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The Divide Between Jefferson and Adams on Human Nature Is Ours Too

Gordon Wood has written another fine book, Friends Divided, focusing on the lives and ideas of two great but opposing figures in the Founding — Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Wood’s historical reconsideration helps solve a puzzle. Why is Jefferson, an apostle of limited government, seen today as a precursor of progressivism? Is it merely a historical accident that progressives took over the Democratic party he founded or is there a strand of thought that links his party with Barack Obama’s?

Wood suggests that for Jefferson as well as many others of his contemporaries, the famous claim of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” went beyond the view that men are equal before the law to embrace the more extreme view that men are equal in substantive respects at birth. According to Wood this idea ultimately  stemmed from the John Locke’s notion that the human mind was a tabula rasa and was shaped only by experience.

Jefferson favored limited government, but his belief was historically contingent: he believed that in his age governments actively undermined this natural equality. Old world governments did so obviously by enforcing a hierarchy through creating aristocracies. But big government in America could do the same: he feared that a national bank would be steered by financiers for theirs and their children’s benefit.

But the party of Jefferson changed its view on the role of the federal government. Later progressives who shared his notions of malleability of nature by experience came to believe that social norms, particularly the market, not government, distorted natural equality. And some were more hopeful that a more democratic government than existed at Jefferson’s time could be successful at moving toward equality. It is pretty clear that Jefferson was open to this kind of change: he even believed that Constitutions should be wholly reconsidered every few decades in light of experience.

Adams, in contrast, came to believe that the proposition that men were equal in substance at birth was self-evidently false. Nothing was clearer from his visit to a foundling home  as recounted by Wood that individuals were born with different endowments. Moreover, it was also manifest that humans had some natural tendencies ingrained, most importantly self-love. Thus, Adams thought government was constrained by natural inequality and self-interest. The idea that it could preserve or restore a natural equality was foolish.

And just as Jefferson’s claims of malleability are a premise of much of modern progressivism, so are Adams’ views about the fixed nature of man a premise of much of conservatism. Government must be built on the recognition of self-interest with structural constraints, like separation of powers and federalism. Equality before the law was essential to republican government, but creating substantive equality was impossible and a recipe for perpetual conflict. Madison famously said of government that it was the greatest of all reflections on human nature.  The division between Jefferson and Adams still captures a fundamental difference in this reflection between the left and right today.

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on January 17, 2018 at 05:32:52 am

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The Divide Between Jefferson and Adams on Human Nature is Ours Too | Top 100 Blog Review
on January 17, 2018 at 11:11:28 am

I always find Wood disappointing, he always wants to force the point that the American Revolution was the product of Lock and the so called Enlightenment and tailors his narrative accordingly. Jefferson and the tabula rasa notion is a new one to me. It's not mentioned in the index.

I always think of Jefferson as a romantic republican and Adams as a typical member of the cod fish aristocracy and something of a snob. Nevertheless, simply by having been born in New England Adams had a much better practical understanding of republicanism than did Jefferson.

It is a pity that Hamilton and Madison decided to strike when both Adams and Jefferson were out of the country (I suspect that was intentional) and Franklin was simply too old to do more than preside over the Pennsylvania convention.

On the "all men are created equal" point, I don't think Adams and Jefferson differed at all. It meant equality before the law, nothing more. Here are the first two paragraphs of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641:

"Wee doe therefore this day religiously and unanimously decree and confirme these following Rites, liberties and priveledges concerneing our Churches, and Civill State to be respectively impartiallie and inviolably enjoyed and observed throughout our Jurisdiction for ever.

1. No mans life shall be taken away, no mans honour or good name shall be stayned, no mans person shall be arested, restrayned, banished, dismembred, nor any wayes punished, no man shall be deprived of his wife or children, no mans goods or estaite shall be taken away from him, nor any way indammaged under colour of law or Countenance of Authoritie, unlesse it be by vertue or equitie of some expresse law of the Country waranting the same, established by a generall Court and sufficiently published, or in case of the defect of a law in any parteculer case by the word of God. And in Capitall cases, or in cases concerning dismembring or banishment according to that word to be judged by the Generall Court.

2. Every person within this Jurisdiction, whether Inhabitant or forreiner shall enjoy the same justice and law, that is generall for the plantation, which we constitute and execute one towards another without partialitie or delay."

https://history.hanover.edu/texts/masslib.html#ms

All of the New England colonies and provinces had lived under these principles since the 1640s and they continued be the fundamental axioms of government in New England after the Restoration and Glorious Revolution. That was the air Adams and Franklin and their ancestors had breathed since birth. The same was not true of the rest of the so called founding generation who came from either royal or proprietary colonies. While the gentlemen of New England had become more and whiggish and elitist over time, they were still the product of what was, in its bones, a Leveller republic.

I did catch the obligatory sneer at the republican Yankees and their loutish, dirty militia made by Washington on Cambridge Common. Of course Wood, who seems to me to be totally uninterested in the political development of the American colonies before 1776, offers no rebuttal although the New England militiamen came from the healthiest, wealthiest and most literate population in the world at the time (according David Hackett Fisher); and although the New England militia had gained a good deal of practical experience during the frequent wars with the French in the first 2/3 of the 18th C. Fred Anderson has done some very good work on this point.

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EK
on January 17, 2018 at 15:06:42 pm

There is no way for Thomas Jefferson to know that his egalitarianism in the 18th century would morph into bolshevism, Marxism, Communism, Maoism and be responsible for the largest genocides in the 20th century.

There is also no way for Thomas Jefferson to know that his egalitarianism in the 18th century with the exploration of the age of reason, the age of enlightenment whereby freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc would all morph into politically correct censorship.

Although Thomas Jefferson was not just the founding father of our American Revolution but a participant the founding documents of the bloody French Revolution. The American Revolution and its founding fathers consisted of a great many who wanted to remain British and had British sympathies even after the war was over and their beliefs stemmed from the Scottish enlightenment not the European Enlightenment. The Scottish enlightenment was rooted in reform not revolution. It wanted to keep the existing institutions and even the existing monarchy. Though Thomas Jefferson wrote the declaration of independence and was admired by many, his American ideals were far more realistic and checked by the other founding fathers. Whereas, Thomas Jefferson's idealism was far more radical sympathizing and endorsing revolution in France (igniting a firestorm of revolution across the continent) rather than reform. For example in the American version Thomas Jefferson wrote "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." These words evoke individual freedom and individual responsibility. However the French version was written "Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite." The key words being Egalite (Equality) and Fraternite (Brotherhood). These words do not invoke individuality and individual responsibility but can and have been interpreted as roles for the state. Whatever the intent of those words in the 18th century they became the roots for state socialism in the 20th Century. This is the great chasm between American and French interpretations of Freedom and Govt. Canada is neither close to the American or French interpretations of Freedom and Govt. Canada remaining a loyal colony is comparable to the British interpretation.

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LouisM
on January 17, 2018 at 15:58:09 pm

This doesn't seem right to me: "Adams, in contrast, came to believe that the proposition that men were equal in substance at birth was self-evidently false. "

It would be even more surprising for Adams to hold that view than Jefferson, given that Adams himself was the one who wrote in the MA Declaration of rights that "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights." The 'Born" language is what Adams usually uses, as opposed to Jefferson's 'created.'

No founder believed that was "self evidently" false. You're talking about a John C Calhoun

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CJ Wolfe
on January 17, 2018 at 22:09:57 pm

Adams likely believed men were not equal based on his perception of what a man’s telos was. In his mind, the aim of life was the attainment of intellectual virtues. Based on Jefferson’s belief that the small farmer was the foundation of democracy, Jefferson placed less value of intellectual virtues and more upon the cultural virtues held by craftsmen and farmers. I think it is a mistake to assign either as the cause for conservative or liberal thought.

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Sean
on January 19, 2018 at 13:35:06 pm

Jefferson accepted personal, human authority and therefore learned from both physical research and psychological discovery. He progressed from “sure knowledge” through "reason" to “truth” during seventeen years. He continued in retirement: founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-07-02-0341. I doubt Adams and Jefferson were equally open to discovery, Adams being more interested in preserving/restoring the past.

In Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787, Jefferson wrote, “Patient pursuit of facts, and cautious combination and comparison of them, is the drudgery to which man is subjected by his Maker, if he wishes to attain sure knowledge.”

In 1791 he wrote, “I . . . hope that . . . our experiment will still prove that men can be governed by reason”; founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-19-02-0020.

The Terror occurred during thirteen months beginning June, 1793. Thomas Paine published “The Age of Reason” in 1794-5.

In 1804, Jefferson wrote, “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth”; let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/letters-of-thomas-jefferson/jefl164.php.

Perhaps Jefferson’s reason v truth was political. “Sure knowledge” seems as apolitical as “the-objective-truth,” which can only be discovered---does not respond to reason.

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Phillip Beaver
on January 28, 2018 at 18:43:42 pm

Here's a quote from Adams to Jefferson, July 13, 1813:
https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-06-02-0238

"I have never read Reasoning more absurd, Sophistry more gross, in proof of the Athanasian Creed, or Transubstantiation, than the subtle labours of Helvetius and Rousseau to demonstrate the natural Equality of Mankind. Jus cuique; the golden rule; do as you would be done by; is all the Equality that can be Supported or defended by reason, or reconciled to common Sense."

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John Schmeeckle
on January 30, 2018 at 20:52:19 pm

John McGinnis states that Gordon Wood, in his book "Friends Divided," "suggests that for Jefferson as well as many others of his contemporaries, the famous claim of the Declaration of Independence that 'all men are created equal' ... ultimately stemmed from the John Locke’s notion that the human mind was a tabula rasa and was shaped only by experience."

I smelled a rat, so I ordered a copy of Gordon Wood's book. And this is what I found: https://images.dailykos.com/images/170087/story_image/TPP_rat.jpg?1444747140

On page 124 of "Friends Divided," Wood states:

"As Adams pointed out in 1760, Locke, with the help of Francis Bacon, had 'discovered a new World.' He had demonstrated that human personalities at birth were unformed, impressionable things that could be cultivated and civilized. Experience gained through the senses was what molded and created people's characters; it inscribed itself on the blank slate, the tabula rasa, of people's minds. Here, said Adams, by controlling and manipulating the sensations that people experienced, their character could be transformed. Adams took the image of cultivation seriously and literally. The 'Rank and unwholesome Weeds' that had so dominated traditional society could now be 'Exterminated and the fruits raised.' Barbarism could be eliminated and civility increased. This kind of enlightenment had been denied to Cicero and the ancients. The idea that only cultivation separated one person from another was, he said, 'the true sphere of Modern Genius.'

"In other words, nurture, not nature, was what mattered. This was the explosive eighteenth-century assumption that lay behind the idea that all men were created equal. Not everyone had the same capacity to reason, but since everyone had senses, this Lockean notion that all ideas were produced by the senses was inherently egalitarian."
--
In that quote, the essential part is this: "The idea that only cultivation separated one person from another was, he [Adams] said, 'the true sphere of Modern Genius.'"

Wood cited John Adams to Jonathan Sewell, Feb. 1760; which is online at https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-01-02-0030

Gordon Wood mutilated his source. Here is what Adams actually wrote: "But in Mathematicks, and what is founded on them, Astronomy and Phylosophy, the Modern Discoveries have done Honour to the human Understanding. Here is the true sphere of Modern Genius."

In other words, according to Adams, MATHEMATICS (as opposed to the Lockean idea that that only cultivation separated one person from another) was "the true sphere of Modern Genius."

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John Schmeeckle

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