The assumptions linked to the more deliberative, publicly responsible model of citizenship, though utopian and far-fetched at least within the perspective of modern, western society, can be thought of in a way that makes them seem more practical. Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed both that good government was possible only when those who governed were virtuous (a postulate emphasized in Greek-civic humanist political thought) and that, since government was a convenience originating in the individually defined needs of those in the society, government should rest on the consent of the governed (an argument implicit in individualist, liberal political thought). He was attracted, then, to some of the idealisms of both approaches to citizenship. He wanted government, deliberative and positive, to aspire to the distinction Aristotle had in mind when he asserted that “a state exists for the sake of the good life, and not for the sake of life only.” Yet, he also has a keen sense of the tyranny of most governments and of the wonderful liberation that limited, consent-oriented conceptions of the state could encourage. He often argued that the self-reliant individual needed only to be freed of the strictures of government, of bad laws, of stultifying customs, and of ancient, unjust privileges in order to gain happiness and rise to creative heights. He thus also accepted much of the liberal faith that unfettered, competing modes of life were individually and socially beneficent.

To sustain some parts of both idealisms, Jefferson gave careful, life-long attention to the quality of citizenship attainable in any given society. He did this partly because of his belief that it was essential for individuals to have the widest possible opportunity to fulfill their own potential – and he was confident that such fulfillment would be socially useful. He sought for all responsible members of a society (for Jefferson, as for most eighteenth-century Europeans and Americans, this did not include (initially) blacks, women, and others regarded as inferior or “uncivilized” and thus not (yet) part of the social compact) the freedom that would facilitate the Lockean summum bonum, fulfillment of diverse individuality. His concern that people have character-building occupations, enough land to give them economic independence, education in at least the rudiments, and practical participation in their own government, all in part rested on his exalted conception of the potential of individual life. In that way he shared the rising Enlightenment faith in a creative, open-ended, self-regulating human nature.

But none of Jefferson’s individualist enthusiasms was detached from an Aristotelian sense of the necessarily social quality of human life: man was by nature a political animal. Human government was much more than a necessary evil; rather it was part and parcel of the very capacity to be a human being. Thus Jefferson’s celebration, even idealization, of the yeoman farmer rested partly on his political virtue and usefulness. The yeoman farmer, through the daily need he had to care for land and animals, to accept responsibility for his own deeds and decisions, to plan ahead and husband resources, and to be in harmony with the cycles of nature, received steady training in the qualities essential to good citizenship. Practitioners of other livelihoods were not so lucky morally: the merchant’s need to “buy cheap and sell dear” tempted him constantly to cheat and lie, the mindless monotony of factory work deadened creative energies, and lawyers were required to advocate what they did not believe. Though the inherent virtue of agriculture and the vast expanse of land in the United States led Jefferson to favor farming as an occupation, his reasoning was not basically economic, nor did it denigrate other jobs if they could be rendered virtue-sustaining. Thus, mechanics and tradesmen brought up on the character-building adages of Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” or even factory workers schooled in “participatory” democracy through autonomous unions, or women practiced in family management, might be good citizens. Jefferson’s ideal was a moral one, not bound to any particular time, place, or economic mode.

The critical foundation of civic virtue, then, was a predominance of occupation(s) that nourished, inherently, the essential qualities. And this was especially crucial in a self-governing society where the people generally, even as they worked at their jobs, would also be active politically. The widespread ownership of land was essential not only to heighten the sense of responsibility but also to banish the dependence that went along with working on someone else’s land or in someone else’s shop. Such dependence, Jefferson asserted, “begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” The ideal was the independent, yeoman farmer – a model that Jefferson gleaned in part, of course, from antiquity in the writings of Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero, and many others.

To re-inforce humankind’s inherent moral sensibility and the good effects of proper occupations, Jefferson believed some education was necessary for all those (potentially everybody) who would have some political role. Again there was a double purpose: education would enhance personal growth and achievement, but it would as well prepare individuals to be responsible citizens. Building in some way on Puritan arguments that clergy and laymen needed to be literate and educated, and reflecting a Lockean concern to properly furnish the “blank mind,” Jefferson became the premier American advocate of public education; that is, support of schooling for all in order to better prepare citizens for the discharge of their critically important public office. Horace Mann, John Dewey, and many lesser champions of public education have simply elaborated and extended Jefferson’s argument to suit later circumstances, and there is still widespread endorsement of Jefferson’s basic equation: if self-government is to be good government, then the governors (ultimately the people) must be properly educated to the task. This parallels the Greek argument (well known to Jefferson) that freemen entitled to a public role had to be liberally educated to discharge that obligation wisely. Otherwise even government by the people would nonetheless likely be a bad government.

Finally, Jefferson thought some form of actual experience in government would be necessary to complete training in republican citizenship. Though by his time representation was well-established as part of the practice of self-government, and thus some dilution of the classical idea of direct participation seemed necessary and acceptable, Jefferson still believed that dutiful discharge of citizenship, as well as experiencing the individual fulfillment that came with a role in public affairs, required some direct, active involvement. Fortunately, Jefferson thought, American federalism, decentralized and resting on strong local governments, furnished a potentially ideal laboratory of direct participation for nearly all citizens. Town meetings, local boards of education, county court juries, militia duty, road improvement commissions, city ward political committees, and so on, kept close to local neighborhood needs, would be latter-day equivalents of the assemblage of all citizens, giving them vital “public space,” in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, in which to learn and conduct their public business. Jefferson supposed that the experience gained in these various participations would motivate and equip people to elect good representatives for higher levels of government, and build the self-confidence, community, spirit, and enlarged understanding that were essential to the fulfillment of man’s political nature. Vital local government, then, was more than a guard against the tyrannical tendencies of centralization and an efficient way to handle provincial concerns. It was also the indispensable nursery of citizenship.

These aspirations for occupation, economic independence, education, and local government are, of course, as utopian as the individualist assumption of self-regulating competitive energies. Indeed, it may seem utopian in the extreme to presume one’s occupation might be morally uplifting, to suppose education will train people in responsible citizenship, or to expect local government to furnish constructive experience in affairs of state. Is it realistic, the skeptic asks, to believe that any combination of vocation, property ownership, education, and political practice will create a public, that is, a body of citizens able to think and act wisely and disinterestedly on behalf of the common good? In fact, the almost contemptuous denial of such a possibility undergirds much individualist ideology. If one starts with the self-centered model, assuming that diversity and individual needs and desires are the unchangeable foundation – the facts of human nature – then it would be foolish to expect any nurturing combinations to alter that dynamic. If human nature is conceived atomistically and if individual, idiosyncratic needs and ambitions are the inevitable, basic motivations, then no laws or environment will be able to call forth civic virtue. Indeed, the individualist paradigm doesn’t even aspire to such sophisticated public consciousness because it supposes value and virtue and fulfillment are essentially private and require only a minimal public dimension for their realization.

This excerpt is from Individualism and Public Life: A Modern Dilemma (1991), by Ralph Ketcham.

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