Ideal Pragmatism, or Pragmatic Idealism

March 13, 2016

Ideal Pragmatism, or Pragmatic Idealism

Thomas Jefferson (left) and George Washington
I just finished reading two rocking books by Joseph J. Ellis: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and His Excellency: George Washington. Both were eminently readable factual and psychological histories of who I’d argue are the two most important founding fathers.

Washington and Jefferson, at first blush, seem like they could have been cut from the same cloth. Both were upper-class Virginia planters, running multiple tracts of land in the way of the contemporary planter society. Both were tall, physically impressive, enjoyed surveying their lands from horseback, and exemplified the manners and civility that were supposed to characterize the leading men of Virginian society. They both shared a dislike of the British society that gave birth to their colony, Washington detesting British condescension, and Jefferson abhorring the corrupted nature of their economy that sacrificed the first principles of republican government. They were also both in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, where they helped fuel the fire that would combine with its New England brother to spark the rebellion that turned to a revolution. The revolution itself was securely fastened to both men. The military enterprise would have languished without a unifying leader if Washington had not accepted command of the Continental Army; and the ideals for which that army was to fight found their voice in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. But the similarities pretty much end there.

As much as the two men were on the same team – Jefferson even served as Washington’s first Secretary of State – these Virginian patriarchs represented the political poles necessary to assure the principled survival of the nascent American nation. Washington, ever the military man, saw the birth and building of the new nation as a set of problems whose solutions had one goal: survival. Not that he did not have his ideals, but Washington was primarily concerned with creating the environment in which ideals could be achieved, or at least pursued. Jefferson, on the other extreme, would sacrifice all order and stability in the name of the republican ideals he espoused. His declaration that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” was a true measure of his allegiance to ideals only, not men or their governments. In modern musical terms, Jefferson was the lead singer, providing the melody and the lyric to the Revolution, while Washington was the virtuoso one-man-band, providing the rhythm, bass and chords through which Jefferson’s lyrics could be heard. But unlike a rock’n’roll band, the lead singer was never the biggest star. Washington, the stoic man of action, was the singular hero of the revolution and enjoyed unmatched celebrity status. Even Jefferson acknowledged Washington as his unquestioned superior (until Jefferson began to think Washington’s faculties were abandoning him during his second term).

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Washingtonian figure to unify our polarized country today? Or at least to have a Jeffersonian figure to give voice to the values we all hold dear? The problem is that these days we haven’t been able to coalesce around one, all-important issue. For Washington, the issues were independence and survival. When those were your goals, Washington was your undisputed leader. For Jefferson, republicanism, the building of an independent, agrarian society where political power was diffused among ward-republics, was the cause he personified. But once those issues began to fade, so faded the broad support for their leaders. Even Washington was the subject of harsh criticism (especially from Jefferson and his Republican allies) during his second term. Jefferson’s second term was even harder, as events beyond his control ruined his ability to erode the size of government and make way for the ward-republics.
Once we get that all-important issue, hopefully we’ll also find our next Washington or Jefferson. It happened with Lincoln in the 1860s and Roosevelt (twice, really) in the 1930s and ’40s. So, what will be the next big thing? Global warming? A new economic meltdown? Another war? Energy policy? Perhaps all of the above. Maybe we’ll have to find someone who can unify us around all the big issues. Maybe that’s the real task for our next Washington or Jefferson.

2 thoughts on “Ideal Pragmatism, or Pragmatic Idealism

  1. The famous quote of Thomas Jefferson (from the letter to his friend, William Stephens Smith, to affirm the right of the people to rebel against one’s government): “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.” Now, maybe foreigners can understand why it is so hard to enact guns control laws in the US. The Bill of Rights guarantee the people have the right to bear arms, to overthrow a tyrannical government through blood if necessary. The United States did not become a flourishing democracy because we believe in democracy, we became an examplary democracy because we distrust democracy. That’s why we have the check and balance separation of power in three branches of government. And the right of the people to bear arms.

  2. Pingback: History and Archaeology sciences looked at #1 Encyclopedism and enlightenment | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

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