March 13, 2016
Ideal Pragmatism, or Pragmatic Idealism
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).