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Thomas Jefferson democractic individualism

It seems to be a tendency of literary critics to attach to the opinions of contemporary writers a significance unjustified with regard to the effect of such opinions upon current social movements. A Voltaire, an Adam Smith, even a Dickens’ Oliver Twist may change the world, but not so the works of the usual writer of ability; as a rule, the writer has no thorough understanding of the people of his own age, and, conversely, his views are unheeded by the masses. So it is that the critic Horace Gregory, writing in 1932, exaggerated the relation between certain recent realistic writers and the political thought of today.

For Mr. Gregory appears to believe that the individualistic democracy Thomas Jefferson dreamed of is doomed—has already vanished, in fact; never existed, to be truthful—and offers as proof  the declining popularity and the disillusionment of Mencken, Lindsay, Masters, and Sandburg, the literary champions, he asserts, of Jeffersonian democracy.

It was in 1932 that Gregory wrote his essay, “Our Writers and the Democratic Myth”—fateful 1932, year of uncertainty and misery and fear and distrust. A great many things have changed since 1932, and a great many opinions have been altered. The smoke sent up from the confusion of the past nine years has drifted away a little now, and it is interesting, looking back, to see the discontent with old ways that was in our minds then.

Gregory begins by stating that 1930 marked the literary burial of the recent realistic school of H. L. Mencken and the representatives in verse of his philosophy—Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg. Implying that these unfortunates have been crushed beneath a wave of disapproval set in motion by the public seriousness engendered by the depression, he sets about tracing the steps by which these writers have lost their certainty in the rightness of Jeffersonian doctrines and by which the nation has lost faith in the writers themselves.

It is first necessary to establish the fact that these writers adhere to Jeffersonian traditions. Superficially, this is not difficult to do for Lindsay, Masters, and Sandburg; their expressed or implied faith in the common man, their choice of the common man as their subject matter, their democratic lives—these are presented as evidences of their faith. As for Mencken, Gregory writes that he represents the “Jeffersonian ideal of aristocratic libertarianism” and that upon the publication of Mencken’s Notes on Democracy in 1926, “For the first time it became evident that Mr. Mencken was not and never had been the glorious Zarathustra of his youth. Siegfried and Nietzsche turned out to be merely disguises to hide the ‘plain cloth’ garments of Thomas Jefferson.” Gregory might adduce further proof, were he writing today, from the attacks of Mencken upon the Roosevelt administration.

Mr. Gregory proceeds to summarize the experiences of Mencken’s followers with the world and the effects of such experiences upon their writings. He shows how Lindsay, product of the Middle West, accepted by Europe as a genuine representative of the American spirit, gradually comprehended, after his long wanderings as a vagabond, that the common people were not the common people of Jefferson’s ideal, and, after the sale of his books declined, lost his faith in the innate strength of those people. “His decline in critical and popular favor was accompanied by a shift in the character of his idealism. His vision of the ‘common people’ paled. His adulation of Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, and Bryan changed to a little-red-school-house worship of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson….It was a disastrous retreat for him, a strong indication that his confidence in democracy, if not blasted, was in one of the later stages of decay.”

Edgar Lee Masters, another writer of the democratic school, grew increasingly disillusioned with the common people as the years progressed, Gregory asserts; the realism of his poems became bitter. “Within a few years Masters became a Tom Paine Cassandra shouting a prophecy of destruction to the four corners of the American continent—and there was no bottom to the well of bitterness in which he cooled his hatred of capitalistic society, prohibition, and the ghost of the American Puritan. The spirit of self-destruction had entered his bones, and this could not effect a catharsis until he had destroyed one of his chief idols, Abraham Lincoln, the subject had chosen for an exhaustive biography.”

Carl Sandburg, realist poet and social reformer, wrote at his best in the first years, when inspired by the democratic ideal and acting as the voice of the Socialist party, Gregory points out. But Sandburg has come to realize that much of his faith was misplaced, and his compositions have not their former power. One might take exception to Gregory’s conclusions as to Sandburg after reading that poet’s more recent The People. But grant Gregory’s premise: “As long as the Socialist Party retained its position as the fighting left wing of political reform in America, Sandburg’s poetry carried something of its zeal and emotional vitality. But when the party began to show signs of inner corruption and to move in the general (and vague) direction of American liberalism, Sandburg’s poetry followed in its wake. It was then that the rugged and sometimes sharp outlines of Sandburg’s writing became blurred.”

Gregory recognizes a distinction between Mencken and the other three writers, stating that Mencken upholds the aristocratic libertarian aspect of Jeffersonianism and these disciples of his the popular democratic aspect. In either category the writers place their faith mistakenly. With a final thrust at Mencken, “If he offers any criticism at all, it is in the spirit of hopeless amusement—a kind of bear-baiting of Herbert Hoover and the dignitaries of the Protestant churches….At the present moment it seems as though both aspects of the Jeffersonian ideal as revealed by H. L. Mencken and his disciples—both democratic idealism and aristocratic libertarianism—are spiritually bankrupt.”

Performing the duties of a sexton for Jeffersonianism and its literary adherents, Gregory summarizes:

The younger liberals have deserted the Mencken camp; they not only mistrust the validity of democratic action in a country where collective action has become a necessity, but they no longer enjoy the endless vista of the decay of the aristocratic libertarianism of Jefferson. It is enough that three once popular poets have sacrificed their talents upon an empty shrine. The time has come for a reassertion of faith, not for a further contemplation of America’s failure in the immediate past. Already the younger men are swinging to the extremes of left and right. Their way is still uncertain, but we may be sure that they will have little patience with the heritage of the Sage of Monticello as thus far interpreted by our writers.

That was 1932.

Horace Gregory’s analysis of this matter is faulty on two grounds, it seems to me: the writers he cites cannot be considered adherents to the Jeffersonian tradition, and he underestimates the strength of Jeffersonianism.

It might be said that Gregory is mistaken in his assertion that Mencken and his school have been buried by adverse criticism; where is the figure in American literature today who is to supplant the very-much-alive Mencken, and where are the new poets of the left or the right who are to take the places of Lindsay, Masters, and Sandburg? But the point is immaterial, for these writers cannot be termed democrats of the Jeffersonian school.

Like most of us, Mr. Gregory seems to love generalizations. He fails to distinguish between Jeffersonianism and all other expressions of that vague force called democracy. He does not mention that Jefferson never had unbounded faith in the people, but only asserted that in America, under such conditions as then existed, constitutional democracy was the government to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. If Gregory were to analyze the beliefs of the writers he discusses, he probably would find that Mencken is no more a Jeffersonian than Hamilton was, and that the three poets mentioned incline toward the Bryan brand of democracy more than toward the Jeffersonian.

Mencken comes nearest to being a Jeffersonian. He denounces the encroachment of the federal government upon the rights of talkies and individuals; he is an aristocratic libertarian, surely. But he is not of Jefferson’s stamp, even though he implies loyalty to the Virginian’s banners. He is filled with a disdain of the common man; Jefferson trusted in the ultimate righteousness of the masses. He sneers at the farming classes, at rural life; Jefferson based his political theories upon the existence of an agricultural economy. He scoffs at the Anglo-Saxon heritage; Jefferson believed that a democracy could not exist without that heritage. He disparages popular education; Jefferson was its leading proponent. He professes atheism; Jefferson was a deist. He lashes Puritanism; Jefferson was a Puritan by training and inclination. He may acquiesce in Jefferson’s conclusions as to the ideal government, but he refuses to accept the premises upon which Jefferson established the foundations of that government. Such lip service to Jeffersonianism is no more real Jeffersonian democracy than is the reign of Boss Pendergast in Kansas City. We cannot recognize H. L. Mencken as a follower of Jefferson.

Lindsay, Masters, and Sandburg have even less claim to such a distinction. Real Jeffersonianism requires enduring confidence in the common man, an optimistic soul, a deep and clear vision, and an understanding of that old spirit called Americanism. None of these poets possesses all these qualities, and it is to be expected that their allegiance to Jeffersonian principles is but superficial. Their realism is not real at all; they are not realists, but visionaries, dreamers, idealists. They cannot understand, as the practical theorist Jefferson could, that the many faults of the common man do not prove the democrat has misplaced his trust. They cannot endure disappointment and disillusionment; they cannot endure the indifference of the public. Perhaps it would be unjust to attach great significance to Gregory’s observation that their enthusiasm for democracy and their powers of writing decreased in direct proportion to the decrease in the sale of their works. But they are not worthy to be the exponents of Jeffersonianism and the champions of the people. Contrast the naive vagabond Lindsay with the reserved, farseeing Jefferson; contrast Masters’ cynicism with Jefferson’s optimism; and contrast Sandburg’s blind faith in socialism with Jefferson’s recognition of man’s weaknesses. Then one can realize why these poets never could be real democrats, never could understand the vulgarity and the hardness and the selfishness and the materialism and the strength and the goodness of the American people. Did any of them really dream the American dream? The public rejects the championship of these literary knights. They and their kind never can know the innate virtue of democracy. It may be, as Gregory writes, that they have sacrificed their talents upon an “empty” shrine; so be it. Democracy is too proud to waste tears upon men who never really loved her, too ageless to heed the puny complaints of these poets. Jefferson wrote to W. S. Smith, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” These writers, however, are neither patriots nor tyrants, but men without faith.

And Mr. Gregory errs a second time, I think, when he alleges that Jeffersonian principles are antedated and must be supplanted by collective action. We must note, again, that he was writing in 1932. Since then a number of people. have changed their opinions as to the desirability of collective action. Since then, even in this world of industrialization and urban populations—this world whose coming Jefferson dreaded might ruin his democracy—Jeffersonianism has vindicated itself.

Gregory seems to have been discontented with American liberalism, Jeffersonianism, and conservatism in 1932. “Already,” he writes, “the younger men are swinging to the extremes of left and right.” Since then this country has swung a little to the left, and other countries have swung a great deal to one side or the other. To the surprise of some, the modern left and the modern right are not so far apart; the differences between the Fascist right and the Marxist left seem to be more factional than doctrinal. The real right, or the real left, depending upon one’s point of view, is the democratic individualism of Jefferson. And since 1932 the support for Jeffersonianism in this country has grown stronger, not weaker.

Here in America collective action has limped to a halt. It cannot go farther; it is a blind monster with a great many heads but no eyes strong enough to pierce the darkness. It finds itself dependent, eventually, upon the existence of that democratic individualism whose antagonist it is. “Each man kills the thing he loves,” and collective action is trying to strangle the individual initiative which sustains that collective action.

We have found that national planning in industry, in social controls, in agriculture, and in a thousand other matters cannot be successful unless the support of a free democratic individualism is behind it. The reasons are simple enough; they lie in the greatnesses and the weaknesses of man. It is democracy, Jeffersonian democracy, which is the greatest spur to these greatnesses and the greatest curb on these weaknesses. More than any other form of government it tries to satisfy man’s longings. May not all history be said to consist of a record of man’s struggles for individual freedom, struggles prolonged by a million defeats? Or, if one takes the economic view of history, is it not one long struggle of man to satisfy his wants, which seem to be satisfied most fully when man has the aid of freedom to push him on through the fight? It is Jeffersonian democracy which allows the citizen the greatest measure of personal freedom, of self-respect, of individual ambition, and of independent thought. What have Mr. Gregory’s left or right to offer in exchange for these gifts? Jeffersonian democracy succeeds because it offers the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number; it gives rein to the vanity and the selfishness and the ambition and the humility and the generosity and the love of peace that are man’s.

Some of us turned our faces away from that democracy—that aristocratic libertarianism, if you will, for to the Jeffersonian every man is an aristocrat—in 1932, looking for greater benefits in collective action. We have seen, since then, that really effective collective action cannot exist without democracy and freedom. We have seen how a people can place their trust in a government and refuse to struggle and to think for themselves. We have seen how centralization breeds corruption–and waste, and how local government, long declining, can be incompetent to bear its burdens. We have seen how indolence and inertia can take the place cooperation is supposed to occupy in any scheme of collective action. We have seen how independence is changed into class and party bickering, not into collective endeavor. We have seen how a people’s affairs can prove too complex for any bureaucracy to manage. And we have seen that only the spirit of Jeffersonianism is able to restrain these evils. We have come to understand that collective action without liberty, complete liberty, is like a quicksand hidden by green grass.

In America the opportunities for happiness inherent in democracy always have had their greatest possibility of, fulfillment. Europe has had collective action too long to learn in a generation how to breathe the air of freedom.

To plan effectively the nation’s future we must foster Jeffersonian principles. We must have slow but democratic decisions, sound local government, diffusion of property-owning, taxation as direct as possible, preservation of civil liberties, payment of debts by the generation incurring them, prevention of the rise of class antipathies, a stable and extensive agriculture, as little governing by the government as practicable, and, above all, stimulation of self-reliance. If we are to have a planned economy, collective action, we must have these forces to maintain it. And as yet the national administration, or any other national administration, has been unable to reconcile Jeffersonian ideals with authoritarian methods. If one of these two standards must fall, for the happiness of mankind let it be that of the authoritarian.

Perhaps Mr. Gregory is right in his assertion that Jefferson’s shrine is an empty one; perhaps the new writers and, far more important, the new politicians will pay little heed to the Sage of Monticello. But if such be the case, we must not look for real prosperity, real success, or real happiness in our new system of collective action; we must await a decline like that of Rome under Diocletian, who found that his planned economy could exist satisfactorily only when supported by the strong arms of an enterprising and free citizenry, and that his collective methods had extinguished the last faint spark of such a citizenry in the decaying Empire. It may be too late for us to uphold the Jeffersonian ideal. If it is too late, the night of the ages cannot fall too soon.

Such is the fate to which the pessimism or the failure of Horace Gregory and H. L. Mencken and Masters and Lindsay and Sandburg would doom us. But Jeffersonian democracy is stronger than these men, stronger than any man. It may be that the common people in whom these writers have no faith will yet show the might Jefferson saw in them; it may be that they no longer have that power. Jeffersonianism may die, but, stand or fall, it has made manifest its essential rightness and its essential virtue.

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Originally printed in the South Atlantic Quarterly (vol. 40, 1941).

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3 replies to this post
  1. Another fascinating piece of early Kirk! Perhaps our Sage was in youth more optimistic about Jefferson than later. But this Gregory claiming Mencken was a Jeffersonian? Can we still buy whatever drugs he was taking?

  2. The mature Kirk, the one that became influential, had a much more mixed view of Jefferson. I’m not a fan of posting these early Kirk essays without a disclaimer. I think they are misleading and do a disservice to Kirk when presented without the context that he changed his mind before he became fully formed and known.

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