Sources of Civic Strength

Thomas Jefferson, whom Tocqueville considered “the most powerful apostle democracy has ever had,” firmly believed in “a natural aristocracy among men.”

Members of this natural aristocracy are in principle distinguishable from those of the “tinsel-aristocracy” still clinging to power in the Europe of his day.

“Artificial aristocracy” is “founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.” True aristocracy is conferred by “virtue and talents,” which qualify their possessors “for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.”

The concept is older than Aristotle, and so is the catch. How is one to achieve the “separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi”?

Whoever is conducting the interview had best possess more than a smidgeon of virtue himself!

Jefferson’s solution helps to explain Tocqueville’s epithet: it is best to “leave to the citizens the free election and separation . . . of the wheat from the chaff.”

Our latter day apostle was well aware that such a formula was dangerous where the people were lacking in virtue. By 1813, he was ready to admit the horrors of recent French attempts at democracy.

For the people to succeed at electing virtuous leaders, the people themselves have to be virtuous. And where are they to get their virtue? Jefferson had the answer.

Jefferson’s plan—practically approximated though not formally adopted in early America—was to parcel out power according to “a gradation of authorities, standing each on the basis of law,” including not only federal and state but also robust local governments.

When each citizen is an active participant in his own “small republic,” handling (with his neighbors) whatever civic affairs are within local competence, he is able to cultivate his political knowledge and skills to the maximum extent.

Such a citizen is qualified “to select the veritable aristoi, for the trusts of” higher levels of “government, to the exclusion of the Pseudalists.”

Lacking the education provided by real political experience, how are free citizens to avoid voting themselves ever deeper into the clutches of deceiving despots?

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