Jean M. Yarbrough. American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. xxiv + 256 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-0906-2.
Reviewed by Robert M. S. McDonald (United States Military Academy)
Published on H-SHEAR (January, 2000)
The Americans' Constitution
Transcending the tired liberalism vs. republicanism debate, Jean M. Yarbrough's important new book is a crisp, tightly-argued, and persuasive meditation on the attributes that Thomas Jefferson found at the heart of America's success story. Bolstered by citizens both self-reliant and charitable, self-interested and public spirited, Jefferson's optimism about Americans' capacity for self-government, according to Yarbrough, "depends, first and foremost, not on institutional contrivances (however important they might be) but on the character and virtue of the people" (196).
Jefferson, Yarbrough contends, was no mere republican, nor was he solely a Lockean liberal. He was both, and he was more. His nimble mind combined these strains of thought to envision the largely unhindered voluntary relationships of virtuous republican citizens as the best means available to protect natural rights. Self-interest, combined with an innate moral sense of right and wrong strengthened by wholesome social, economic, and political exercise, would enable Americans to enact and abide laws that promoted the general good and protected individuals.
More important than the Constitution, then, were Americans' constitutions. Any government could be corrupted, but could an independent, virtuous people? The answer, for Jefferson, was no. His idealized Americans respected not only themselves but also each other.
Yarbrough elaborates on this idea in her first two chapters. The first, which explores Jefferson's enumeration of rights in the Declaration of Independence, holds that many sources informed his views, including both John Locke and the Scottish moral sense philosophers. It was the writings of the Scots, according to Yarbrough, on which Jefferson based his belief that "the pursuit of happiness" is essentially social and derived from man's natural benevolence. "The one universal component of happiness is virtue," she writes, "and virtue is always the same: doing good to others" (26). Yarbrough takes care in her second chapter to point out that Jefferson distinguished between benevolence and justice. "Whereas government must enforce 'equal and impartial justice' as its 'sacred duty,' it cannot demand that its citizens exercise benevolence." He believed that the "perfection of the moral character must be an act of free will.... the failure to act benevolently may disappoint, but it cannot, like the breach of justice, be punished" (48). Charity, in other words, cannot be forced, for if it were, it would not only cease to be charity but its practitioners would miss opportunities to exercise and strengthen their sense of morality.
Maximizing those opportunities was the central aim of Jefferson's vision for America's civil society. Believing, according to Yarbrough, "that the habits and attitudes engendered by different kinds of work shape the soul of the individual," he expressed "a decided preference for agriculture not merely as an occupation but as a morally superior way of life" (55). Farming inspired men to care for their land, their families, and themselves; winter months afforded time to read and think; the produce of fields, even when most of it was bound for the market, supplied a household's most basic needs and rendered a family independent. But Jefferson's support for agriculture did not lead him to consider most forms of commerce a detriment to society. Like French economist Destutt de Tracy, Yarbrough maintains, Jefferson viewed commerce and society as essentially the same thing. As Tracy had written, "exchange, being in truth society itself, ... is the only bond among men; the source of all their moral sentiments; and the first and most powerful cause of the improvement of their mutual sensibility and reciprocal benevolence" (73).
Even so, according to Yarbrough, Jefferson never embraced a society of workshops and dependent wage laborers. As he matured, however, so did his view of the market. A commitment to free trade (to prevent men from using government to exploit one another), a bountiful supply of untilled land (to keep employers honest by giving workers an exit), property rights (to encourage development and engender stability), and limits on governments' taxing power (to preserve rewards for the wise and the frugal) all should work together, Jefferson thought, to render commerce safe for the American character.
Like commerce, government inspired in Jefferson a mixture of fear and hope. Since any government strong enough to protect individual rights was also strong enough to trample them, he sought to cultivate among citizens "a new kind of republican virtue that channels each individual's selfish motives toward a larger common good" (105). The foundation of virtue was education, Jefferson believed, and the most important subject for future citizens was history. In his proposal for universal elementary schooling in Virginia, he made it the centerpiece of the curriculum. "History, in general, only informs us what bad government is," he wrote, a fact that made it all the more crucial. Studying the past would enable Americans "to know ambition under ever guise its may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views" (126). Ever the revolutionary, he never abandoned rebellion as a means for returning corrupted governments to first principles, but as Jefferson matured he placed greater emphasis on constitutional revision and widespread civic participation to keep corruption at bay. His vision for local "ward republics" held that men, once entrusted with self-government, would be reluctant to yield it to centralizing state and federal governments, thus preserving a healthy balance of power. Further, active local government "cements the habits that bring the full range of civic virtues--including obedience to the law, defense of public order, rational patriotism, and love of country--within reach of ordinary citizens" (140). In sum, "Jefferson does not believe that civic virtue, in the sense of spirited attachment to republican rights and liberties, requires the suppression of self-interest," writes Yarbrough, "at least not for citizens" (104).
For leaders, however, Yarbrough maintains that Jefferson insisted on republican disinterestedness. Careers of public service would never be as profitable as private pursuits for men of talent, he believed, but they could be more gratifying. While he believed that real geniuses could serve the public better through scientific and literary careers, others with able minds had an obligation to administer governments. Jefferson held that "in working for the good of others," Yarbrough writes, "the statesman gratifies his own passions and interests. Laudable ambition, pride in eminence of character, desire for the esteem and approbation of one's countrymen, and hope of 'everlasting remembrance' are reasons that statesmen answer the call of duty" (148). Government, which exists to serve the common good, should eschew special interests--especially those of the people who steer it.
Based on the careful consideration of Jefferson's words and, to a slightly lesser extent, his deeds, Yarbrough's book succeeds as an appropriately pointillistic portrait of the third president's mind. Some of her predecessors tended to pigeon-hole Jefferson within unitary constructs such as liberalism and republicanism. Yarbrough, however, joins a growing list of scholars willing to highlight in his thought a number of distinct elements. Given that Jefferson read widely, thought constantly, and grappled ceaselessly with changing issues and circumstances, the rendering that results seems remarkably true-to-life.
Like all books, however, her account is open to criticism. Her examination of Jefferson's lofty ideals tends, at times, to levitate above the events that helped to give them shape. Yarbrough, to be sure, discusses the particularly boisterous reactions of New England towns to Jefferson's embargo, positing that, during his second presidential term, he "first seems to have realized how effective the organization of the people in their local governments could be in keeping alive the spirit of resistance to governmental encroachments" (133). But she writes little, for example, of the connection between the Louisiana Purchase and Jefferson's affinity for territorial expansion as a republican panacea. Nor does her study fully consider how Jefferson's views changed over time, or how he sometimes tailored his words for the audiences for which they were intended. These are quibbles, however: topics, perhaps, for a sequel or some other subsequent work.
Somewhat more problematic is the way in which Yarbrough's top-notch account opens itself to criticism by occasionally drifting from the past to the present. Readers learn, for example, that "a reflexive tolerance (at least among elites) for almost any 'lifestyle'" along with the "debilitating growth of an entitlement mentality and a refusal to accept the inevitable risks inherent in a free society... contribute to a particularly American form of demoralization" (xx). She further opines that "although Jefferson is too optimistic about majority rule, today we tend to err in the opposite direction. Concern for minority rights has been taken too far and extended to too many minorities, fracturing the power of a community to govern itself" (136). Her conclusion contends that "it was not until the 1960s that the assault on traditional morality reached epidemic proportions, as growing numbers of Americans... systematically overthrew the core moral principles that had bound the country together since the Founding" (196).
Yarbrough, of course, has every right to express these views, all of which may well be correct. In a perfect world, in fact, she would be rewarded for her candor; by laying her ideological cards on the table, she alerts readers to her biases. But presentist forays in a book that works more as a history and less as a cultural critique stand out as not only bad form but also bad strategy. Why risk alienating readers from such a solid work of scholarship? Why not let them draw their own conclusions?
This reader's conclusion is that Yarbrough's American Virtues, while not perfect, is one of the fullest, fairest, historiographically circumspect, well-informed, and altogether on-target accounts of Jefferson's political and social thought to appear in decades.
. See, for example, Garrett Ward Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (Baltimore, 1991); David N. Mayer, The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, Va., 1994); Andrew Burstein, The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist (Charlottesville, Va., 1995); Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York, 1997); and Allen Jayne, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, & Theology (Lexington, Ky., 1998).
. See Stuart Leibiger, "Thomas Jefferson and the Missouri Crisis: An Alternative Interpretation," Journal of the Early Republic, XVII (1997), 121-130.
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Robert M. S. McDonald. Review of Yarbrough, Jean M., American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People.
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