The Conditions of Freedom
In 1782 Jefferson could write, 'Let our workshops remain in Europe'; but thirty years later, with the wars of the French Revolution and of Napoleon added to his experience, as well as our own war with Great Britain in 1812, he had changed his opinions on economic policy. The virtue of the farmer was rooted in his personal independence of the 'casualties and caprice of customers.' The dependence of artisans and traders 'begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.' But the virtue of the whole nation is similarly undermined if it becomes dependent upon foreigners for manufactured goods, particularly for the manufactured sinews of war, and if it shows a cringing acquiescence in the abuse of its peaceful commerce on the high seas. So Jefferson concluded that there was no prudent alternative to making the country economically sufficient to itself. But he never ceased to regret the necessity that made it wise for Americans to encourage manufacturing. In 1814 he wrote 'Our enemy has indeed the consolation of Satan, on removing our first parents from Paradise: from a peaceful agricultural nation he makes us a military and manufacturing one.'
Jefferson was the greatest contributor to that vision of a virtuous republic which has from time to time dominated the political imagination of the American people. It is the vision of a republic of free and equal yeoman farmers, who look only 'up to heaven' and to 'their own soil and industry' for their livelihood, and who can participate equally with friends and fellow citizens in the tasks of self-government because they see them as just that, and not as instruments of profit, or as the source of preferment, favor, and influence.
Yet there was always something anomalous about Jefferson's agrarianism. In the same paragraph of the Notes from which we have quoted above, he wrote, 'While we have land to labor, then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work bench or twirling a distaff.' And in 1816, although resigned to an expanding industrial sector of the economy, he asked, 'Will our surplus labor be then most beneficially employed in the culture of the earth, or in the fabrications of art?' By this he meant to inquire whether, when all our own needs for manufactured goods had been met, the excess productive power of the people should he employed in growing or in making the commodities with which we would trade upon the market of the world. That is to say, Jefferson indicates, by the first of the two passages just cited, his awareness that the availability of cheap land was a temporary condition that could not last indefinitely in the United States. By the second he indicates that the expanding productive powers of a people as enlightened and energetic as the Americans would some day surely require new outlets for investment, and that neither agriculture, nor strictly necessary manufactures, would provide such outlets. Supposing it true that 'corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age or nation has furnished an example,' yet is it also true 'the natural progress and consequence of the arts' is precisely that it increases the proportion of the unsound to the healthy classes of the people.
As the patron of the virtuous republic, Jefferson wrote, in 1785, that he considered 'the class of artificers as the panders of vice, and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally over-turned.' So did he loathe banks and hanking. In 1816 he wrote, 'Like a dropsical man calling out for water, water, our deluded citizens are clamoring for more banks, more banks....We are now taught to believe that legerdemain tricks upon paper can produce as solid wealth as hard labor in the earth. It is vain for common sense to urge that nothing can produce but nothing; that it is an idle dream to believe in a philosopher's stone which is to turn everything into gold, and to redeem man from the original sentence of his Maker, 'in the sweat of his brow shall he cat his bread.'
Yet this same Jefferson was the supreme American patron of that veritable philosopher's stone, Science, which was, then as surely as now, relieving man's estate of the primeval sentence to hard labor. It is uncommon irony that Jefferson, in this condemnation of banks, and the modern system of credit, should invoke maxims of Greek metaphysics and of Hebrew ethics, for he was an inveterate denier of both the old rationalism and the old revelation. 'When I contemplate the immense advances in science and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life,' he wrote in 1818, 'I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were, and they than the burners of witches.' That is, because of the necessary progress of science and the arts, men will become far wiser than they are now and—since Jefferson often affirms this equation—more virtuous. But the same causes will increase the proportion of the unsound to the sound classes of the people, and pile men upon each other in large cities, as in Europe, where they will he as corrupt as they arc in Europe! In short, the identical causes would, simultaneously, produce both virtue and vice, and both liberty and despotism. When Jefferson thought simply of science, he thought of the release of men's souls from degrading superstitions, from fear of the 'raw heads and bloody bones' by which kings and priests duped the people to accept their fraudulent regimes, as he also thought of the things useful to human life which the method of science was constantly spawning. But when he thought of urbanization, industrialism, and the capitalist economy that accompanied the effects of science, he saw in the future only corruption and the decline of the regime of liberty.
What Marvin Meyers has called the 'Jacksonian Persuasion' in a brilliant book by that name is, I believe, essentially nothing more than the Jeffersonian persuasion, as characterized above. 'The wealth and strength of a country are its population,' declared Jackson, 'and the best part of that population are the cultivators ol the soil. Independent farmers are everywhere, the basis of society, and the true friend of liberty.' Nevertheless, the Jacksonians enlarged the occupational basis of the virtuous majority to include the new working classes and small businessmen, who were growing with the growth of the cities along the eastern seaboard. Jefferson himself, when he had advocated leaving the factories to Europe, had admitted that the manufactured goods needed by the farmers ought to be made at home, so that American agriculture should not have to import its own instruments of production. Thus the mantle of virtue was only extended a little further when the Jacksonians included all those who applied their brains and bones and sinews directly to the production
of tangibly useful implements of life. Yet the implication always remained that anyone of sufficient character, although earning his living in a workshop, or by that frugal commerce of small tradesmen which served the marginal needs of a farming community, would sooner or later invest in landed property.
According to Meyers, the Jacksonian movement found its true character and mission in the war against the second Hank of the United States. Disagreement as to the constitutionality of the chartering of the first Bank by Congress was, of course, the pristine issue which divided Jefferson from Hamilton in Washington's first administration. Jefferson and his friends had seen in Hamilton's policy of paying off the Revolutionary debt without discrimination between its original holders and those who had bought it up on speculation, joined to the assumption of the state debts, and capped by the chartering of the bank, as the groundwork of a massive system of corruption. It could lead and, in their view, did lead to the creation of a corps of American 'King's men' in the Congress, that is, congressmen voting as a bloc in accordance with instructions from the Treasury, thus undermining the constitutional separation of powers. Indeed, after Hamilton's leadership in suppressing the Whisky Rebellion, it appeared to be a joining of purse and sword which partook of the essence of despotism. However, the basic point made by the enemies of Hamilton's Bank was that, by its ability to expand or contract the circulating medium, and to expand or contract the flow of credit, it placed too arbitrary a power in hands too remote from the people, and in fact created a large element of government unknown to the Constitution. The warfare between federalists and republicans reached a climax long after Hamilton had left office, but to the followers of Jefferson the Alien and Sedition Acts were only an open move to accomplish by force—by deportation and imprisonment the ends first sought by the financial policies of Hamilton. That the whole stock in trade of Jacksonian rhetoric was taken from the earlier Jeffersonians is shown by this passage from Jackson's bank message:
The bank is, in fact, but one of the fruits of a system at war with the genius of our institutions—a system founded upon a creed the fundamental principle of which is a distrust of the popular will as a safe regulator of political power, and whose ultimate object and inevitable result, should it prevail, is the consolidation of all power in our system in one central government. Lavish public disbursements and corporations with exclusive privileges would be its substitutes for the original and as yet sound checks and balances of the Constitution—the means by whose silent and secret operation a control would be exercised by the few over the political conduct of the many by first acquiring that control over the labor and earnings of the great body of the people. Wherever this spirit has effected an alliance with political power, tyranny and despotism have been ihe fruit.Historians are in general agreement that neither the first nor second Banks of the United States abused their privileges in the manner charged by their accusers or, indeed, were ever in a position to do the things they were suspected of doing. Although Nicholas Biddle may have done some foolish things during the Bank War itself, the notion that he had it in his power to convert the Bank's franchise into an invisible government, more potent than the legal government, is disproved by the result of the Bank War. Yet the absence of evidence of the Bank's misdeeds became a kind of evidence against it: after all, was not banking a mystery, which worked its will by invisible ways? Did it not intrude upon the real world, of real goods, honestly produced and exchanged, 'a mysterious, swaying web of speculative credit,' designed not to reward 'industry, economy and virtue,' but 'fixed to pay off the insider and the gambler?' The Jacksonians who protested the existence of the second Bank of the United States were, by and large—like farmers everywhere—the same ones who wished for easier and looser credit, something they presently enjoyed when Jackson transferred the government funds from the Bank of the United States to favored state banks, with a wild speculative boom ensuing, ending in the crash of 1837. That is to say, while the Jacksonian rhetoric was directed against banking per se, its practical effect was to cast off the shackles of the relatively conservative central banking policies of Biddle's Bank. The typical Jacksonian was a small entrepreneur, either artisan or farmer, but in either case a man striving to improve his economic position in life. He resented old and large fortunes, and his conscience felt better when he denounced any power or position which, from his perspective, appeared unearned. It took hard work, thrift, and an ability to forego present for future pleasures to scrape together that little capital with which he could buy a farm or a shop, or a few more acres or a few more tools. He resented bitterly those who enjoyed the advantages of capital without, as it seemed, making sacrifices for it, and it galled him when one of them—as, for example, Biddle—could deny him the easy credit wherewith to buy those added acres or tools. At the same time, he saw in the whole society around him the corrosion, by the spirit of acquisitiveness, of the heroic virtues of the Revolutionary generation, the men of the Old Republic, the men of the classic Revolutionary mold. But he could not sec in that corrosion the effects of his own acquisitiveness. He denounced the system of credit, and professed to believe in hard money as in hard work. In truth, while praising hard work as being the essence of virtue, he resented having to work hard, and often seemed to have no higher end than the case which wealth provided, even as he hated those who, as it seemed to him, being without merit, already enjoyed it.