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PERMANENT INFLUENCE OF
THOMAS JEFFERSON ON AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS
INTRODUCTORY In an article written by Andrew D. White, entitled, "Jefferson and Slavery," in the Atlantic Monthly for January, 1862, he says that "in the architecture” of our democratic republic, we find “the agency mainly of six men.”
First, three men who “did most to found the Republic: and these three men are Washington, Adams and Jefferson.”
"Secondly, two men who" ... "did most to build the Republic: and these two men are Jefferson and Hamilton."
“Third, three men, who, having a clear theory in their heads, and a deep conviction in their hearts . . . did most to brace the Republic: and these three men are Franklin, Jefferson and Channing."
“So, rising above the dust raised in our old quarrels, and taking a broad view of this Democracy, we see Jefferson placed firmly in each of these groups.
“If we search in Jefferson's writings and in the contemporary records to ascertain what that power was which won him these positions, we find that it was no personal skill in cajoling friends or scaring enernies. ...
“The real secret of his power was, first of all, that Jefferson saw infinitely deeper into the principles of the rising democracy, and infinitely farther into its future working, than any other man of his time. Those who earnestly read him will often halt astounded at proofs of a foresight in him almost miraculous.”
The subject prescribed for me in these lectures is the permanent influence of Thomas Jefferson on American institutions. Who can say, with assurance, what feature in a nation's institutions is permanent, until its life has been lived out to its end? To delineate the birth principles of the American confederation is easy, but to tell how far these birth principles are permanently life principles, is not so. What Solon said to Croesus applies. What features seemingly essential to our institutions at any one particular time, are really so, is a question whose answer is colored by the time at which the question is asked. If such a question had been asked during and immediately after the Revolution, when the love of freedom was at high tide, the answer would have been one thing; if after Shay's Rebellion in Massachusetts and the general anarchic condition, leading to a great and general reaction against the principles of the American Revolution, it would have been another. If asked once more, after four years of Jefferson's administration had allayed the fear of democracy and of popular rule, the reply would have been still different. Then put yourselves back in the period of 1850–60, and again to the year 1866, and yet again to 1876, and get a different reply in each case.
Imagine the question asked and answered during reconstruction days, and again later on after sensible men had concluded with Tourgee, who called himself “One of the Fools,” that reconstruction had been "A Fool's Errand.” Again how essentially different the replies would be before and after we had “gone a world-powering" in the Philippines; — before, when all were agreed that we wanted no entanglements with the old world by interference, or possession; that we desired only "friendly commerce with all and entangling alliances with none,” and after, when we stood amazed to find that somehow we had sillily drifted into becoming an Asiatic power, with Asiatic territorial and political interests and anxieties.
Not knowing what all this has made pregnant in the womb of the future, which of us can assert that any particular feature of our system now deemed fundamental, characteristic, permanent, shall be so ten years from now — whether, in any particular case, “having the wolf by the ears," we shall or shall not, or can or can not, “turn him loose”? All of which concludes in this; that for the purpose of the inquiry of these lectures, that is permanent which the inquirer in his horoscoping deems permanent, and, as the wish is so much the father of the thought, it will be largely that which he wishes and prays and hopes is so.
Next, in determining the scope of our work in these lectures: what are the "institutions” of a people? Are they simply constitutional forms? If so, these United States and Mexico and the Central American republics have the same institutions; and England and Italy and Germany, all being “limited monarchies” with so-called
the thouans and, as thurer in his
“responsible parliamentary ministries,' have the same institutions. Can either of these statements be true? No. Why not? Because just as a man has an outward body and an inner informing and directing soul, so a nation has a body-politic, about which we hear so much, and a soul-politic, about which we hear little, or nothing, under that name. L'Esprit des Lois — the spirit of the institution — that is, the thing vitalizing the words of constitutions and statutes - must be taken into consideration. Buckle's unfinished political novum organum — his “History of Civilization” — is only a historical analysis of the evolutionary development of the soul-politic of the peoples.
All considered, I shall then treat the subject in this full sense, and I shall exhibit the permanent, or thoughtto-be-permanent, influence of Mr. Jefferson, not only on American visible institutions, but on American vitalizing thought and practice.
But again, how can one tell a man's political influence, without knowing at least enough of his heredity and environment to explain his words, theories, and acts in the light of them?
No man can escape altogether the impress of the form and color of his time and place, nor altogether ignore the blood which courses in his veins. Yet for all this, I shall have neither time nor space. The man, Jefferson, in his lovableness of disposition, his feminine cleanness of speech and thought and life, his almost infinite versatility, his noble optimism, his worldvision, I would literally love to describe. But all that I must ruthlessly forego, save for a sidelight here and there, while correcting some errors of others.