In a rare non-worthless column today, David Brooks took issue with a typically insincere Weekly Standard piece that professed to find in former local sportscaster and present tanning enthusiast Sarah Palin the fulfillment of the Founders’ fondest dreams. (It’s funny how everything conservatives favor seems to bring smiles to the statues’ faces.) In one of those faux-populist jags conservatroids like to go on only when discussing Democrats, Europeans, academics, or the media, writer Stephen F. Hayward ends up bringing both Harry Truman and Thomas Jefferson on board the Palin dogsled, busting out Jefferson’s famous dialogue with John Adams on the “natural aristocracy” in the process:
The issue is not whether the establishment would let such a person as Palin cross the bar into the certified political class, but whether regular citizens of this republic have the skill and ability to control the levers of government without having first joined the certified political class. But this begs an even more troublesome question: If we implicitly think uncertified citizens are unfit for the highest offices, why do we trust those same citizens to select our highest officers through free elections?
In his reply to Adams, Jefferson expressed more confidence that political virtue and capacity for government were not the special province of a recognized aristocratic class, but that aristoi (natural aristocrats) could be found among citizens of all kinds: “It would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society.” Jefferson, moreover, trusted ordinary citizens to recognize political virtue in their fellow citizens: “Leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the really good and wise.”
Today’s establishment doubts this. The establishment is affronted by the idea that an ordinary hockey mom–a mere citizen–might be just as capable of running the country as a long-time member of the Council on Foreign Relations. This closed-shop attitude is exactly what both Jefferson and Adams set themselves against; they wanted a republic where talent and public spirit would find easy access to the establishment.
OK, down with that “closed-shop attitude,” though neither Jefferson nor Adams dreamed of opening the shop to non-white males, and they weren’t too sure about shopkeepers, either. But even if we don’t take Hayward’s argument too literally, did Jefferson’s willingness to allow the voters to separate the wheat from the chaff mean that he discounted the importance of education and experience in candidates for public office? Well, not so much. Later in the same letter, Jefferson explained his elaborate plan for a steeply graduated public education system that would provide basic skills to all while selecting out only the very best students in each area to move on to the higher levels of the system and possibly qualify for leadership roles. Outlining his program for eliminating the “artificial” aristocracy of birth and wealth in Virginia during the Revolution, Jefferson regretted that one key piece of legislation never passed:
It was a Bill for the more general diffusion of learning. This proposed to divide every county into wards of 5. or 6. miles square, like your townships; to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools who might receive at the public expense a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects to be compleated at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught. Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and compleatly prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.
In appointing officials to his own administration, Jefferson applied even more stringent educational standards, giving most of the jobs to men with college educations at a time when only a tiny handful of men even had the opportunity to go. Would Jefferson be celebrating over the idea of elevating nearly to the presidency a book-banning small-town mayor (and religious fanatic, by his lights) who cobbled together her education from five different miscellaneous institutions and acquired not an ounce of intellectual or cultural sophistication in the process?” Not hardly, as John Wayne used to say. For Jefferson, the value of a governance system could be measured by whether “worth and genius” tended to find their way to power under it: “May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?”
I will leave to the reader what the Sarah Palin pick says about the health of our current form of government.