Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Perfectly Emblematic Character:

Jefferson, Agrarianism, and the 19th Century American Wilderness

Excerpted from a paper submitted May 2011
POLS7281 – Trends in American Political Thought
Northeastern University
Boston, Massachusetts


i. Introduction: Agrarianism in Context
ii. Mythic and Literary Traditions: Richard Slotkin and Leo Marx

Introduction: Agrarianism in Context

It is a generally accepted narrative that the territorial expansion of the United States was caused in part, or at least greatly helped, by Jeffersonian thought, which sought foremost to secure as much land as possible to be cultivated and made agrarian, so it may be populated by the 'ideal of civic virtue’, the yeoman farmer. My thought is that, beyond merely creating the impetus for the frontier space, Jefferson's thoughts on the matter can explain some of what happened in the American West, and that its definitions of the civic actor (the yeoman) and the political space (the agrarian) can be said to have had a powerful influence over the definitions of actor and space that came out of Westward expansion – namely, the frontiersman (the ’rugged individual’) and the frontier (the liminal space between civilization and wilderness.)

Jefferson's agrarianism provides us with an interesting two-way snapshot, at once an encapsulation of the state of the country and a reflection of a generalized popular opinion, and a centrally important influencing factor on both.
There is much to be said for the view of the great Henry Adams that Jefferson provides the key to the mystery of America. As Adams put it, Jefferson's critics saw him as a visionary, "but if this view of his character was right, the same visionary qualities seemed also to be a national trait, for everyone admitted that Jefferson's opinions, in one form or another, were shared by a majority of the American people." (Young)
The notion that Jefferson provides the key to the mystery of America is perhaps overstated. However, it is not beyond reason to claim that he is key to the mystery of America at that time; and I intend to draw out that thread by providing a view of some of 'the state of things' when Jefferson's agrarianism came into existence, focusing specifically on a few aspects immediately relevant to the tenets of that political philosophy: first, the role of technology in the taming of wilderness and the creation of cultivated, rural spaces; and the place of the home within the frontier and rural spaces. These, together, provide an incomplete but sufficient model of the agrarian republican ideal, and serve as a base to then explore some of Jefferson's particular political tilts on these ideas, especially related to conceptions of the body politic in the republic. [They are, however, more or less a re-stating of subjects from my thesis, so I'll skip ahead to something I haven't talked about before.]

Finally, by exploring the creation of national mythologies and stories, we can understand the continued relevance of Jefferson's thought beyond his death and the 'failure' of America to enact his ideal world; for the agrarian republican dream was superseded by the rise of Jacksonian democracy, which replaced the ideal figure of the yeoman with one of the self-interested, aggressive capitalist/industrialist. Part of my instinct here is to rescue the value from agrarianism, to explore the ways that it could still be relevant. Jefferson's wards probably have not become any more practical at the turn of the 21st than they were at the turn of the 19th, and a vision of a United States focused on small, rural agriculture with its 'workshops in Europe' is radical at least. But there is value in the fact of Jefferson's vision and the thoroughness with which he developed his ideas that is worth remembering.
Jefferson adopts as his vision neither the pastoral nor the sublime extreme. Rather, he combines the two into a vision of a land which both excites and soothes the soul, which stimulates the mind with terrors and drama and sates it with bounty and beauty, which exhibits both the ruinous force and the creative power of time and nature. (Slotkin)
This salient articulation of Jefferson's relationship with the wilderness grants to nature great power to provide for man; its bounty, however, does not come freely. Beyond even the dangers and ruinous forces that the land is capable of unleashing, the bounty that it provides requires work to extract. This enacting of the idealization of work ethic (which Weber attributes to the history of Protestantism) in order to extract the means of survival from the earth is a central aspect of Jefferson's agrarian ideals, and one that is inextricably intertwined with the idea of a technological mankind. [I have talked about this before, in reference to David Nye's work on the role of tools in the narrative history of American formulation and expansion, so won't repeat myself here.]

Mythic and Literary Traditions: Richard Slotkin and Leo Marx

Richard Slotkin begins his Regeneration Through Violence with a discussion of the structure and role of national myths and mythologies in the creation of the nation-state, a national identity, and a national history. In the United States particularly, these mythologies were the product of great novelty, of forced new perspectives brought on by the magnitude of the change implied by settling the New World, from the Old. This was complicated further by the pressure to affirm both to Europe and to themselves that the colonists had not abandoned 'European civilization' in favor of 'American savagery'. "Added together, these conditions ensured that the colonists would be preoccupied with defining, for themselves and for others, the precise nature of their constantly changing relationship to the wilderness." (Slotkin)

Slotkin's understanding of the national myth includes an extensive processes by which it is created, which he terms 'mythogenesis.' As he says, a myth “is articulated by individual artists and has its effect on the mind of each individual participant, but its function is to reconcile and unite these individualities to a collective identity.” (Slotkin) This notion of a collective identity and agency enacted through the individual acts of its component parts has parallels going at least as far back as Hobbes' Leviathan; for now, though, it is enough to understand that national identities, stories, are created and reified in these processes, and that the vast majority of these processes are, to Slotkin's eye at least, most visible in the literary record.

In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx premises many of his arguments on the value and insight that can be gleaned from literary traditions. He makes use of, in his first chapters, both a reflective observational piece by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Shakespeare's Tempest to point out the ways that various cultural thoughts, feelings, and beliefs were articulated at the time that they were occurring. Much in the same way, Slotkin deploys some of Jefferson's writing in Notes on the State of Virginia to draw out his stance on the landscape, and Jefferson's relationship to it.

Interestingly, Jefferson's writing in Notes, though it precedes Hawthorne's by about a half century, is stylistically very similar. As Slotkin describes Jefferson:
Instead of describing a character moving through the several stages of a narrative, he carries the reader's own eye and sensibility through an analogous sequence of impressions, experiences, and sensations. (Slotkin)
And, as Marx describes Hawthorne:
Hawthorne is using natural facts metaphorically to convey something about a human situation... From several pages in this vein we get an impression of a man in almost perfect repose, idly brooding upon the minutiae of nature, and now and then permitting his imagination a brief flight.
For the most part, however, Hawthorne is satisfied to set down unadorned sense impressions... But then, after a time, the scope of his observations widens. Another kind of sound comes through... Without any perceptible change of mood or tone, he shifts from images of nature to images of man and society." (Marx)
This holds up a fascinating mirror to Jefferson's description of the Potomac Gap in his Notes, which shifts from a description of the chaos of strewn rocks and the visible scars of ancient rivers to a "small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in the plain country, inviting you... from the riot and tumult roaring around to pass through and participate of the calm below." (Slotkin)

Not only is this gap the place to which the eye is naturally led by the landscape, it is also the place to which man has been led, as the road itself passes through the same gap. Man's interactions with this nature, just as in Hawthorne's flowing addition of the sounds of rural life to the sounds of the Concord woods, are imagined to be harmonious. This is the agrarian ideal, in true form.

The constancy to which this points is remarkable; even separated by fifty years and a rapidly shifting, and post-Jeffersonian, state of affairs, the two men experience the land in very similar ways, and choose to articulate that experience similarly. But it is not the sole reason that they are included here; Jefferson's views of the landscape are vital to his construction of the agrarian, and the pattern traced through to Hawthorne underlines the long-lasting influence of Jeffersonian ideas.
...this vision of nature's destructive force does not dizzy or upset the viewer on his peak, for he is able to comprehend the scene as a natural metaphor of the course of American history, from threatful present to promising future... Thus for Jefferson the ideal experience of America is one which enables a man to immerse himself temporarily in the wild landscape and then to emerge on a high plane of thought, from which he can analyze the significance of the spectacle below him. (Slotkin)
This description of Jefferson, and his idea of the American experience, encapsulates the enduring promise of his ideas even as it highlights the challenges of reconciling his ideas with his actions. James Young does an excellent job of going through these in his section on Jefferson in Reconsidering American Liberalism [one of the books read for the class], but the one that jumps out the most in the context of this paper is Young's last example: Jefferson's estate at Monticello. Taken within the context of Slotkin's description above, Monticello can be understood as a sort of mountaintop, a retreat from which to view 'the spectacle below', with brief, but always temporary, sojourns into the less civilized areas of the country.

This also provides context for his beliefs regarding education and the value he placed on a leading class of intelligent elites -- a competent and virtuous body of civic actors entrusted with care of the country, who would always decide to maximize and balance their own and the public good; the value placed on the so-called "high planes of thought" afforded by highly civilized, separate places meets a good match in the idea of the university as a place to encourage those who would rule to do so aware of what has come before.

Young concludes that Jefferson "would have much preferred to stay at Monticello, pursuing his scientific interests, tinkering with his inventions, working on his project for the University of Virginia, designing buildings, and, in general, indulging his restless intellectual curiosity." In sum, Young views this as selfish, short-sighted behavior, which "does not reflect the spirit of active citizenship extolled in the tradition of civic republicanism." (Young) I would suggest, though, that Jefferson's agrarian philosophy was an effort to cultivate an environment that fosters the sort of intellectual curiosity that he so enjoyed indulging, and which made it possible to have a just and effective government without eliminating the "delights of private life."