Before Red State/Blue State

Long before the distribution of votes illustrated above became a familiar feature of political geography, America’s first partisan divide began with a debate between members of George Washington’s cabinet.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Thomas Jefferson makes a startlingly conservative argument. As much as possible, he insists, American citizens ought to be employed in the cultivation of the vast tracts of land with which our country is blessed. Manufactured goods, if needed, can be imported from Europe.

In his Report on Manufactures (1791), Alexander Hamilton offers a progressive rejoinder. Efficiencies of scale, of organization, and of mechanization, combined with market stimulation and profit incentives, render mass manufacturing immensely productive. With productivity come “wealth,” “independence, and security” for the nation.

Hamilton’s response seems convincing, until we realize that he has missed (or perhaps dodged) Jefferson’s point. Jefferson’s preference for citizens who “labor in the earth”—whom he calls “the chosen people of God”—has nothing to do with maximizing material prosperity, or guaranteeing security from external foes.

Rather, Jefferson believes that cultivating the soil correlates with the cultivation of those “substantial and genuine virtues” which “preserve a republic in vigor.”

Jefferson’s argument rests on the observation that human beings are inclined to please those upon whom they depend “for their subsistence.” Those whose survival depends on “heaven” and “their own soil and industry” are apt to know and respect “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” These laws in turn demand that we respect the equal rights of “all men” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

By contrast, Jefferson fears, those whose welfare hinges on the “casualties and caprice of customers” are tempted to vacillate between slavish “subservience” to, or abusive manipulation of, the opinions of their fellow men. If unchecked, this habit can lead citizens to think even of rights as matters of mere convenience and fashion.

Jefferson’s critique of commerce requires major qualifications, some of which I explore in this post. In any case, the industrialization of virtually every facet of American life would seem to render it moot.

Yet we would do well to consider the crux of Jefferson’s point. Is there not a division, both among and within ourselves, between two ways of envisioning human prosperity? One regards it as something to be pursued in accordance with objective moral law. The other treats it as something to be produced by an ever more sophisticated mechanization of human life.

Might it not make a difference which vision we cultivate, and act upon?

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