A review of Enlightened Republicanism: A Study of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, by David Tucker
David Tucker's Enlightened Republicanism combines impressive scholarship with wise judgments about the impact and the limits of philosophical thinking in the political world. It does not solve all of the mysteries in Thomas Jefferson's political thought, but it lays them bare, and it renews our conviction that Jefferson deserves to be taken seriously as, in James Madison's not wholly ironic words, a "philosophical legislator."
Jefferson's seriousness as a political thinker has often been doubted, by his political friends as well as by his enemies. In fact, his political enemies have often seen more consistency-and therefore more danger-in his thinking than have his friends. He was reluctant to risk his political career by exposing his ideas to publicity and criticism, so he constantly encouraged other writers (his young friend Madison, for example) to publish thoughts that he shared but did not want to commit himself to in print. Jefferson never wrote a political treatise comparable to Madison's contributions to The Federalist or John Adams's Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States.
Or did he? Tucker, an associate professor in the Naval Postgraduate School's Department of Defense Analysis, is one of those scholars who have noticed that Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia-the only book he ever published-is a more systematic work than first meets the eye, and therefore a more important source for understanding Jefferson than one might think.
Jefferson did not speak publicly in his thousands of letters, and he did not speak only for himself in his many dozens of state papers. Notes is the only work in which he addresses the public in his name alone. He speaks with a gentleman's modesty and reserve, intentionally appearing less formal and orderly than he was. The book's central chapter, for example, stands between the chapters on nature and on law, and discusses the relationship between nature and law. (Following Jefferson, Tucker uses this basic structure in his own book.)
Tucker points out that in its structure and content, Notes served Jefferson's main political purpose: teaching Americans that their circumstances offered them "the possibility, rarely if ever before given, to create republican governments," which meant to "create as far as possible" laws and "a way of life in accord with nature." "The animating spirit of Jefferson's republican vision," Tucker writes, "is its appeal to nature to correct convention."
Jefferson was aware, of course, that nature could be harsh and downright dangerous, but he also thought it purposeful and friendly enough to give human beings resources such as their natural "moral sense," which make social and political life possible and desirable. Nevertheless, he was not a dogmatic revolutionary trying to wrench complicated reality into complete conformity with reason and nature. Jefferson understood that circumstances have to be respected, and that gradual, non-violent, and even unnoticed changes are usually most prudent. "Jefferson's strongest tendency," writes Tucker, "was to accept the complexity of experience, even as he was guided by the light of reason."
The author notices that Jefferson even shied away from abstract political theories such as the state of nature and the social contract, which could lead politicians and citizens astray. He preferred a historical view of socio-economic and political development, dividing the history of mankind into four stages: hunter, pastoral, agricultural, and commercial. Even the most primitive men lived in societies, he observed.
In Notes, Jefferson explains the difference between barbaric and civilized societies: true civilization requires individuals to govern their conduct by subduing their selfish passions and respecting the natural equality and rights of others. Just like the barbaric Indians, European nations were ruled essentially by force and by the degradation of whole classes. Tucker draws our attention to Jefferson's description of Indian manners, which Tucker says could also describe Jefferson's view of the manners of European aristocrats: "proud, touchy about their honor and thus inclined to fight, glory seeking, and known to primp." Neither society was civilized, Jefferson thought, though the Indians perhaps had their poverty as an excuse.
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Tucker does not comment on every part of Notes on the State of Virginia, and he often ventures well outside the text. Especially in discussing Jefferson's thoughts about nature and human nature, Tucker turns to his subject's letters, to produce an "interpretive reconstruction" of his views. He is compelled to do this because not even in Notes does Jefferson give natural philosophy "his full attention." One wonders how Tucker can claim that this philosophy was "the basis of his enlightened republicanism" with such gaping holes in the evidence. At times his "reconstruction" (or, more accurately, his construction) of Jefferson's natural philosophy is speculative if not altogether incredible. Does Jefferson's reference to "the chain of being" make him as Aristotelian as Tucker suggests? If so, is that compatible with Tucker's suggestion that in Jefferson's view "species come and go, but at any given moment nature is well-designed"? And how does that notion fit with Jefferson's case for political liberty and religious toleration?
When he addresses this last question, Tucker concludes that Jefferson's republic needs "the discretion of the wise statesman…to balance the claims of freedom and happiness." Public opinion will be the most powerful force in a republic, and the circumstances under which a people live-their stage of socio-economic development, perhaps influenced but not wholly determined by their statesmen-will help to decide whether public opinion will find good ways to balance liberty and happiness. For one of the epigraphs of his book, Tucker chooses a rarely-cited but important passage from Plato'sRepublic, in which Socrates talks about including in the best regime a group of philosophical rulers who will perpetuate the founders' understanding. In Jefferson's enlightened republic no such elite group, whether of scientists, philosophers, or statesmen, could rule. Jefferson writes that the people themselves will have to be "the guardians of their own liberty." But as he shows, it is actually the circumstances, education, and manners of the people that will decide their fate.
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As is commonly known, Jefferson favored an agrarian America, where plenty of land would allow Americans to be independent farmers, and thereby to avoid the inegalitarian and dehumanizing dependence of big city workers and businessmen upon their customers. Like Plato's Socrates, Jefferson saw reasons to regret the movement from a simpler to a more complicated way of life. But the practical politician in Jefferson recognized that his agrarian ideal was already at odds with Americans' commercial habits, and that this tension would only increase. Besides, as Tucker comments, "subordinating the arts and commerce to a preferred way of life is not compatible with their free development, and their free development is the only way to enjoy their benefits. Nor is such subordination compatible with free government." So natural equality and its ethical demands had to find ways of flourishing in America under socio-economic circumstances that Jefferson would have found unfavorable.
In the book's most persuasive and valuable section, Tucker takes up Jefferson's view of the way that nature and natural equality can be known, and shows that Jefferson's insistence on judging for oneself-the method of both common sense and natural science-was not a continuation of the Protestant Reformation but a democratization of the scientific revolution. "[F]ree inquiry," which Tucker says was for Jefferson "the beginning and the end of the enlightenment," is "the shared root of common sense and science." Jefferson disagreed with Francis Bacon, who regarded common sense as an obstacle to the discovery of useful truths. Baconian science sought practical technological advances, whereas for Jefferson science helped human beings understand the world. In his view, then, common sense contributes at least as much to human understanding as science does. Tucker goes so far as to suggest that for Jefferson, moral and political experience and observations (including the observation of human equality) were the basis for his natural science, rather than the other way around. Against Daniel Boorstin, Tucker argues that "Jefferson did not think that knowledge of human equality resulted from scientific effort, cautious hypothesizing and careful accumulation of facts. Equality was not one of those hidden aspects of nature that man had to work to uncover." The intuitively obvious ("self-evident") truth of our political equality is based on the common sense observation that human beings are neither beasts nor gods.
Tucker does not say so, but his analysis suggests that for Jefferson's politics, science is needed more for destructive than for constructive purposes. Science must destroy priests' and pseudo-aristocrats' pretensions to divine authority to rule. After it banishes these superstitions, human beings may again easily sense the "palpable" truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by divine right.