Tom Jefferson and the Dandelion
GroundSwell, November-December 2009]
T. Jefferson is said to have introduced the dandelion in this
country. No one's perfect. It's a shame, though, how some people
seize on TJ's other lapses when his name is invoked, especially the
rumor that he, an early widower, retained a slave-mistress. This
originated as a Federalist whispering campaign, and now it seems is
probably true, but true or false, it is too prurient to die. To the
racist, miscegenation compounds the fault. The salacious must be
titillated, and if one upholds popular rights one will be slandered.
Whether he treated her honorably, as apparently he did, is beside
the point. Whether his enemies and critics engaged in similar
behavior over the years is irrelevant. Egalitarians are held to a
purer standard. Privileges are won by playing dirty, and that's how
they are kept.
It is said that T.J. should have freed his slaves. Apparently he
considered it, but realized that a free black person in 18th Century
Virginia would not remain free for long, or perhaps even alive.
Social wrongs are hard to cure by individual rights. So what T.J.
did do was to exhaust his individual fortune in politics, giving him
the power to enact the Northwest Ordinance creating our national
land system, extend cheap credit to homesteaders there, bring French
reformers to America, found the University of Virginia and design
its campus, put the Bill of Rights in our Constitution, enact the
Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, outlaw primogeniture and
entail, write the Declaration of Independence, help Tom Paine, edit
the Jefferson Bible, and in many other ways help establish a fair
and respectable American culture.
Politics makes strange bedfellows. In binding the national union
together T.J. allied with Robert Livingston, major landowner of the
Hudson Valley. Livingston promoted income taxation to replace
property taxation. Luckily for New York he was a century ahead of
his time, but a union-binder cannot demand perfection from all his
friends or he wouldn't have any. Still, the Livingston alliance
troubles me. For a charming novel in the background of Livingston's
age and place, try Dragonwyck by Anya Seton (daughter of the dog
story writer), or see the film with Vincent Price and Gene Tierney,
it's a great one in a populist genre that would never make it today.
Then there are Gary Hart, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and the rest
of those Elmer Gantrys who stumbled on the 7th Commandment. Hardly
of the same class, but it is sad how justice became ethics, ethics
became morality, and morality became monogamy. The Seventh
Commandment became the single test of virtue, private and public,
necessary and sufficient. On this and allied points, Kevin Phillips'
recent book, American Theocracy, is a good read.
Violating The Ninth Commandment (slander) is the way of life in
administration and the media. Violating The Sixth (murder) and
Eighth (stealing) are the bases of land tenure, the royal road to
riches, and through riches to respectability in church, academia,
and society. Violating The Tenth (coveting) is confused with the
instinct of workmanship and identified with the legitimate incentive
to produce. Ostentatious charity, condemned by Jesus, is used to
screen the rich from the working poor, select community leaders from
the former, and shame and silence the latter.
Gore Vidal, who is no prude, has devoted an entire book to
debunking T.J. One must take Vidal seriously here, since he is a
serious scholar, and you would expect him to sympathize with T.J.'s
liberal spirit and broader aims. You might explain Vidal's hostility
as a reaction to the military and imperialistic side of T.J.:
writing the Second Amendment; founding West Point; sending the
Marines to Tripoli; acquiring Louisiana; sending Lewis and Clark to
promote expanding our empire to the Pacific; squelching Aaron Burr's
scheme for an independent Mississippi Valley nation; and what not.
This is not the place to review Vidal, but my impression is that the
faults he cherry-picks are too petty to offset T.J.'s grander
virtues and achievements.
So maybe Jefferson imported the dandelion. God forgives mortal
sins; we can forget little ones. If all are God's children, and
Earth is God's gift to His forgiven children, let's start over again
with a Year of Jubilee. That means divide the land every fifty
years, dandelions and all, as Moses said in Leviticus 25. (Billy
Graham, Robert Schuler, Norman Vincent Peale, Jerry Falwell, Oral
Roberts and Pat Robertson take note.) Or twenty-five, as Jefferson
said. Either way we give each child of God a fresh start, "Ally
For the secular humanitarian Jefferson imported another prolific
European specimen, Pierre Samuel Du Pont (the first). Du Pont and
his associates, the French school of économistes, founded
classical economics. They also showed how to redistribute land rents
daily, by taxing them. As they said, that makes us all "co-proprietors,"
and makes our children, and those of former slaves, continue as
such, generation unto generation. Pierre Samuel IV, recently
questing for Jefferson's former post, would have done well to
reincarnate the practical egalitarianism of his namesake and
progenitor, and of that man's friend and student, The Third
President of the United States.