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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Washington V Jefferson: Franklin by TKO

In the buildup to the 2012 elections, we can anticipate candidates attempting to appropriate inaccurate depictions of the legacies of the Founding Fathers.  But when it comes to real history, pound for pound, and in any fight between Jefferson and Washington, I'd put my money on Ben Franklin.

I know that I can always count on the media company Disinformation to produce the goods.  They consistently offer a high octane blend of solid analytical reportage, cultural commentary and outright blasphemy.  I'm a particular devotee of their news aggregation site.

One recent article, and the attendant readers' comments particularly grabbed my imagination:  "Dancing at the Memorial of a Slave Owner", an examination of the events following the arrest of five persons for dancing near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Of course the real importance of the article bears upon the current state of civil rights and free speech in the United States, not on Mr. Jefferson's personal stance on slavery.  The impression the piece left with me was a reinforced sense of America as a declining cultural as well as economic and military power, clinging desperately onto past imagined glories in a viciously ironic way that presents a tragi-comic contrast with the soaring notions of liberty articulated by Jefferson himself.  In that context I regarded the reminder of Jefferson's slave owning as an unnecessary distraction from current crises.

But the question of the contrast between the talk and the walk of our Founding Fathers is serious enough to bear repeated visits, especially as competeing factions in this super-polarized nation step and stumble over one another to appropriate their legacies in the 2012 party nominations season.  And the contrast between America's two favorite founding fathers, Jefferson and Washington is probably a great place to begin.  It provides the seminal branching off point to explain the two most popular sects in American political philosophy, just as the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael split did after Ireland's Civil War and the Whig/Tory split did after Britain's Glorious Revolution:  these philosophical divisions are very much alive today, all the more so for having a matter of centuries to incubate and articulate.

With a view towards the limitations offered by the blog posting medium, I'll limit myself to extremely brief discussions of Jefferson and Washington's response to what I think are the three most pressing issues confronting America today: economic policy, foreign policy and individual liberty.

Before launching into an exploration of the particularities of each man's world view, I think it's worth reminding ourselves of the overall historical context in which Jefferson and Washington lived.  Yes, this was the expansive "Age of Englightenment", when the scope of human affairs first truly becomes global and the power and appeal of parochial power structures and philosophies is successfully challenged by seekers of a more universal and empirical outlook.  The notion of Progress is born, and the focus of intellectual endeavour becomes more about expansion rather than a slavish devotion to perpetuating archaic elites.

However that is a serious double-edged sword.  It came at the expense of the wholesale extermination of indigenous peoples by European colonizers and a persistent legacy of political and military antagonisms that haunts us to this day (e.g., Afghanistan?).  Not that we could insist that persons so deeply caught up in the eye of the storm as Jefferson and Washington truly understood precisely how their response in word and deed would be viewed 200+ years on, but it does provide us in 2011 with the requisite context to evaluate the internal conflicts events must have provoked within them. 

Both of these men were of the Virginia Tidewater Elite, by hereditary right members of the very exclusive club who held the only local opinion that counted in America's largest and wealthiest colony on the eve of the Revolution.  They viewed themselves, not the unwashed masses of impoverished immigrants pouring over the backcountry, as the intended beneficiaries of this American Project, which was fundamentally expansionist in nature--NOT democratic.

Jefferson probably has a slight edge over Washington in enduring popularity.  I would ascribe this to the man's rhetorical skills and protean ability to (seemingly) convincingly reconcile deeply conflicting impulses of idealism/pragmatism.  When viewed from the perspective of utility for the common man, the primary appeal of historical studies lies in its application to contemporary polemics.  And in this, Jefferson was a past master.

True enough, Jefferson's father came from rather obscure origins and his place in the elite owed rather more to the inherited prestige and wealth of his mother's family.  But I say this is really the psychological whetstone against which Jefferson obsessively sought to sharpen his own impressive talents, a vague sense of inadequacy nagging at the back of his mind that continually drove him forward to achieve more and more intellectually and politically.  Whereas more socially secure grandees like the Fairfaxes or the Carters may have found relatively smaller compensation from such efforts, even would they have been blessed with the native ability to achieve them, Jeffeson had a profound hunger for recognition among his peers that he could scarcely have obtained in any other way.  Regarded by contemporaries as tall and handsome, he was, however, also physically awkward and thoroughly unathletic.

With regard to economic policy, Jefferson would likely be seen as very libertarian by today's standards--for most of his political life.  He vigorously opposed the establishment of the perpetual corporate form [1], anything smacking of a federally co-ordinated industrial policy [2], and the establishment of a central bank [3].  However, as history resoundingly vetoed his stance on all these counts, his greatest practical economic legacy is probably the vast resource base brought to the U.S. by the Louisiana Purchase--an incredible irony considering that the unprecedentedly massive federal expenditure is probably the single clearest violation possible of his stated libertarian views.

None of this should suprise us, perhaps, if we consider my thesis that a primary psychological motivation for his political career was a desire to secure a place for himself within the Virginia landed elite.  By any standard you could care to consider, Virginia in Jefferson's day was the single largest, wealthiest and most poweful of any North American colony; the status quo would have suited him quite nicely, had not the British aristocracy insisted on elbowing the local elite out of the way at the feeding trough.

Jefferson's foreign policy, on the other hand, was most definitely interventionist, the most prominent example being his strong advocacy of support for the French Revolution of 1789 and against British forces arrayed to oppose its spread.  What may be his single most famous quote:

"The Tree of Liberty needs to be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots."

A lot has been made of Jefferson's misunderstanding of the fundamental differences in the nature and causes of the American vs. the French revolutions (i.e., political and economic vs. social and economic, respectively).  Maybe some of this is unfair, since we can more clearly perceive with hindsight the glaring contrast of the seminal issues, the Ameican revolution being sparked by a fight between local and British elites over the economic spoils of the French-Indian War, and the French revolution being a result of the wholesale lack of credibility and effectiveness of the Ancien Regime. 

I argue that this failure is exactly what we should expect from Jefferson, a man whose political prestige rested to some extent on his effectiveness in obtaining French support in America's vulernable nascence.  I would further argue that his aristocratic removal from the concerns of the common man, his high-flown rhetoric and personal financial struggles aside, constituted a formidable barrier to his ability to grasp the fundamental nature of events in France, the character of which was in some ways completely alien to the American experience anyway.  America at that time was a vast storehouse of untapped resources being withheld from its thin population only by the geopolitically pragmatic policies of British imperial resource management.  The Old World, on the other hand, had been thoroughly populated for centuries and provided drastically less scope for economic mobility, meaning that any progress available must necessarily come at the expense of some class or other--remarkably like the U.S. position today.

As regards individual liberties, let's just admit upfront that nobody could work the rhetorical magic like Thomas Jefferson.  "Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" and all that.  However, I don't think we can completely ignore his disappointing record on slavery as an anachronistic misintepretation on our parts.  Even if you're willing to ignore Jefferson's endorsement of the infamous "Three Fifths Comprimise"[4] and the fact that his failure to emancipate so much as one slave stands in total contrast to the inter vivos action of Benjamin Franklin, twighlight Abolition campaigner, and Washington, whose will contained detailed and rigorous provisions for the emancipation and economic support of slaves that he owned, Jefferson's rape of Sally Hemings would not stand as an ornament to the principle that "all men are created equal" from the perspective of any historical age.[5]

All in all, were the Gods of Historical Anachronism to permit us a visit to Monticello, I think our minds would leave with two impressions:  1.)  TJ was sure a gas for a party and there's no end to the flow of flowery talk from the man; and 2.) he surely had not clue #1 what was going on down outside the House of Burgesses or literary salons.

Washinton's philosophy and career are a thorough contrast to Jefferson's.  Both men may be said to have arisen from the less secure fringes of the Tidewater elite, but Washington's rise clearly had more to do with practical action than rhetorical flourish.

Washington's family had a long history in Virginia affairs.  George derived his his nickname among the native peoples of the American frontier, "Town Destroyer", from local memories of the vehemence of his great-grandfather, John Washington, in pursuing the colonial policy at expanding at the expense of native communities.  But the Washingtons' legacy would probably have been regarded at the time as a fleck of flyshit in comparison with the pervasive influence of grandees like the Randolph family of Jefferson's maternal relations.  High mucky-mucks like the Randolphs ordained the expansionist warfare; middling gentry families like the Washingtons actually fought them.

Which, however, is not to say that Washington in the slightest considered himself an economic libertarian.  While his decidedly pro-central government stances with regard to Hamilton's central bank policy and the crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion should be clear enough indications of his proclivities, the apparent incongruity of a "conservative revolutionary" deserves some exploration.

Washington's motivations in the rebellion were more pragmatic and down-to-earth than Jefferson's from the beginning:  a front row seat at the imperial feeding trough.  I think Joseph Ellis, author of "His Excellency:  George Washington" does a great job in highlighting this aspect to Washington's worldview in discussion of two seminal events.

First, I consider Washington's rebuff at the hands of an arrogant (and incompetent) Lord Loudon, when seeking a commission as an officer in His Majesty's regular forces.  This could hardly be interpreted as anything but a personal insult to his dignity.  In many ways, Washington was THE military pointman during the early phase of the French and Indian War, the single thread of consistency of campaigns from the war's inception through Braddock's defeat.  Granted, that involvement usually manifested itself in ghastly blunders rather than martial glory; the very event triggering the conflict in North America was the murder of a French diplomat who, under all conventions, contemporary and modern, should clearly have been under Washington's personal protection.  But Washington's organizing abilities, zeal and personal bravery went unquestioned by all eyewitness accounts.  Washington's demand here was not the abolition of social distinction or aristocracy--merely the acceptance that his actions had earned him those perogatives.

Secondly, and more to the point, Washington was a thorough-going capitalist.  In 1763 he banded together with a number of his colonial peers to form the Mississippi Company, for the purpose of establishing a quasi-feudal state on the North American frontier, where settlers would in effect be serfs of the investing proprietors such as himself.  This proposal was quickly vetoed by the Crown, on the grounds of its inconsistency with the various treaty rights of First Nations in the region.  However, lest any of my British friends succumb to a premature sense of self-righteousness, a substantially identical scheme, to be called Vandalia, was approved by the Crown in 1770--under the aegis of Brish-born investors.

Where did Washington stand in regards to foreign policy? I don't think it'd be correct to call him either interventionist or isolationist--he was a non-ideological pragmatist.  While freely admitting the fact that Ameican independence was due in large part to the generous (but in his opinion belated) French naval and artillery support at Yorktown rather than any brilliant strategy concocted himself, he expressed strong opposition to American involvement in the crises engulfing Europe in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution.  Perhaps his most famous quote on the score, from his 1796 farewell address:

"The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel. "

Washington was equally pragmatic with regard to his philosophy on personal liberties.  Whereas Jefferson's intellectual approach to life demonstrated itself in a slick rhetorical smoothing over and selective igorance of the contrast between walk and talk, Washington was at least explicitly recognised the tension and made some tangible efforts to reconcile the two, if but in an uneven manner and in language that would be considered unambiguously offensive today.  Washington's emancipation of his slaves and provision for their sustenance within his will has already been touched upon.  In a letter to James Duane, dated 7 September 1783, with regard to America's policy of clearing First Nations people from their ancestral lands, Washington wrote:  "The gradual extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the savage as the wolf to retire." 

On balance, if I were somehow able to visit Mount Vernon in 1790, I think it would be an occassion of great disappointment.  No doubt the stolid, thoroughly dependable Washington would come off as a rather dull, but completely indispensable character, but he's hardly likely to have regarded an ordinary joe like me as worth the time of day.  Likewise, I have real doubts as to whether Washington's particular stoic brand of charisma would be suited for the glitz-and-flash obsessed clone wars that constitute much of modern corporate and political culture.

WTF?  Where does Franklin come into this?  The title suggests that Franklin's the real winner!
And indeed, I think Franklin is the real winner here.  His example clearly holds far more relevance to the American of today than either Jefferson or Washington for precisely the reason that he is usually overlooked in discussions of the origins of American political culture--he was never president.  He didn't represent the any facet of the hereditary elite.  He was a townie, from a working class family from a frigid, relatively densely populated 2nd-tier colony far from the expansionist debate surrounding the Ohio country.  My analysis proceeds from one brutal fact:  regardless of the relative population density of the U.S. vs. China or any other country on earth, the scope of economic activity today clearly most closely resembles the stable-but-constrained atmosphere of New England in the 1700's as compared to the Wild West of Virginia and Pennsylvania during the same period.

Which is not to say that Franklin didn't have a growth-oriented economic outlook.  He invested in frontier settlement schemes, though perhaps not with as much enthusiasm as planters Washington or Jefferson.  But his legacy vis-a-vis economics is concerned more with intellectual expansion--invention--than the mere opening of untapped resources or markets.  The franklin stove, the lightening rod, any number of his personal innovations seem a much more apt starting point for our own economic explorations than some non-existant unchartered territory on earth or improbable terra-formed planets from which we're exiled by light years worth of space and technology.

And let us not forget that it was Franklin's phenomenal success in the information technology industry of his day--type printing--that allowed him to accumulate the influence and private wealth necessary to become a prominent advocate for public infrastructure projects like libraries and road and sewage improvement, and launch his career in national affairs.[6]

Franklin's achievements in foreign affairs stand head and shoulders above those of any other Founding Father.  His success in convincing the French foreing minister, the arch Comte de Vergennes, to support American idependence despite any reasonable hope of tangible benefit and considerable risk to France's own finances, as regularly and loudly trumpeted by his Bourbon League conterpart, the Count of Aranda, must stand as one of the all-time championship feats of diplomatic ingenuity.  As already alluded to with regard to Washington's military shortcomings, it seems highly unlikely that independence could ever have been obtained without the assistance, especially naval, rendered by France at Yorktown.  Put this all in the context of the inevitable blundering infighting within the nascent American foreign service and incessant offenses against French court protocol committed by patriotic but provincial colleagues like John Adams and Arthur Lee, and the achievement becomes nothing short of miraculous.[7]

The particular quality responsible for Franklin's success here was an almost unique ability to sense the priorities of his counterparties--a quality distinctly at variance with the lofty aristocratic demeanor with which aristocrats like Jefferson, Washington and Lee had been taught to conduct themselves since birth.  And in the modern world where, like it or not, we are continually confronted by multicultural diversity in opinion and objective, this quality will clearly be at a premium.

However, Franklin never simply allowed this ability to play him into a weak passivity.  Although initially opposed to John Jay and John Adam's preference for negotiating peace terms with Britain in secret, and contrary to the protocol expected by both the French Crown and the Continental Congress, lengthy discussion convinced him of the pragmatic wisdom of his colleagues' selected course, given the realpolitik of European empires and America's profound disadvantages in terms of political prestige and the money and resources needed to conduct a prolonged war.

Franklin comes out on top again when you consider his legacy on civil rights.  Having made his fame and fortune in publishing controversial political tracts and he consistently and strongly advocated free speech.  He was the author of many pieces about the importance of the tolerance of other religions and towards nonbelievers.  In 1786 he freed his slaves and became a founding member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

The tally seems totally clear to me.  On the basis of relevance to contemporary Americans, and the strength and consistency of his moral stances with his economic, foreign and civil rights policy practice, Franklin takes the day by a TKO.  And, on top of it all, the guy clearly liked his occasional jar; writings, like his parody of white supremacist douchebag James "Left Eye" Jackson in the "Sidi Mehmet Ibrahim" letter prove it.

[1]  Amongst my favorite Jefferson quotes are the one to the effect that perpetual corporate existence " . . . suppose(s) that . . . the earth belongs to the dead, and not the living."  See TJ's letter to the governor of New Hampshire quoted in full at Chapter V, Volume IV of "The Life of John Marshall", by Albert Jeremiah Beveridge.

[2] Jefferson opposed consolidating the states' debt from the revolutionary war on the federal level, the establishment of a central bank to coordinate monetary policy and the trade treaties with Britain in furtherance of America's manufacturing independence from Old World Europe.  Very few today outside of Ron Paul supporters seem to regard any of these ideas with much enthusiasm, and I personally have yet to see any convincing depictions of a scenario where trade dependance upon foreign powers seems like a good idea.

[3]  Yeah, I know--already mentioned TJ's opposition to the central bank at #2.  So I created these footnotes before my final edit--mea culpa.  This should at least go some way into convincing the reader that these blog posts are the creation of a sophisticated, multimillion dollar political conspiracy.

[4]  Lest any white readers be tempted to lazily dismiss the "Three Fifths Comprimise" as a black civil rights-only issue, they should remember the disproportionate voting power this gave to the large slaveholding states like Virginia and South Carolina, themselves long in thrall to the cronyish domination of planter elites like Jefferson.  Historian Garry Wills, in his book, "Negro President:  Jefferson and the Slave Power" demonstrates that Jefferson could not have won the 1804 election had it not been for the disproportionate representation provided by the comprimise.

[5]  In my opinion, the DNA evidence is pretty unambiguous on this point.  Despite efforts of various TJ apologists to throw suspicion upon some other member of the Jefferson household, the facts are clear that many Hemings descendants share the Y chromosome haplotype of the Jefferson family and that there existed a direct stairwell between TJ and Hemings' rooms in Monticello.  To blythly discount the inconvenient testimony of contemporaries, antagonistic as they may have been personally to Jefferson, is also to ignore the explicit testimony of slaveholders regarding mores under this regime.  From the diaries of Mary Chesnut, antebellum aristocrat of South Carolina:

 "God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system and wrong and iniquity. Perhaps the rest of the world is as bad—this only I see. Like the patriarchs of our old men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think."

[6]  It's probably worthwhile at this stage to also note the contrast in Franklin's particular brand of information technology entrepreneurship with some modern day exponents--like the douchey hedge fund manager and silver-spoon recipient Mitt Romney.  Whereas Franklin was almost completely self-taught came up from an impoverished background on the streets of his native Boston, later in London and Philadelphia, by a combination of business savvy and active involvement in community politics, Romney put his Ivy League education solely to use for private gain in the modern economy's LEAST socially redeeming end of info technology--big finance robs the economy of about $8 out of every $10 invested in it.

[7]  My favourite book on this score is Stacy Schiff's "A Great Improvisation:  Fraklin, France and the Birth of America"

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