October 5, 2007

Tom Wolfe's tribute to Tom Jefferson

From one Virginian to another (in The Atlantic):

Fortunately for America, as Jefferson saw it, British aristocracy had never taken root here in the colonies. Most British toffs didn’t have the faintest urge to depart their country estates and London clubs, their coaches-and-four, their tailors, valets, butlers, ballrooms, peruke-makers, and neck-cloth launderers for a wilderness full of painted bow-and-arrow-bearing aborigines … and no desirable women, unless one were a rather twisted toff who had a thing for granola girls with honest calves and forearms and hands thick as a blacksmith’s from hoeing the corn and black-eyed peas. From the very beginning of his political career, Jefferson was determined to make sure no aristocracy, European- or American-born, would ever be established here. Aristocracy literally means rule by the best, but he knew the proper word was plutocracy, rule by the rich, in this case big landowners who maintained their lordly, demigodly, hereditary rank only by passing their estates down generation after generation—intact—courtesy of the law of entail and the right of primogeniture. As soon as the Revolution was won, Jefferson launched a successful campaign to abolish both. Too bad he couldn’t have lived another hundred years to see just how efficient his strategy was. In America, rare is the plutocrat whose family wields power and influence beyond the second generation. One need only think of the Vanderbilts, Goulds, Astors, Carnegies, and Mellons. Where are they now? On the letterheads of charitable solicitations, at best. They don’t even rise to the eminence of gossip-column boldface any longer. The rare ones have been the Bushes, who have wielded power—a lot of it—into the third generation, and the Rockefellers, who have made it into the fourth … by a thread, the thread being Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. But the odds are 2-to-5—you’ll have to bet $5 to win $2—that within 10 years the last, best hope of even these exceptional families’ next generations will be to start climbing the white cliffs of the disease-charity letterheads.

Jefferson created a radically new frame of mind. In a thousand different ways he obliterated the symbols and deferential manners that comprise aristocracy’s cardiovascular system. Led by Jefferson, America became a country in which every sign of aristocratic pretensions was systematically uprooted and destroyed. The round table where the Merrys [the stuffy English ambassador and his wife] suffered their intolerable humiliation? It has been recorded that Jefferson insisted on round tables for dining because they had no head and no foot, removing any trace of the aristocratic European custom of silently ranking dinner guests by how close to the head of the table they sat. “That certain class” does not exist here psychologically.

Jefferson’s pell-mell gave America a mind-set that has never varied. In 1862, 36 years after Jefferson’s death, the government began the process of settling our vast, largely uninhabited western territories. Under the terms of the Homestead Act, they gave it away by inviting people, anybody, to head out into the open country and claim any plot they liked—Gloriously pell-mell! First come, first served! Each plot was 160 acres, and it was yours, free! By the time of the first Oklahoma Land Rush, in 1889, it had become a literal pell-mell—a confused, disorderly, headlong rush. People lined up on the border of the territory and rushed out into all that free real estate at the sound of a starter gun. Europeans regarded this as more lunacy on the part of … these Americans … squandering a stupendous national asset in this childish way on a random mob of nobodies. They could not conceive of the possibility that this might prove to be, in fact, a remarkably stable way of settling the West, of turning settlers into homeowners with a huge stake in making the land productive … or that it might result, as the British historian Paul Johnson contends, in “the immense benefits of having a free market in land—something which had never before occurred at any time, anywhere in the world.” So long as you had made certain required improvements, after five years you could sell all or part of your 160 acres to other people, any other people. It’s hard to be absolutely sure, but where else in the world could ordinary citizens go out and just like that—how much you want for it?—buy themselves a piece of land?

The notion that cheap land and high wages are the essence of the American Advantage goes back even farther than Jefferson, to at least Ben Franklin's 1751 essay "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind."

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

14 comments:

daveg said...

Europeans regarded this as more lunacy on the part of … these Americans … squandering a stupendous national asset [land] in this childish way [homesteading] on a random mob of nobodies.

This parallels the birth of Britain in 1066. When William was trying to create his army to invade England he sent out the word that those who fought with him would be granted estates if they won.

It was a "contingency fee" war, so to speak.

Knights from all around came and joined the fight and he was able to win against the Saxons who had just defeated the "northmen" days before.

SFG said...

Yeah, but land can't stay cheap forever. A reason for limiting immigration, to be sure, but if the birth rate edges over replacement land will become pricier as the population rises.

Anonymous said...

It was somewhat easy for Jefferson to imagine he wasn't an aristocrat when he had black (and ahem Jeffersonian mulatto) slaves.

The British aristos he was criticizing had fellow Britons as servants, so they had to use more subtle ways of differentiating themselves from their fellows than the whips, chains, brands and the like that the egalitarian Jefferson had at his disposal.

There's an interesting ISteve article (comparing the situation then to the situation now) here somewhere. Too bad that Steve Sailer fellow couldn't find it.

beowulf said...

“the immense benefits of having a free market in land—something which had never before occurred at any time, anywhere in the world.”

Of course 19th Century American was also famed for its free market in slave labor. But just as the efficient slave market had a few externalities, all that "free" land also had a human cost, we ethnically cleansed North America of most of its Native inhabitants and repopulated it with outsiders. By 21th Century standards, clearly a war crime.

If one had a way to send, back in time to early Native Americans, trainloads (Guns Of The South style) AK-47s and Russian fuel-air bazookas, one certainly would.

But I take your point. Pro-Slavery Southerners wanted cheap wages (and what's cheaper than slave wages?) and Pro-Manifest Destiny Republicans wanted cheap land for settlers (and what's cheaper than stolen?).

Mark said...

The author misses the fact that the plutocrats are well on their way to elkiminating Jefferson's vision.

The two biggest fronts in that effort are the move towards open borders - which will truly exist in fact if another amnesty ever goes through - and the move to eliminate the estate tax. We will then have a permanently entrenched elite with lots of cheap, servile slave labor to do their bidding.

Open borders is making landowners all the richer by increasing demand and reducing supply, thus the huge runup in home prices, especially in the most desireable places to live.

And I don't know how we compare historically, but political power seems increasingly to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, especially in 2nd and 3rd generation dynasties. 4 of the 6 most powerful people in my state, Utah, are 2nd or 3rd generation. Our governor is the son of a billionaire and the grandson of a Mormon apostle. One senator, Bob Bennett, is the son of a senator and grandson of a Mormon Church president. Two of our three congressmen, Jim Matheson and Chris Cannon, come from political dynasties, as well.

Nationally, there is George Bush, Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore (though no longer in office), David Pryor, Evan Bayh, Hillary Clinton, Mary Landrieu, Ted Kennedy, Gordon Smith and his 2 Udall cousins, and Bob Casey. And then of course there's the hugely disproportionate number of Jews in office, including 14 or so in the senate and two on the Supreme Court.

Mr. Jefferson's vision is dead.

Ron Guhname said...

@ beowulf

"If one had a way to send, back in time to early Native Americans, trainloads (Guns Of The South style) AK-47s and Russian fuel-air bazookas, one certainly would."

Not this one. My mind seizes up any time I try to wish for a past that annihilates me as part of the future. Even if I had been conceived by rape, I'd thank the rapist.

And I am assuming with a name like Beowulf, those bazookas might have blown your Granddaddy to bits too, thereby preventing the birth of an ungrateful grandson.

Or are you just grandstanding, and don't mean a word of it?

Anonymous said...

"Not this one. My mind seizes up any time I try to wish for a past that annihilates me as part of the future. Even if I had been conceived by rape, I'd thank the rapist."

Spoken by a wise man. It's best not to look too closely at your ancestry. Just take the DNA & run with it. But remember the anchor babies of today will have this attitude in the future & won't really care about the technicalities of their existence in this country.

Is anyone in charge here, has anyone ever been in charge?

Anonymous said...

Steve,

David Rockefeller is worth 2.5 Billion according to Forbes. I cannot imagine his heirs squandering that much money when they own so much of Exxon and Chase Manhattan Bank and who knows what else. Money is professionally mangaged these days for the wealthy while they get first-class educations. Its hard to imagine these sorts of people ever being poor unless confiscatory marginal tax rates are reintroduced for a few decades at this point.

Mark said...

But just as the efficient slave market had a few externalities, all that "free" land also had a human cost, we ethnically cleansed North America of most of its Native inhabitants and repopulated it with outsiders. By 21th Century standards, clearly a war crime.

Yes, but by historical standards, it was business as usual. It was the same thing that Indians had done to each other, and that everyone - everyone - had done to Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis.

It's very easy for a guy who thinks that food comes from a fridge to criticize people who had to actually grow food to survive. We live in a time when, thanks to revolutions in many things, especially agriculture, we can squeeze millions of people into a few square miles of land. Most people's jobs aren't related to agriculture.

Back then most people had to grow their own food, however. That meant they needed land. That sometimes meant killing other people for theirs.


If one had a way to send, back in time to early Native Americans, trainloads (Guns Of The South style) AK-47s and Russian fuel-air bazookas, one certainly would.

Well since there is no time machine available, Beowulf, then why don't you prove your sincerity by leaving? If you live in the United States, I invite you to hand over your land to its "rightful heirs" and return to the land of your ancestors.

Anonymous said...

Jefferson must be the weirdest guy ever foaled on this continent. The egalitarian slave-owner, the parsimonious spendthrift, the industrious bankruptee, the aristocratic snob/commoner all rolled into one!

SFG said...

It was a different time period. Frequently people from the past will have attitudes we think are weird. If anything, given his relative irreligion and intellectual leanings, I'd say he'd be a limousine liberal of the Upper West Side type today. Similarly, I'd see Washington as a George Bush Sr.- or Eisenhower-style establishment conservative. People are products of their times.

Anonymous said...

I was gonna make some of Mark's points above regarding estate taxes, the power of multi-generational dynasties today, and so on. Wolfe seems a little too self-congratulatory about the America of 200 years ago and a little complacent about the actual America of today.

But there's a connection -- the fact that America was a pretty good working class country for quite some time is one reason why we don't have a strong populist tradition that's suspicious of concentrations of wealth, the tight connections that develop between government and the wealthy, etc. Roosevelt and the New Deal cleaned out the sclerosis in the system that arose from our last Gilded Age, we'll see what happens with this one.

MQ

Mark said...

If anything, given his relative irreligion and intellectual leanings, I'd say he'd be a limousine liberal of the Upper West Side type today.

You're way off. Jefferson would be the antithesis of the limousine liberal. He wouldn't fit any stereotype we have of either liberal or conservative.

David said...

Jefferson, today, would be Ron Paul.

King George the III would be King George the II (ahem), slavering on about the necessity to colonize overseas lands.

All the current presidential candidates are various bombastic courtiers, aristos, and rotten-bourough potentates.