The First Progressive?

JeffersonThe first canon of Progressivism is faith in human reason. Politics for the Progressive is a science not in the Aristotelian but in the Baconian sense. Political questions are not prudential complexities to which human judgment approaches better or worse answers but rather moral rigidities with right or wrong solutions wholly within the ambit of the all-powerful human mind. The distance from that schematic to administration by experts is brief.

In fairness, that portrayal substantially attenuates the chain. But a recent family visit to Monticello served as a reminder that, however ironically, Thomas Jefferson is one of the chain’s first American links. Call him Progressivism’s ancestor.

That is not because of any Jeffersonian faith in positive government, which he antedated and which cannot be attributed to him. But Progressivism’s faith in reason—the unbounded belief in the authority and capacity of the human mind—is all him. Much of both the spirit and letter of Progressivism follows from it.

Three portraits hang on the parlor wall at Monticello. Jefferson called them his “trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced.” A moral teacher is not among them. Neither is a poet, nor a statesman nor, for that matter, anyone preceding the Enlightenment. They are Bacon, Newton and Locke.

The case for these three as the greatest of all time, aside from a typically Jeffersonian flight of typically Jeffersonian fancy, is perhaps a bit thin.  But they would certainly have endorsed Jefferson’s famous counsel to his nephew Peter Carr: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.”

Now, one hesitates to exempt facts and opinions from reason’s inspection. But notice that on Jefferson’s account reason sits in a seat not just of involvement but of authority. Jefferson does not recognize her limitations, and tradition wields no comparable authority. Indeed, like his intellectual descendants, Jefferson sees reason propelling progress. Visitors to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington will recognize his words:

“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions,” wrote Jefferson, who most certainly was. “But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Notice the temporal overtones of the passage. History is counterposed to progress—the ancient is a drag on the beckoning future; boys become men; society civilizes the barbarous—and the agent of advancement is the “human mind.” The mind, in turn, appears to exert itself at discrete moments in time. Thus his separate suggestion that, the earth belonging solely to the living, no law should outlast a generation, which—by means of, what else, raw reason—he tabulated to be a period of 19 years.  That history might, rather than being troglodytic, instead supply the transgenerational storehouse of what Burke called the “reason of ages,” and that the practices of ancestors might therefore deserve modest deference rather than smug dismissal, escapes Jefferson entirely.

Jefferson himself was more poet than theorist. Consistency was neither his long suit nor, one suspects, his priority. But this elevation of human reason is at war with his commitment to equality, the gifts of intellect being distributed, as they are, unequally—an insight at which his fellow Virginian Woodrow Wilson eventually arrived in the course of calling for government rooted in expertise rather than politics.

Yet Jefferson somehow squared, or avoided squaring, this faith in reason, which would seem to lend itself to a government of elites, with a simultaneous regard for hard-edged populism. A bust of Turgot, whose economics surpassed his constitutionalism, adorns the entrance hall at Monticello opposite one of Voltaire, who, incidentally, Jefferson recommended Carr read, one presumes for purposes of deconstruction, on the topic of religion. Turgot thought checks and balances an antiquated form for a republic, in which he believed all power could safely be concentrated in a legislature at the center, prompting John Adams to defend the American state constitutions against the Frenchman’s critiques.

Among the ironies of the early republic is that Adams’ pen was more prudent than his personality. Jefferson probably illustrated the reverse. Of course, a poetic pen is indispensable to a Revolution. But a republic needs sobriety to which Jefferson, at least when writing, was not always prone.

Many of his enduring words, especially those that adulate reason, ultimately helped inform the canons of Progressivism. That is not to impute the whole of Progressivism to Jefferson. Such would be absurd, and it is likelier that Progressivism and Jefferson share the same influences deeper in the Enlightenment than that Jefferson is a first mover.

But he was an important influence, and an indigenous one.  Progressives like Wilson arguably used unbounded reason to work out the logic of Jefferson’s confidence in unbounded reason. The results indicate that bounds are useful.

Reader Discussion

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on August 19, 2015 at 14:11:12 pm

That is a very fine overview of much that is overlooked (or avoided) in Jefferson's rhetoric (or should that be rhetoric[s]).

Still, in that rhetoric Jefferson offered that individual reason (as it developed) would result in individuals' establishment of their own obligations and delineations of their relationships.

Not so our Wilson's Germanic (and Comte) rhetoric which offered that the developed rationalities of some should establish the obligations of others (all) and delineate most relationships.

Both of course exhibit hubris; but the latter adds egotisms.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on August 20, 2015 at 11:49:36 am


I think that R. Richard nailed it above: "...Jefferson offered that individual reason (as it developed) would result in individuals’ establishment of their own obligations and delineations of their relationships."

Perhaps, Jefferson is to be partly forgiven for having come through the somewhat turbulent overthrow of a "tradition based" regime (Britain) and the creation of a new "rational"(?) regime, partly of his inspiration. No different than Hobbes' support for Leivathan, Hobbes having lived through the Glorious Revolution. Both revolutions appear to have an impact on the thinking of both and may have lead to a bit of hyperbole (Hobbes) and or exaggeration (Jefferson).
The difference is that Jefferson still managed to recognize that liberty was critical and that men willingly accept or enter into obligations in civil society - rather than assuming (or postulating) that the State assumes all.

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on August 28, 2015 at 09:29:09 am

Just as the subsistence of the laborers who built the Pyramids was drawn not from a previously boarded stock, but from the constantly recurring crops of the Nile Valley; just as a modern government when it undertakes a great work of years does not appropriate to it wealth already produced, but wealth yet to be produced, which is taken from producers in taxes as the work progresses; so it is that the subsistence of the laborers engaged in production which does not directly yield subsistence comes from the production of subsistence in which others are simultaneously engaged. If we trace the circle of exchange by which work done in the production of a great steam engine secures to the worker bread, meat, clothes and shelter, we shall find that though between the laborer on the engine and the producers of the bread, meat, etc.

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Handynummer Orten
on September 02, 2015 at 06:29:04 am

Now, while it is unquestionably true that the increasing pressure of population which compels a resort to inferior points of production will raise rents, and does raise rents, I do not think that all the deductions commonly made from this principle are valid, nor yet that it fully accounts for the increase of rent as material progress goes on. There are evidently other causes which conspire to raise rent, but which seem to have been wholly or partially bidden by the erroneous views as to the functions of capital and genesis of wages which have been current.

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Wilmer Zenbaver

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