Thomas Jefferson has somehow gotten under my skin. As I’ve grown older in my tights and wig, in some respects I’ve become a radical and even, at times, a paper revolutionary. When I began investigating Mr. Jefferson 30 years ago, tentatively beginning to portray him, I was mostly interested in his agrarian vision for this country. The sentence that then engaged my soul most was, “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of god, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Among other things, that could be the mission statement of my native North Dakota. I knew Jefferson was a revolutionary, but he always seemed to me to be a mild-mannered and extremely civil revolutionary. A revolutionary from a Jane Austen novel, perhaps. A revolutionary who served Château d’Yquem in perfect cut glass decanters.
In my experience, most people grow more conservative as they get older. You know the old clichés, “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged”; or “If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a conservative in middle age, you have no head.”
To my considerable chagrin, I have felt some hardening of my spiritual and political arteries as I have advanced in age. But in the past few years, I have found myself becoming more disenchanted with the existing order of things, more certain that the world is rigged on behalf a tiny handful of individuals who don’t really deserve all they have grabbed, partly because they are talented, partly because they are lucky and in many cases simply because they are corrupt. Jefferson called these folks “pseudo-aristocrats.” He wanted to replace them with men and women of actual merit. These he called “natural aristocrats,” individuals who excel in virtue, learning, artistic expression, philosophy, and enlightenment.
Conservatives like Newt Gingrich like to argue that this is the natural order of things. But we know that is baloney. God could not have intended millions, even billions of human beings, to live close to the bone of mere survival while a handful of self-selected winners live like gods on Earth and tell the rest of us that we are not working hard enough.
When Jefferson saw the way the class system in France had ground 95 percent or more of the French people into powder, he wrote, to his friend, Charles Bellini, “It is a true picture of that country to which they say we shall pass hereafter; and where we are to see God and his angels in splendor, and crowds of the damned trampled under their feet.” In other words, Thomas Jefferson was not a natural radical. He was radicalized by what he saw in prerevolutionary France, and therefore determined that what happened there must never be allowed to happen in the United States.
But guess what? It has happened, and it has poisoned America life. The only difference is that we are a country so profoundly rich that even the table scraps are enough to buy off revolution. Here widescreen televisions and the Kardashians are the opiate of the masses, and that reality show that propelled Donald Trump into the presidency.
Jefferson was so disturbed by what he saw in France that he decided that the bloody and disruptive revolution was justified, including its excesses. He rebuked his handwringing privileged friend Lafayette by declaring, “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty, in a feather-bed.”
And that is why Jefferson wrote the most radical letter of his life, to his protégé, William Short, when the French Revolution had descended into the Reign of Terror:
“The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? … rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.”
Strong words, from a naturally civil and gentle man who saw what happens when we let self-appointed, self-perpetuating cadres appropriate the wealth of nations and then hire lackeys to pass laws protecting their unearned gains.
I believe that the gap between the haves and the have-nots of the world, particularly in the United States, is obscene, illegitimate and unsustainable. A few hundred families now essentially control the wealth of the United States. Many of them do each other favors when they meet on private islands, in Aspen and Jackson Hole’s gated communities, at the hyperexclusive Yellowstone Club in the mountains of Montana. They have bought senators and congressmen, governors and state legislators, who protect their private interests while lying to us with such terms as “tax reform” and “national energy policy.
I do not believe the CEO of a large corporation, no matter how talented, should earn $30 million per year while a worker in the factory is paid $17 per hour. I do not believe that the superrich should have concierge health care, while millions of Americans are unable to afford any health care whatsoever and are forced to crawl into emergency rooms when they need basic medical attention. I do not believe that the superrich should have four houses or 10 or even three, while millions of Americans live in poverty and even in squalor.
Of course, I believe in meritocracy and that the people who have invested in their training and professional mastery should be paid somewhat more than those who are unskilled workers, but I even have some late-night doubts about that. I certainly don’t think that the rich are entitled to all that they have.
I’m with Mr. Jefferson in believing that an enlightened society needs to find ways to redistribute wealth and opportunity from time to time so that everyone has something like an equal chance of living in very modest prosperity. I’m with Mr. Jefferson that the best use of public funds is to invest in creative, emphatic, inexpensive or free public education, including high-quality vocational education, because I believe with Jefferson that the best way to solve most social problems is education.
Why is a day care provider paid $32,000 per year and the manager of a hedge fund $32 million? Why does a teacher buy colored pencils and poster board from her own salary because the local school system is starved for funds, while the rich bribe Stanford and USC with cash payments up to $500,000 to admit their marginally talented children? Why is a family farmer edging up to Chapter 11, while the USDA pays Monsanto, Conagra and DuPont hundreds of millions of tax dollars per year to perpetuate chemically adulterated monoculture in California’s Central Valley?
The conservatives blather on about welfare, food stamps, subsidized school lunches and permanent dependency, but if you eliminated all government welfare programs overnight, including corporate welfare, middle-class welfare and tax shelters for the very rich, it wouldn’t be the poor who howl in the streets but the most comfortable and privileged Americans.
How the American people have been drugged into thinking all of this is natural and OK is perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of population management.
Thomas Jefferson was on to all of this. He sought desperately to prevent from happening what has happened to America. He was an imperfect embodiment of the egalitarian and revolutionary spirit, but the fact is we need his moral clarity and his gifts of persuasion now more than ever.