The Jeffersonian period is often characterized as an era heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinkers. The influence of rationalist philosophy certainly can be detected in the writings of such men as Benjamin Rush, David Rittenhouse, and Jefferson himself, and Enlightenment beliefs with regard to individual liberties, private property, and oppressive monarchies are evident in most of the theorists falling under the label “Jeffersonian.” However, it is overly simplistic to shrug the philosophies of this period off as second-rate or neo-Enlightenment derivations, for the Jeffersonians developed a philosophy of pragmatic materialism that should be recognized as an advanced epistemological system in its own right. Moreover, this practicality influenced not only the earliest years of the republic, but also generations of American thinkers; by extension, it is not an overstatement to argue that the pragmatic materialism espoused by the Jeffersonians was a primary developing factor in the evolution of the market-focused America of the postmodern world.
The Components of the Pragmatic Materialism of the Jeffersonians
It is important to note that members of Jefferson’s inner circle of like-minded thinkers did not subscribe to an organized theological or philosophical school per se, save the umbrella-like American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Each individual possessed unique religious beliefs, and there was some variety between Jeffersonians in the manifestation of their respective views. Nonetheless, the high degree to which Jeffersonians agreed on philosophical issues makes a strong case for the validity of a model of “typical” Jeffersonian beliefs.
The Jeffersonians believed that the human mind and the process of thought were material entities, and that physical forces caused them to act as they did. Rush, for example, argued that the Divine creation of man, depicted in the “breath of life” passage in Genesis, “thus excited in him [man] animal, intellectual, and spiritual life, in consequence of which he became an animated human creature.” This physical process of jump-starting the lungs provided the force that drove every human function, including mental activities. For Jeffersonians, the human mind and thinking were active, material processes, and they scoffed at metaphysical explanations for thought. Jefferson himself argued that thought was “an action of a particular organization of matter,” much like magnetism and gravity. Continuing on this track, Jefferson questioned how a metaphysical, non-material entity like spirit, “which has neither extension nor solidity, can put material organs into motion.”
Concurrent with this belief in the material basis for human thought was the Jeffersonian conviction that the great variety in human minds reflected the variety found in the physical attributes of any animal. Rush declared that the differences in the minds of men were akin to differences in human physiques. Jefferson argued that “[a]s the Creator has made no two faces alike, so no two minds, and probably no two creeds.” Thus intellectual, political, and theological conformity were not ideals to the Jeffersonians any more than, say, blond hair, green eyes, or any other physical characteristic. The development of ideal standards of thought ran counter to the designs of the Creator, in whose infinite wisdom begat intellectual variation among humans. To attempt to build such models of ideal thinking not only risked offending God, but were the vainglorious blunders of fools.
In keeping with their materialist philosophy, Jeffersonians believed that the human conscience was also a physical process; they called this the “moral sense,” and it functioned in the same manner as any of the five classic senses: taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing. Man, according to the Jeffersonians, was the only creature hard-wired for the moral sense, and it was this characteristic that most set man apart from lower forms of life. Jefferson argued that “the moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.” Physical forces acted on the moral sense and produced effects, and the Jeffersonians believed that man’s environment could either improve or degrade his conscience. Rush believed that this principle was best demonstrated in the example of alcohol:
The effects of certain drinks upon the moral faculty are not less observable than upon the intellectual powers of the mind. Fermented liquors, of a good quality, and taken in a moderate quantity, are favourable to the virtues of candour, benevolence, and generosity; but when they are taken in excess, or when they are of a bad quality, and taken even in a moderate quantity, they seldom fail of rousing every latent spark of vice into action.
Immoral behavior, then, was a function of physical factors, such as environment, heredity, and experience. Individuals could make choices, but stronger or weaker moral senses could lead men astray. Morality was a matter of health, not spirituality; to cure men of immoral behavior required a physician to treat the underlying causes of the dysfunctional moral system. A moral code would be no more useful than an attempt to legislate ideal levels of hearing or sight. However, Jeffersonians believed that the removal of factors causing a degraded moral sense could bring about an improvement in behavior. Rush has been called the Father of Temperance not because he took a strong stance against alcohol consumption, but because he lent scientific credibility to the argument that restricting alcohol use would lead to a rise in the general level of morality in a given population.
The key to promoting moral behavior, to the Jeffersonians, was to educate citizens on the ways in which optimal moral health might be obtained. Priestly and Rush each produced texts that purported to demonstrate the role of good habits in producing a healthy moral sense. Moderation in earthly delights was important to a healthy morality, and Jeffersonians advocated physical exercise combined with hard work as necessary elements. The rural homestead was the ideal environment for the strengthening of moral sense, as the vices so often concentrated in cities would not find an advantageous growth medium on the farm. In addition, Jeffersonians believed that the isolated nature of agrarian life acted as a shelter against the morality-degrading elements of the city.
While influenced by the skeptical views toward religion by Enlightenment thinkers, Jeffersonians nonetheless maintained beliefs in a Creator. In general, they can be categorized as Deists, although each retained individual religious views and attended a variety of types of churches. Boorstin argued that a more accurate description for the religious beliefs of the Jeffersonians would be to use Paine’s “Religion of Humanity.” Mainstream Christians they were not, although Jeffersonians viewed Christ with awe and respect. His message, though, had been distorted and perverted by dogmatic organized religions, in the eyes of Jefferson.
Like all elements of Jeffersonian philosophy, the Creator was a material being. Priestly argued that, by defining the Creator as a material being, “He was ultimately more real than the spiritual God of the metaphysicians.” Jeffersonians scoffed at the logical paradoxes of Christianity, such as the belief in the Trinity, divine communication through spiritual revelation, and the idea that a non-material Creator could bring forth a material world. Jefferson and most of the members of his circle viewed Christ not as a divine Messiah, but as a great social reformer and the greatest classical moralist.
The Residual Effects of the Pragmatic Materialism of the Jeffersonians
Students of history have a tendency to compartmentalize the period being studied as somehow removed from relevance to their world. One can, for example, examine the horrors and excesses of the European witch craze, and derive consolation from the “fact” that humans have evolved since that time, or that humanity has somehow learned from its past mistakes. This approach, of course, ignores more recent acts of genocide, such as the policies flowing from the minds of leaders like Hitler, Pol Pot, or Pinochet. Separating oneself from the past also prevents people from recognizing how past beliefs can have influence that extends into modernity. Jeffersonian materialism helped shape the nascent United States, and this pragmatic philosophical outlook is still evident in contemporary American society.
The previously noted effects of Jeffersonian materialism – in particular the pragmatic medicine of Benjamin Rush – on the temperance movement can also be seen in its modern equivalent: the American war on drugs. Like the Jeffersonians, today’s drug crusaders do not appeal to Biblical sources for morality, but instead draw connections between drug use and immoral behavior. Users are portrayed as degraded, beast-like creatures whose craving for intoxicants causes them to engage in the most reprehensible behavior; these actions, however, are the direct result of the introduction of the material that destroys morality, and are not attributed to metaphysical causes. For both Jeffersonians and modern anti-drug devotees, alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases that can be treated, and addicts are simply people whose vices have eroded their moral faculties.
The overt anti-Calvinism of the Jeffersonians has shaped contemporary American attitudes toward the intersection of religion and politics. It was important for Jeffersonians that people of different faiths achieve social harmony, and they were believed that religious orthodoxy would likely lead to theocratic tyranny. Jefferson himself frequently spoke out against the threat of religious despotism, as evident in the following quote:
(T)o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness.
In a letter to Prussian naturalist and explorer Baron Alexander von Humboldt, Jefferson further refined the disfavor with which he held the prospect of a society dominated by religious orthodoxy:
History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
The Jeffersonians were a group of thinkers whose faith in man’s ability to subdue the forces of nature led their collective belief in progress and a promising future. In this respect the Jeffersonians are perhaps most influential into modernity, for many Americans still hold fast to the cultural doctrine of America as a land of perpetual progress. This faith in progress and the image of the can-do nature of Americans have unbroken connections to the pragmatic materialism of the Jeffersonians.
These men loathed the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and took issue with the idea that man of was incapable of actions that would affect his destiny. The Jeffersonian belief that man could effect change and improve his lot in life is one of the most sacred tenets in the mythology of modern America, and many people still cling to the conviction that this is a land of opportunity for hard-working individuals. The rhetoric of last November's Presidential campaign provided plenty of examples of 21st-century Americans who espouse beliefs in the Jefferson-inspired ideology of America as a nation of perpetual progress. Witness the remarks of President George W. Bush to the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges:
And it's one of the reasons why I'm optimistic that America will lead -- continue to lead the world when it comes to innovation and change. And that will be good for our people. That will be good for the revitalization of what I call the American spirit and the American dream.
Senator John Kerry is also no stranger to the concept of an optimistic future for the United States. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Kerry invoked rhetoric that surely draws its inspiration from the Jeffersonians:
So much promise stretches before us. Americans have always reached for the impossible, looked to the next horizon, and asked: What if? Two young bicycle mechanics from Dayton asked what if this airplane could take off at Kitty Hawk? It did that and changed the world forever. A young president asked what if we could go to the moon in ten years? And now we're exploring the solar system and the stars themselves. A young generation of entrepreneurs asked, what if we could take all the information in a library and put it on a little chip the size of a fingernail? We did and that too changed the world forever… It is time to reach for the next dream. It is time to look to the next horizon. For America, the hope is there. The sun is rising. Our best days are still to come. Goodnight, God bless you, and God bless America.
Though dead nearly 200 years, Thomas Jefferson and his circle of like-minded thinkers continue to influence the way in which Americans think about themselves, their government, and their future.