CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Have You Looked Around, Mr. Jefferson?

John Adams believed three things that drive an utopian like Jefferson nuts. First, he believed that aristocracy will always be with us in one form or another. In Europe, this works by hereditary emoluments and privileges. The Duke of Northumberland is always the father of the next Duke of Northumberland and the son of the last one, downhill forever through history, together with vast estates, whole sections of London, and thousands of retainers.

In the United States, with its constitutional prohibition on titles of nobility, you perhaps cannot be called the Duke of Something-or-Other, but you can be a Rockefeller, a Mellon, a Carnegie, a Kennedy, a Bush, or for that matter a Kardashian, a Vanderbilt or a Clooney.

Adams understood that this kind of aristocracy — in which certain families somehow accumulated vast amounts of property and power — is simply a fact of life. You can rail against it until you go hoarse in the throat, but the only sensible thing to do is to get used to it and try to turn their enormous power toward philanthropic ends, the Rockefeller Foundation or the Pew Memorial Trust.

You have to keep a tight vigilance on these families, Adams believed. He thought, though we don’t, that the best place for them with the United States Senate.

The second of Adams’ foundational beliefs was that you can never build a republic in which everyone is equal. You can try, you can reshuffle all the property and divvy it up equally among the whole population. But it won’t work. Give it a few years in a free and equalitarian society, and you’ll find that a handful of individuals once again own most of the country and most of the wealth, that a large mass of people in a middling condition will exist, all wanting more, and then there will be a significant class of poor people who either barely keep their heads above water or wind up being wards of the state or the parish or some other entity.

After all of this redistribution in the name of social equality, the new rich may not be precisely the same as the old rich, though probably they will, but the new rich will hold most of the wealth and they will forget their beginnings and lord it over everyone else. They will expect, and they will get, special privileges in the society. They will mark off playgrounds for themselves that regular people cannot afford — because they lack the money, are not admitted to the exclusive clubs, don’t wear the proper clothing, don’t speak with the correct English accent.

The third and perhaps most important of Adams’ fundamental principles is that the central human impulse is not to sympathy or justice or generosity or love of truth. It’s not to gratitude or benevolence or philanthropy. In Adam’s world, the central human impulse, the dynamo right at the center of your personality, is a rage for distinction.

You want to be the captain of the football team, or at least the captain of the chess club. You want to be the greatest warrior in Afghanistan or at least the best in your neighborhood at the video game “Call of Duty.” You want to be the prettiest girl in your graduating class or at least the prettiest at your 30th reunion. You want to be tallest guy on the team, highest scorer on the team, the only one on the team named to the All-Academic All-Stars. You want to be the youngest full partner of the law firm or youngest tenured professor in southeast central Arkansas state college, or the richest man in Broken Bow, Neb., or the guy at the sports bar who knows the most NFL trivia or — even better — the one who met Michael Jordan at a celebrity golf tournament at Tahoe. Class president or class clown. The one who got into Harvard or the one who was expelled for turning loose twenty rattlesnakes at the homecoming dance.

Whatever it takes to have distinction, preferably a unique distinction. I actually knew a guy in high school who, at beer parties, would eventually be talked into going outside and trying to urinate over the top of the garage. I’m not joking. He occasionally could accomplish this tremendous feat of sheer human athleticism and will, and we celebrated him for it, as if he had cracked the DNA code or run the three-minute mile. So far as I know that was all that he could do — his sole distinction in life — and, of course, it was not for all markets, not for church suppers or a one man Broadway show. And, if you think about the nature of the male prostate gland, he’s probably lucky now if he can pee over the lip of his toilet, but at all-class reunions people (by which I mean men who never grew up) gather around him, even now, as if he were the Joe Namath of competitive peeing.

John Adams said this was the central human impulse — this rage for distinction. Think about this in your own life. Where is your distinction from the herd — now numbering 340 million rival human beings in America alone? What do you have or do that marks you as remarkable, or perhaps unique? Is it your pineapple upside-down cake, or the size of your … hot tub? Is it the time share you have at Cabo? Is it the quality of your tube-type stereo system?

John Adams says you may not be willing to admit it (though you probably are all too willing to admit it), but there is something, some talent, some access, some achievement, some birthright or purchase that gives you a sense of competitive advantage, whether you can roll your eyes all the back into your head or flop your ears to play the national anthem in Morse code. Somewhere in your story, says John Adams, you hang your competitive hat on that distinction.

These Adams propositions — that aristocrats will always be with us, that equality is a lovely fairy tale and that the rage for distinction is at the center of all human endeavor — were designed to confound dreamers like Thomas Jefferson. For Jefferson believed that we could at the very least replace the pseudo-Aristocracy (individuals born into wealth and privilege) with what he called Natural Aristocracy, and we would call meritocracy.

Jefferson believed that we could distribute the fruits of life more equitably than in any previous civilization in the history of the world, and we could perpetuate that essential equality by enlightened redistributive laws (equal inheritance to all children, for example), and, of course, by buying a “Louisiana Purchase” now and then. And he believed that the central human impulses were actually those of sympathy, benevolence, generosity and friendship.

To which John Adams would say, “Have you looked around lately, Mr. Jefferson?” Or as he actually did say once, “No doubt you was fast asleep in philosophical tranquility,” Mr. Jefferson, while the American expression of the French Revolution roiled through the streets of Philadelphia in 1793.

Yes, I would like to be the greatest Thomas Jefferson scholar. I would like to be the Muse of the Little Missouri River Valley in the Badlands of North Dakota. I would like to write the best book ever written about Lewis and Clark. I would like to be “the” North Dakota, for what little that may be worth to you who live in better states. And though my days of garage peeing contests are long over, I would like now to be able to get through the night without having to get up to pee. There’s my rage for distinction, indeed.

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Clay Jenkinson

Clay Jenkinson is a public humanities scholar who lives and writes in Bismarck, N.D. He grew in western North Dakota, not far from Theodore Roosevelt’s Badlands. He attended the University of Minnesota, the University of Colorado and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He also is the host of the "Thomas Jefferson Hour," a syndicated public radio program dedicated to the search for truth in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson.

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