Saturday, November 23, 2019

Gatekeepers of the failed right pt 3

Thomas Jefferson
There are people on the American right who believe that their country is nothing more than a credal or propositional nation.

In support of their position they sometimes point to the Declaration of Independence of 1776, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, with its opening statement "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Charlie Kirk has taken this idea of America as a proposition nation to its logical conclusion. He has argued that America is not only not a people, it is not a place either. Rather it is an idea. Therefore, if it was just him on an island with the idea, then that would then be America:
...if all that [America as a place] disappeared and all I had was ideas and we were on an island...that's America...people have to remember that America is just a placeholder for timeless ideas and if you fall too much in love with the specific place, that's not what it is...

But what would Jefferson himself have thought of Kirk's placeless America? It's true that Jefferson was a liberal in the philosophical meaning of the word, believing that "rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others" - which is the classic (and highly problematic) liberal formula.

But in 1785 Jefferson wrote to another founding father, John Jay, the following:
We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation. Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds.

So during the founding period of America, Jefferson did not believe in placelessness. On the contrary, he thought that it was being tied to the land that gave people the strongest motivation to care for their country and to feel connected to it.

And what of his correspondent, John Jay? In 1787, in Federalist No.2, Jay wrote:
It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty...

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs...

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split...

Jay, in this quote, not only affirms the relevance of place, he sets forth a traditional view of a nation as a union of a people and place. He does not see America as simply a "placeholder" for ideas as Kirk does.

Here, then, are two founding fathers who at the time of the Declaration did not think in terms of America as a credal or propositional nation, a nation defined by ideas alone. They thought of a connection to place as important, and Jay made clear that he thought it a blessing, an act of Providence, that America was formed by a union of a distinct people and place.


  1. It's interesting that the radical liberals of the American Rebellion like Jefferson clearly didn't see the logical evolution of many of the ideas they advocated.

    1. Many of them were rather shocked by the French Revolution

      They were also fatally compromised by engaging in wishful thinking; that slavery would gradually disappear. Instead the cotton gin changed everything.