For the past three months I’ve enjoyed the inestimable pleasure of teaching a course on Thomas Jefferson’s life and legacy to a group of bright undergraduates. Judging by the conversations that have unfolded both in and out of class, the experience has shown me that thoughtful people, in this case young people, remain fascinated by the most radical proposition in the history of Western civilization: the idea that human beings can govern themselves.
This proposition lay at the heart of our foundational documents, many of which, literally and figuratively, contain Jefferson’s fingerprints. In 1776, we declared to the world that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed. Little more than a decade later, “We the People” decided precisely what powers our national government should have. After centuries of priestly, monarchical, and aristocratic dominance, we Americans embarked upon an “experiment” in self-rule.
Do we still believe in that experiment? If so, do we find that belief reflected in the dominant political ideologies of our day?
The uncomfortable truth is that modern progressives and conservatives long-since have grown skeptical of self-government, and perhaps with good reason. After all, human beings are fallible creatures who betray violent passions and pursue their own interests, sometimes relentlessly, often at the expense of others. Observation confirms this; so, too, does history. Progressives trace their skepticism to the Industrial Revolution, when capitalists’ unrestrained avarice, they say, produced unprecedented inequalities of wealth and condemned the laboring masses to lifetimes of toil and misery. Conservatives, on the other hand, trace their skepticism to the French Revolution, when bloodthirsty tyrants, in the name of popular government, plunged Christendom into one of its darkest epochs.
Each side, however, draws different lessons from its particular reading of history. An honest progressive might say, “I have serious doubts about your capacity for self-government. Therefore, I must govern you.” Whereas, an honest conservative might say, “I have serious doubts about your capacity for self-government. Therefore, you cannot govern me.”
Of course, our eighteenth-century ancestors also harbored severe doubts about self-government, drew different conclusions from their doubts, and allowed those conclusions to divide them into political factions. Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists—aristocratic in temperament, deeply attached to all things British, and terrified of the French Revolution—believed that popular government could not survive but with a powerful central state guided by a well-born elite capable of controlling men’s violent passions. “We have serious doubts about your capacity for self-government,” they might have said to their countrymen, “therefore we must govern you.”
To a certain extent, Jefferson’s Republicans shared Federalists’ fears about popular rule, but they did not share Federalists’ enthusiasm for elitist government. “Sometimes it is said,” Jefferson declared in his First Inaugural Address, “that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
Some conservatives prefer to claim Hamilton’s Federalists as their ideological forebears, in part because Federalists championed things conservatives like, such as ordered liberty and economic nationalism, and rejected things conservatives don’t like, such as the French Revolution and French philosophy. The truth is, however, that on the most important proposition in Western political history, man’s capacity for self- government, the Federalists bequeathed their ideology not to modern conservatives but to modern progressives.
The question remains, then, do we still believe in self-government? Happily, most of my students seem to think that we do, although they’ve subjected the idea to serious scrutiny. For me, at least, the answer depends upon whether we regard ourselves as the ideological descendants of Jefferson or of Hamilton. Jefferson’s Republicans acknowledged the dangers of self-government but nonetheless defended it as far preferable to the alternatives, including the Federalists’ vision of an elite-dominated, British-style centralized state. In short, if we can tell the difference between “I must govern you,” and “You must not govern me,” and if we can understand which of these promotes real liberty, then I see no reason why we should not answer in the affirmative