock. These were but the minutest fragments of a huge continent that in the eighteenth century was almost a perfection of nature, offering at every instant for those who would draw from it lessons in scale, humility, perspective, patience, timing, balance, and, by analogy to incontrovertible natural law, the natural rights and obligations of man. Among other things, habitual observation of nature teaches that, even if sometimes shrouded in mystery, truth exists and can be self-evident. All of nature is unimpeachably self-evident.
And it teaches patience, one of the qualities without which statesmanship is reduced to politics, and a check against the tendency of governments to pound their citizens into the shape of a plan or design that in the bureaucratic mind will fail unless it runs according to an arbitrary schedule. In farming, patience is as valuable as rain, and for the founders it was in the air they breathed. In the 1777–1826 Adams-Jefferson correspondence of 380 letters, 183, or 48 percent, were written before an answer to the previous letter had been received. Once, Adams wrote eleven times before he saw a response, and it was not unusual to wait a month and a half from the posting of a letter to the reception of a reply. Discussing the destiny of the nation then was slower than playing chess by mail is now. Their—to us—astounding amount of time for consideration is not inconsistent with the fact that the founders and framers wrote and thought with elegant, measured genius. If you compare the power and prose of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution with that of almost any modern political document, you will see that, spared the pollution of needless complexity, their authors enjoyed a great advantage in fusing style and substance so that the whole would be ineffably greater than the sum of its parts.
This came not solely from their familiarity with classical languages and the King James Bible, but from the way they lived. In that era, to be engaged in almost anything—riding from Charlottesville to Richmond, chopping a cord of wood, harvesting wheat with a scythe—was difficult, took a long time, was often lonely, and was mainly uninterrupted. Even the few who had servants were forced by these grounding necessities into a more intimate relation with nature than what we now mainly do not enjoy. Thus some of the differences between Thomas Jefferson and Donald Trump (although, comparing the two, one may suspect that other factors are at work). Reflection was by necessity a part of life and labor, even if in contemporary life this is increasingly incomprehensible.
Looking back, some see Jefferson’s vision of a republic of self-reliant yeomen as a myth that requires deflation. That is because, casting about, they cannot find in the Los Angeles or Cambridge of 2017 very many yeoman farmers. But given that, in 1790, 95 percent of the population was rural, and that at the turn of the nineteenth century three-quarters of the labor force were employed in agriculture (in the year my father was born, more than a third of Americans worked the land), how is this a myth? The myth is in fact the supposed chasm between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian worlds, for in contrast to the conditions of the present, those worlds were almost indistinguishable.
The most urban and cosmopolitan people in the small cohort employed in trade or manufacturing in one of the few large cities or towns had to know and practice the skills of—and work like—the farmer: building fires and tending them without cease, carrying wood and water, cooking “from scratch,” caring for and riding horses, accomplishing every manner of improvisational repair, milking cows and feeding chickens, keeping their powder dry. Servants may have done the work for some, but this was the texture of life, and everyone was close to it. And, perhaps most importantly, yeoman and city dweller alike experienced continual exposure to and interaction with nature dominant and magisterial.
The cell in which Prospero tutored Miranda, the gazebo in which Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Thoreau’s cabin, the monastery, and the desert of the prophets each represents a deliberate attempt to calm and calibrate the static of civilization via an intense engagement with the natural world. Although the fact that Jefferson’s slaves were slaves made his separation from them morally unbridgeable, in strictly material terms he was closer to them than we are to him. Though seduced by luxury and oppressed by debt, Jefferson knew better than we do what a simple life and nature teach.
When he rode on horseback rather than in a coach the eighty miles each way to and from Poplar Forest, it would have been in rain, heat, and dust, in lightning and thunder, in blinding sun or driving snow. He would have been able to feel, as one does on very long rides, the fears and sensations of his horse. He would have seen and smelled eighty miles of vegetation passing slowly by. He would have heard birds of every description, bent down to drink from streams, and been wet for hours after fording them. Sunburnt and windburnt, and self-reliant as we in this age are not, he made that round trip about four times a year, and it and the things like it had taught him since birth the happiness that comes from knowing one’s place in nature. Though he may not have been able to honor the lesson consistently, the frequent and desired resetting of his soul to the beat of the natural world was conducive to the kind of integrity and clarity of vision useful in the founding of a just nation.
Nature the omnipresent instructress did not confine herself to the wilderness or metaphysics. The common presence of suffering, privations, and death demonstrated with unambiguous and unforgettable force that government, though seemingly immortal, could not engineer immortality or perfection in mortal and imperfect man, and that therefore, to be good, it, like a king, had to be reminded that it was not a god. Separated from England by an ocean, the men of that generation were free to bring such a government into existence as their sensibilities demanded, one that would temper its imperatives with art rather than extend its ambitions by science. And they were fortunate that in that very moment, art and science were balanced as they had not been before and have not been since.
Even the manufactures of the time reflected a grace necessary for a felicitous life. I have in my hallway a tail-case clock of the late eighteenth century. The sound made by the escapement is unusually full, as a massive amount of wood that today would be dismissed as mere adornment amplifies it like the soundboard of a piano. The hand-forged steel has the quality of swords and armor, and although this eight-foot clock provides less information than the kind of digital watch that can be found at the end of a pencil, it is a thing of remarkable beauty, incorporating in the assumptions and executions of its design many of the characteristics of the age, not least a balance of form and function. The massive weights that, by descending, run it need not have been brassed; the dial need not have a moon-phase wheel that is a passably good oil; the wood need not have been so finely matched, so well rubbed, and so carefully joined in places that are unseen. When craftsmen strain over what will remain out of sight, it is because they accept the existence of an all-seeing eye that will indeed know what they have done and compare it to the ruthless perfection of the physical universe of which they are reminded second by second, with every cloud that passes and every star that blinks. In the numerous power outages at my house in Virginia, when the water, heat, computers, appliances, and telephones shut down, you can hear the ticking of the clock, still calling out faithfully after two hundred and sixty years.
The most painstakingly crafted (American) rooms of the era had more of nature in them than what we now normally experience outdoors, with concrete below us most of our lives. The floors of farmers’ houses and palaces alike were unfinished: Walking on them today, you feel the presence of the tree. Air came through the cracks, pulled by the draft of the fire, and the temperature was not so different from the temperature outside. Seldom did anyone have anything but so little light at night from fire and candles that, when weather and sky allowed, moon- and starlight were visible through windows. Fires gave off smoke fragrant with the scent of wood and lichens; they cracked and sparked, and made shadows that danced. Occasional gusts would push droplets of rain past the flues. Sounds from outside—trees straining in the wind, birds, distant thunder—were not drowned out by the hum of machinery.
Whereas now we have inappropriately unblinking light, the little artificial illumination then was appreciated and revered as it struggled with the dark until, each morning, light of incomparably greater power announced a gift of grace. Even in the largest cities, artificial light could not diminish constellation light, for except perhaps in a calm, the smoke of only a few thousand chimneys was insufficient to block the sight of throbbing stars. In the cold of winter or in haze-free summer, in starlight undiminished, the people of the era witnessed luminosity, glory, and eternity every night. This was their portion, their standard, their model and exemplar, filling their world and with which they would effortlessly saturate their work.
These are just a few examples of a river of such things that is wide and deep. The instructive analogies of nature are everywhere provided in great profusion to those who will, in E. M. Forster’s phrase, “only connect.” Although it is impossible to attribute the founders’ and framers’ achievements solely to their direct reading of the book of “Nature and Nature’s God,” it is impossible to hold that they were not influenced by their experience of a world that by virtue of the place and time impressed itself upon them far more vividly than it does upon modern man, who has insulated himself from it both deliberately and by accident, and whose society and individual happiness suffer needlessly in the absence of its gracious regulation.
When they spoke of truths that were self-evident, they referred not to truths as declared or interpreted by man, but to those that need neither translation nor acceptance by man to be or to remain true. Where is the book of such truth? It is in the world as it exists minus the element of man’s design and decree. It is in nature and in the nature of man. Though even truth self-evident is not universally interpretable in the same way, the standard is consistent, pure, and abundantly available, and the “authority” and abiding genius of great political philosophers and movements is in part a function of their success in bypassing previous interpretations and drawing directly upon the source.
At the very beginning of American history, the now unknown George Sandys, whom Alexander Pope called “one of the chief refiners of our language,” dedicated to Charles I a translation of Ovid that he had done in Virginia in the early 1620s. In coyly deprecating his own talents, he would unwittingly provide a key to great events that were yet to come. For he wrote that his work was “sprung from the stock of the ancient Romans, but bred in the New World, of the rudeness of which it cannot but participate.”
The rudeness of which he speaks (signifying both that which is uncultivated and rough, and a magnificent wilderness of infinite vigor and potential) was of inestimable value. That is because, if they are not to feed upon themselves and then turn to devour him, man’s thought and ambition require nature’s constant tutorial—not a reversion to the natural state but, rather, habitual engagement with it as metaphor, analogy, and guide.
The Enlightenment took two separate paths: one of the purity of thought, which ended in dehumanization, totalitarianism, holocaust, and war; and the other, which the founders chose unambiguously, in which thought was informed and corrected by the natural world. Although this added to their virtue, it was not a result of their virtue, for as they would have been the first to assert, they shared in the faults of man. It was, however, very much a result of where they found themselves and when, of the kind of life they led, and of finding themselves in a new world. This they would have called, with no embarrassment whatsoever—and they did call it, and so do I—providence.
But providence is not forced upon man. It must be recognized and embraced or it will come to nothing, and it could not have chosen a better time to appear than two and a half centuries ago, or a readier people to favor, for they were ardent observers, they loved and understood the land, and were alert to the world as given; to its physical forces and effects; its metaphors, analogies, and imperatives; its standards, constants, proportions, and inalienable laws, which, with great humility, they made their primary source and incorporated into their thoughts and conclusions. What source could be more perfect? What expression of divine will or purpose could be clearer and more worthy of the loyalty of heart and mind?
In the end, we know and understand them best, as we can know and understand anyone best, simply by knowing what they loved, for this above all is what made them. “I am happy nowhere else,” Jefferson wrote, “and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello. Too many scenes of happiness mingle themselves with all the recollections of my native woods and fields to suffer them to be supplanted in my affection by any other.” Take him at his word.
Mark Helprin, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, is the author of Winter’s Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, and the just-published novel Paris in the Present Tense.