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Jefferson and America's Lost Idea: Natural Aristocracy
Revisiting the lesser-known wisdom of the founders.
“The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society… The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy.”
— Thomas Jefferson in his 1813 letter to John Adams
In any civilization, an age can be measured by whether or not the best and brightest are applying their talent and wealth to make that civilization work better, to inculcate patriotism, to build and improve institutions, and improve the lives of their fellow citizens.
When Americans learn about the founding age of this country, they learn mostly about revolutionary opposition to monarchy, foreign rule, and unjust taxation — or in the case of the Constitutional convention, about the three branches of government, compromises between large and small states, checks and balances, etc. That’s all well and good.
They also learn, rightly, about the founding generation’s deep resentment of the hereditary aristocracies of Europe. In the words of the historian Gordon Wood, the founders saw American republicanism as “a vindication of frustrated talent at the expense of birth and blood. For too long, they felt merit had been denied.”
But there is a second, often untold story. The founders were indeed opposed to the aristocracies of Europe, and to the total rejection of egalitarianism inherent to monarchy; but they did not discount the idea that certain people had greater talents than others, and that this was relevant for government. Quite the contrary. Jefferson called this the “natural aristocracy” — an elite based not on wealth or birth, but on virtue and talent.
In a series of 1813 letters between Jefferson and Adams, Jefferson explains his view on natural (meritocratic) versus artificial (hereditary) aristocracy.
There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground of distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society... May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy.
After serving as President, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia to cultivate talent in the country with the express purpose of creating the types of leaders he thought would steward the nation after the founding generation had died — in other words new aristoi. For Jefferson, strong educational institutions were integral to his republican vision in which citizens would have the requisite civic knowledge elevate the best around them to lead – in his words, that the citizenry would be able to separate “the wheat from the chaff” in elections. He also believed that strong educational institutions would be bulwarks against despots and demagogues.
Jefferson, an ardent Anti-Federalist, believed that the best versions of government were “Little Republics.” He did not envision the type of government that the Constitution created – let alone the Washington behemoth we have today. Yet at any level of government, Jefferson thought it was necessary to find the best people to administer it.
Madison was on the other side of the Constitutional debate from Jefferson, as the Constitution’s primary architect and author. But he shared Jefferson’s view on natural aristocracy, writing in Federalist 57 that “the aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first, to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.”
John Adams, a Federalist like Madison, worried that though hereditary nobility was outlawed by the Constitution, birth might still prevail over merit; as such he felt it was critical to divide power in the government to such a degree that freedom would be preserved no matter who ruled – meritoriously or otherwise.
The founders set up a country in which aristoi would rule alongside and with the people, first among equals, primus inter pares, but not over them in the monarchical or oligarchic sense. Nobody would have a permanent or divine right to rule in the United States. The founders had had a sense of duty to rule honorably, and a sense of humility that their governance wasn’t an end in itself — but a means of preserving the rights of the people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
They also knew that merit was not enough; merit without virtue to accompany it could produce tyranny. They knew this, of course, through history.
American Inspiration from Rome and Britain
The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was a “new man” (Novus Homo) in Rome, i.e., the first man in his family to serve in the Senate. He was something of a natural aristocrat himself.
In his dialogue “On the Republic” (De Re Publica) Cicero posited that there are three types of government: Democracy (rule by the many), Aristocracy (rule by the few), and Monarchy (rule by one). And for him, these were the branches of any polity. The American founders saw that too.
Cicero advocated a “mixed constitution” that properly balanced power between them. The Roman Republic — the formal name of which was “The Roman Senate and People” (Senatus Populusque Romanus) — was an early mixed constitution.
Cicero understood that there was a need to represent the people in any society, and that total monarchic or aristocratic rule would be unstable. Yet he also understood that total democratic rule could become tyrannical. A ruling class with pride in the republic and the temperance and virtue to be good rulers was essential.
The American founders put Cicero’s framework into practice, and they created the most successful mixed constitution in history, whereby the people would frequently elect representatives from among themselves to the House of Representatives, less frequently elect a single executive as President, and even less frequently (and originally, less directly) elect an upper body of citizens to the Senate.
Great Britain was a mixed constitution as well, with the King, the Nobility, and the Parliament ruling the nation in a trifecta: via the Crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. By 1776 the Americans’ objected to the particulars of that system, and its governance of the colonies, but they also drew inspiration from its structure and Bill of Rights in crafting the new system.
The author of Federalist No. 63 (either Hamilton or Madison) noted, in defense of the Senate against critics who said it would become a new American nobility, that when the British Crown embraced governance by the House of Commons, the diminution of the House of Lords’ power was immediate. The American House of Representatives and the President would be able to check the Senate — and vice versa.
Thomas Paine, the Enlightenment thinker who was very influential in the American colonies prior to the revolution, said that virtue and talent were not hereditary. But the notion that aristocratic institutions cannot produce virtue is also false. The British aristocracy produced Churchill and other great leaders. Churchill was chosen not by the other aristocrats, but by the people through the House of Commons.
Natural Aristocracy and the Advent of Capitalism
Enterprise and natural aristocracy are complementary forces. The natural aristocrats not only led in the early United States, but they created the governance structure and conditions for a centuries-long explosion of prosperity — whereby everyone would rise and new natural aristocrats would emerge.
In the much derided “Gilded Age” at the end of the 19th century, when popular wisdom would have us believe that “robber barons” ran American society for themselves, the wealth of the American people exploded upward across the board, with GNP increasing 230% — more than tripling — in the course of thirty years from 1870-1900.
That is an astounding achievement. The Marxist view of capitalism and capitalists would suggest that in a period like that, the aristocratic capitalist class would act to insulate itself and capture society permanently. That has happened in the past — for example, the Venetian patriciate closed itself to new families in 1297 and instituted a “Golden Book” of the nobility.
But what did the richest men of the age do in America — become dictators? No, far from it. They spent their talents and wealth building for the next generation: venerating the system, endowing new institutions, and passing on the promise of social dynamism.
They founded new universities to find and elevate new talent. The University of Virginia was to Jefferson as Stanford University was to Leland Stanford, or the University of Chicago to John Rockefeller. Carnegie and Mellon built great libraries and universities. The Pendleton Act of 1883, adopted during the peak of the Gilded Age, codified meritocracy in the federal civil service. Immigration from Europe soared, and the export of products back across the Atlantic soared as well.
In 1933, when the president of Harvard University set out to find talent across the country for scholarships using the newly-created Scholastic Aptitude Test, he cited “Jefferson’s ideal” — the conscious cultivation of a patriotic and intelligent elite, regardless of their class background.
That Jeffersonian ideal has endured in the U.S. for a reason.
Aristocratic Cynicism — or Optimism?
The amount of wealth created in the technology world since the semiconductor revolution is unprecedented in history — both for those who built the industry, and even more importantly, for our country. For every dollar actually owned by entrepreneurs, the productivity and wealth gains by society represent tens or hundreds of times that amount. In the last decade alone, the amount of equity ownership by entrepreneurs has gone parabolic, into the trillions of dollars.
That money has started to come online in earnest in the worlds of politics, philanthropy, culture, and institution building. But we haven’t seen the same explosion in institution building that took place at the turn of the 19th century. We haven’t seen many strong national leaders come out of this world — yet, at least. Why?
There is a mutual distrust between the legacy institutions and the new tech-rich looking to influence society for the future. Part of the distrust is because the work of technology entrepreneurship is often a threat to existing institutions. The tech world has benefitted from a relative lack of artificial rules compared to areas like education, politics, and government. And as entrepreneurs move into those more regulated spaces, there is much greater conflict between the new and the old institutions. Elon Musk is the most famous example, but there are plenty of others.
There is a reason for people who made money in the “Wild West” to be cynical about the world of bureaucracies and government. But that cynicism can’t last. Our republic only works if the natural aristocrats of each generation step up and play the role Jefferson imagined – those with the talent necessary to accomplish big things and the virtue necessary to govern with principled leadership and not be manipulated by politics and special interests.
Many of this generation’s natural aristoi claim that dysfunctional government in America is too big a challenge to solve. What one chooses to believe is possible is, at some level, a reflection of the effort you are willing to put into it, and how hard you’re willing to fight. In other words, “It can’t be done” is a euphemism for “I won’t do it.”
At any level of complexity, it is possible to find the arguments to not do something. Everyone has the talent for inaction. And it's much better from a lifestyle perspective to believe our systems and government are unfixable — that we’re headed downhill and should focus more on dividing up the spoils and insulating ourselves and our personal lives from future chaos.
But there is so much to do — so many broken systems to fix and upend. And it requires the genuine talents of each generation to embrace the duties of leadership. Otherwise our republic’s future will be subject to the whims of little, unvirtuous men and women who are not talented or bold, and who act out of fear instead of standing up for the common good. When the systems of the country are pillaged by unaccountable bureaucrats, special interests, and the forces of cronyism masquerading as capitalists, it’s the duty of those who know better to step in.
When Jefferson wrote to Adams in 1813, he said that their disagreements in life wouldn’t matter because they had worked together to create a country and system that endured — and that would have future stewards.
“...we acted in perfect harmony through a long and perilous contest for our liberty and independence. A Constitution has been acquired which, though neither of us think perfect, yet both consider as competent to render our fellow citizens the happiest and the securest on whom the sun has ever shone. If we do not think exactly alike as to its imperfections, it matters little to our country which, after devoting to it long lives of disinterested labor, we have delivered over to our successors in life, who will be able to take care of it, and of themselves…
I hope… you may continue in tranquility to live and to rejoice in the prosperity of our country until it shall be your own wish to take your seat among the Aristoi who have gone before you.” Jefferson to Adams, 1813
Many of us are fighting for our civilization through our work today. We build mission-driven companies at 8VC and build bold institutions in policy and education. The Cicero Institute is transforming the policy landscape in our country through changing laws at the state level — taking the fight directly to unaccountable bureaucrats and empowering citizens. We are building the University of Austin (UATX) to reinvigorate higher education and cultivate the next generation of talent for our country.
Some of the people I’m inspired by, who have achieved great things through their talents and are applying their wealth and talents to the future of our society, include Patrick and John Collison, who have an uncommon dedication to scientific progress; John Arnold, who is pursuing novel forms of philanthropy that most wouldn’t; Ken Langone and Stan Druckenmiller, who have shown principled commitment to New York City and meaningful results through projects like the Harlem Children’s Zone; and many other successful friends with an eye to the future prosperity of the United States.
Although I’m impressed by the scale of philanthropy and impact by people like Bill Gates and Phil Knight, I wish they’d be more bold and embrace riskier philanthropic ideas outside the huge complex of existing NGOs. It’s easier to avoid controversy and to dump hundreds of millions of dollars into legacy institutions that don’t rock the status quo, or to fund already-overfunded organizations that lack accountability but confer status.
But courage is required to confront the bigger challenges we face. I wrote more about that here:
Other friends are working on inspiring, daring projects that aren’t yet public. But many more are sitting on the sidelines, or applying only to a tiny part of their wealth and talent to fix what’s broken. We need them to put those doubts aside and step boldly into the arena.
The founders themselves, some of the brightest and boldest men of their age, took the ultimate risk, swearing their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to create a new nation. The question for those who have succeeded in the open American system is this: what are you willing to risk to fight for the future of that nation? What resources will you commit to the task of cultivating the next generation of aristoi? If you agree something is broken, what will you do to confront the brokenness and fix it?
America is a nation worth fighting for — and we need our best and brightest fighting alongside us to fix what is broken and build anew.
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