CLAY JENKINSON: Future In Context — A Lesson From Jefferson On How The Nation Can Heal

Is it possible to heal this great nation? At the moment, we are all fixated on Donald Trump — his leadership style, his desire to disrupt, his tweets — but whether he wins or loses in November, the fundamental brokenness of our political system does not cease. In fact, it is likely to worsen. However painful it is to admit, we now live in two Americas.

Blue America consists of much of the two coasts, the Eastern establishment, most of the great universities and university towns (like Boulder, Madison, Eugene, Iowa City, and Austin) and much of urban America. Red America consists of most of the geography of America, including virtually all of the heartland, the old and new South, the Great Plains, much of the Mountain West and, of course, Texas.

These two Americas share the same language and the same national flag (mostly), but they do not understand each other. They do not like each other. They do not trust each other. In the last couple of decades, each one has come to believe that it represents the real America and the other one is something else — not America, an alien betrayal of the idea of America, a perversion of the America dream.

Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein has been saying, for at least four years, that we are now engaged in a Cold Civil War. He worries that we are not that far from the first shots (hot war) over some metaphoric Fort Sumter. As I write these words, I have the urge to pull back because surely I’m exaggerating or overreacting. Things cannot be that bad. But they are. In the past few weeks I have heard each side say that this election is the “most important in American history,” that “if we make the wrong choice Nov. 3, it is likely to be the end of the American experiment as we know it.”

A fight breaks out between police and demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 28, 1968. (Bettman / Getty Images)
A fight breaks out between police and demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 28, 1968. (Bettman / Getty Images)

This is not the first time the nation has been so divided that it shows signs of coming apart. The year 1968 was such a time — the Tet Offensive, the abdication of LBJ, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the appalling Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The year 1932 was such a time, with the Hoover administration stubbornly refusing to address the economic catastrophe that had driven the unemployment rate to 24 percent. And, of course, 1860 was such a time, when the continued existence of slavery tore the nation apart, and it took the death of almost 700,000 Americans to bandage it back together again, with many of the fundamental issues unresolved.

If we are genuinely looking for national healing and reconciliation, I point to the aftermath of the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800. The election itself was as angry and mean-spirited as any in our history. Jefferson, the challenger, was accused of being an atheist (not so), a coward (not really so), a Jacobin (i.e., a French-style radical), a naïve utopian and a lawyer who had cheated some of his clients. His detractors claimed that he would dismantle the country just as it was finding its first stride, and there were rumors that he kept a “Congo harem” at his mountaintop retreat in Virginia.

All this sounds silly in retrospect, but thousands of people believed these allegations, some of which dogged Jefferson for the rest of his life. More to the point, a large number of sober and responsible Americans worried that Jefferson was not suited for the presidency, that he was overly committed to “democracy” (as it was then understood), too enamored of France, too eccentric in his vision of what a republic should be. These were not political attack dogs of the Roger Ailes sort. These were men and women of good will who loved their country and worried that Jefferson was not sufficiently Christian and not sufficiently committed to the existing hierarchical social structure. (Notice that slavery was not a significant issue in the election of 1800.)

The election of 1800 was so hotly contested in part because it was the first time under our system that power was transferred from one party of men to another. The Federalists, led by John Adams, were defeated, and an urban coalition of Southerners, farmers and the urban middle classes propelled the not-Federalist Jefferson into the White House.

Jefferson was aware of how divided the country was. Instead of playing to his base, he sought in his famous first inaugural address to cool the political passions, reach out to those who distrusted him and to bring as much harmony as he could to the country he was to preside over for the next eight years. Temperamentally, Jefferson was a harmony obsessive. His motto was, “Take things always by their smooth handle.” He prepared his inaugural address with great care and — needless to say — he wrote it entirely by himself.

First, he acknowledged that it had been an angry and passionate election cycle:

  • “During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think.”

Translation: The campaign rhetoric makes it look as if we are more divided than we actually are. You have to understand, this is how American presidential politics works. Then Jefferson became the first American to say elections matter:

  • “… but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.”

Translation: The election is over. My party won. Under our system of majority rule, it’s essential that everyone acknowledge the legitimacy of the election and find a way to work together to advance the common good of the nation. Once the election results have been certified, it is essential here in America that we all accept that the contest is over for the next four years.

To make sure everyone understood the importance of this principle, Jefferson provided a brief lesson in civics:

  • “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

Translation: OK, we won, but we are going to work hard to conciliate those who lost, to listen to their perspective and to try to accommodate them (you) to the maximum extent possible. Just because we won doesn’t mean we get to lord it over the rest of you for the next four years and jam our political platform down your throats. We must attempt to be as centrist as we can without betraying the principles that brought us to power.

Then Jefferson called for national healing and national harmony. He reminded his listeners that this is America, a blessed land inhabited by a deeply fortunate people who shared more than divided them and that the purpose of America is not politics, but the quiet pursuit of happiness:

  • “Let us, then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”

It is unmistakably clear that Jefferson actually meant this. It is possible in politics to say all sorts of things for rhetorical effect, but without actually believing them. Everything we know about Thomas Jefferson indicates that this is perhaps the most heartfelt and sincere sentence in his entire inaugural address. He invites his fellow citizens to unite: “Let us, then, fellow citizens …” He does not preach at them or instruct them to seek harmony. He invites them. It is clear that he did find the world of political hatred a dreary thing that degraded everything he valued in life.

And then Jefferson uttered one of the most important paragraphs in American history:

  • “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

What did he mean by this? We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists? I think he meant something like this. We are all Republicans (as then understood) because we want limited government, in fact the least government (at the most local level) that can hold our social fabric together. We do not want to live in a managed society, especially one managed from a faraway national capital. But we are all Federalists because we want enough government to do the things that a nation needs to do: protect its coasts and harbors, settle disputes between wrangling states, deliver the mail (i.e., connectivity) to the far corners of the republic, create a fair and equitable tax system, establish a coherent foreign policy, maintain order and due process. We want enough government to establish a stable America where people can enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness unmolested by outside forces. But we want to experiment with the most limited government (especially the most limited central government) in human history.

It was a masterful performance by one of the most gifted men in American history. He meant every word of it. Even one of his most determined enemies left the inauguration and reported, in a letter to an absent friend, that the speech was “well judged and conciliatory.” James Bayard reported to Jefferson’s principal enemy, the arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton, that the address was “in political substance better than we expected; and not answerable to the expectations of the Partizans of the other side.” Federalist George Cabot wrote that “its temper entitles it to respect.”

Like most presidents, Jefferson governed more from the center than from what his enemies regarded as his core principles. He did not dismantle Col. Hamilton’s fiscal system. He did not abolish Christianity or confiscate Bibles (such was the silliest claim of Federalist campaign rhetoric). He did not throw out all Federalist officeholders, though he did remove a few score of what he called the incorrigibles. In 1803, he violated his own constitutional theory to purchase the Louisiana Territory, thus doubling the size of the United States for 3 cents per acre. He hosted thrice-weekly small dinner parties in the White House in which he charmed his Federalist detractors with French cuisine, his natural grace and intelligence and French wines so fine that even his enemies begged for dinner invitations.

It all paid off. When he stood for re-election in 1804, Jefferson won by a landslide. The vote was 162 to 14 in the Electoral College, with his Federalist opponent Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina winning only two states, Connecticut and Delaware. Jefferson won 73 percent of the popular vote. Jefferson’s victory over the Federalists (the party with the little tent) was so decisive that by 1808 the Federalist Party just ceased to exist. By the time Jefferson’s Virginia protégé was elected to the presidency in 1816, the pundits and historians were calling this period “the era of good feelings.”

Thomas Jefferson, by Houdon.
Thomas Jefferson, by Houdon.

Can we learn from Jefferson? Can we find a way to learn to live together again in something like harmony? Jefferson’s and Adams’ friendship broke down in the 1790s — over the French Revolution, over ideological differences and over the impacts of nasty party politics. They could be cordial and polite, but outgoing president Adams left Washington, D.C., without waiting for his successor to be inaugurated in his place, and they never saw each other again. In 1812, their mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, managed to maneuver them into jump-starting their correspondence back into life. Once they started to communicate again, the friendship soon recovered. In fact, Adams famously said, “we must not die until we have explained ourselves to each other.” In the months leading up to their reconciliation, the biggest problem was, who will write the first letter? Who will be the one that takes the risk? In the end it was John Adams, who loved Jefferson in spite of everything and who was a comparatively lonely man in Quincy, Mass., while his old rival was a famous and much-sought-after former president, not to mention the author of the most famous document in American history.

On Thursday, Aug. 20, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said the following words at the beginning of his acceptance speech:

“While I will be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president. I will work as hard for those who didn’t support me as I will for those who did. That’s the job of a president. To represent all of us, not just our base or our party. This is not a partisan moment. This must be an American moment.”

Some will doubt that he really meant these words, but I think he did. This is how it starts. True national reconciliation would take an enormous amount of mutually respectful talking and especially listening. You cannot reconcile without the view that the other guy’s point of view has legitimacy and is entitled to be taken seriously. Both parties would need to remember that we share much more than that which divides us, that the great mass of the American people are somewhere in the middle, uneasy about extreme positions at either end of the political spectrum. That it is easier to diagnose what is wrong in America than to fix it and that the great mass of the American people prefer to move forward cautiously than to institute radical changes overnight.

The best polls show that the American people want to find a resolution to the problems of global climate change, the gun mayhem that has shattered so many American communities, the broken immigration system, our radically uneven health-care system and the tenaciously lingering legacy of racism and slavery. If Jefferson set the gold standard for this process March 4, 1801, this much seems clear: the answer to these difficult problems is not to stand pat and hide behind the status quo out of fear of change; but it is also not a series of dramatic “reforms” that move too fast for the comfort level of millions of good and decent Americans, who want to improve the country, but don’t want to be rushed too fast by righteous reformists.

We are all Republicans. We are all Democrats.

Next Time: Jefferson’s harmony principle applies to several of the key issues of our time.

For more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour.” Clay’s most recent book, Repairing Jefferson’s America: A Guide to Civility and Enlightened Citizenship,” is available at Amazon.com.

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