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I don’t want to be snotty or anything here, but “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is not in the US Constitution.

It’s in the Declaration of Independence.

And I think all it’s supposed to mean is that citizens get to set their own priorities without interference from the state–that the state shouldn’t get to tell you you have to be a Methodist and not a Catholic, a carpenter and not a brain surgeon, a vegetarian and not a meat eater.

They used to define “happiness” differently than we do.  We tend to mean by it an emotion.   They tended to mean by it something like a state of intellectual satisfaction–a knowledge that your life was properly ordered and being lived in accordance with virtue.

I sometimes think it’s remarkable that somebody like Jefferson–who, for all his radicalism, was not a moral relativist–could have come up with the idea that the state should not impose virtue on its citizens, but allow them to live out their own conception of it as long as it did not breach the peace.

I sometimes run into people on the net triumphantly proclaiming that the US was not founded on the idea of natural rights but on the idea of protection of property owners, because after all, the original formula, Locke’s formula, was that people had the right to “life, liberty and property.”

But Jefferson changed the formula, and he was right–and considerably more right than you could expect him to be, given his personal circumstances.

The usual formula I learned in school was that Jefferson was a great man but not a good one, and Adams was a good man but not a great one. 

But I think that the entire situation at the start of the US is a direct challenge to the idea that we are all held hostage (in our ideas) to our circumstances, that all argument about morals and politics is necessarily self-serving.

And I come back, you know, to the feeling that these guys were the intellectuals of their time.  The American revolution was conceived and ordered by men with what we know call “classical educations”–with the knowledge of Cicero (LOTS of Cicro) and Scipio as well as the Bible.

And yes, of course, the revolution only actually happened because these men were speaking for and to a broader range of men with less in the way of education.

But if that broader range of men had turned their backs on Jefferson and Madison and Adams and Washington as a bunch of “elitists” who couldn’t talk to the “folks”–we’d still be singing “God Save The Queen.”

I’ll stipulate right now that people like Chomsky are not what we’re looking for, but neither are people who scream “elitist” every time somebody else references Aristotle or uses a polysyllabic word.

When Jefferson started the University of  Virginia, he was certainly interested in the “useful arts,” but among the arts he found useful was a working knowledge of Latin and Greek authors, in philosophy as well as history.  He wanted a country not of philosopher kings, but of philosopher farmers. 

Ah, well.

You can tell I’ve started teaching again.  I’m in that mood.

And I’m going to go off and listen to elitist music, with harpsichords in it.

Written by janeh

January 31st, 2010 at 6:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Ahem'

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  1. So we’re back to “Why are todays yahoos ignoring our Ivy League (or First Tier) Great and Good?” Why am I not surprised? A few home truths about the Revolution’s “elites:”

    They were interested in education, not degrees. Franklin’s and Washington’s formal education would cause fainting spells at the Kennedy School of Government.

    They put their lives where their mouths were. When the Revolution broke out, easily 80-90% of recent Harvard and Yale graduates took commissions and commanded troops. The same with other colleges. Alexander Hamilton commanded a battery of Continental artillery, and led the storming of a British redoubt at Yorktown. Monroe was wounded at Trenton.

    They were not a distinct economic class. Franklin was the only one for whom “public service” meant “holding a job at the taxpayers’ expense” and he left that one prior to the Revolution. For everyone else, writing political tracts, holding political office or commanding forces in the field was an interruption of their economic lives. They were going back to running farms, smithies or law firms–and not, may I note, “civil rights law,” lobbying firms or conducting class-action lawsuits, but drawing up wills and deeds and arguing which farmer rightfully owned a field or a cow.
    And the large-scale “planters” weren’t acting like Monsanto or ADM, but making on their own whatever they could and selling it if they could do that. Visit steel mills, and you’ll often find a plaque which lists how many of the signers of the Declaration or writers of the Constitution were foundrymen–30 or 40 if I remember correctly. It generally wasn’t an exclusive profession. About the same numbers and many of the same names could be said to have been miners or manufacturers. Has anyone in the upper reaches of the past four administrations ever made or sold anything more concrete than a financial instrument of some sort? (Note four administrations: two each for balance.)

    When the farmers and businessmen of their home states sent these men to the Continental Congresses and to the Constitutional Convention, they were not picking members of a separate political and educational class to make decisions for them, but sending men much like themselves only, as a rule, more successful and often better read, to see that their interests–the interests of Virginians and Rhode Islanders, but also of farmers and lawyers, printers and manufacturers–were considered in the negotiations. And those representatives were expected to come back after a few weeks or at most a year or two and live under the conditions they created, and among the people who entrusted them with power.

    If our current ruling class wishes to be accorded the respect given the Founders, I’d suggest they start the ball rolling by acting more like the Founders. Most of our present political elite seem to prefer airports named after themselves, lifetime pensions and “second careers” as lobbyists and lecturers to ploughing fields, casting pig iron and drawing up wills, and who can blame them? But that is not the path to respect.


    31 Jan 10 at 9:47 am

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