Thomas Jefferson, Rebel!
These timeless Frank Chodorov articles appeared in analysis (June 1945). They were originally intended to be a chapter in his autobiography, Out of Step, but were left out for space reasons.
It was some years after I had burned my fingers with a Roman candle before I learned why Americans made particular fools of themselves on the Fourth of July. It was not until I looked into the life and letters of Thomas Jefferson that the full import of his Declaration of Independence dawned on me. Which is as it should be. Great thoughts are not isolated accidents, but, rather, the product of reflection and personality, and to be fully appreciated they must be considered within this context. The historic document left us by Jefferson is best understood when it is measured against his philosophy of government, as revealed in his many letters; nor should we overlook the environment which bore down on that philosophy.
When we consider the Declaration in this light we see that it is not at all the charter of a new nation. It is a rationalization of rebellion. The indictment of the British crown was but a springboard from which Jefferson launched a political principle: that government, far from being an end in itself, is but an instrument invented by man to aid him in bettering his circumstances, and when that instrument fails to function properly it is high time to kick it out. And, which is most important, he meant any government, not only the particular one which at that time engaged his attention. If you have any doubt of it, reread the opening sentence of the Declaration; it will pull you up, this Fourth of July, when every politician in the world is fixing so to integrate political authority with our way of living that there will be no way of prying it loose. The current “course of human events” is far more ominous, as regards freedom, than that which justified Jefferson in calling for a change, even at the cost of a revolution; if his theory of government is still valid, as we seem to imply by our annual obeisance to it, every American should be eyeing the place where the musket ought to be.
That this doctrine of resistance to government was not a chance idea, but inherent in his political philosophy, is attested by the reiteration of it in a number of Jefferson’s private letters and public statements. To Mrs. John Adams he wrote in 1786, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.” Aristocratic Yale College, which had conferred an honorary degree on him, got for its pains this piece of wisdom: “If the happiness of the mass of people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now and then, or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase.” He was in Paris when Shays’ Rebellion against the burdens of debt and taxation (yes, taxation) took place; and even though the thunder of a big-league revolution was breaking about him, his comment on the outbreak at home was true to form: “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all and always well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.”
Very few of the signers of the Declaration were at one with Jefferson in his philosophy of government; most of them were for kicking out the arrogant personnel imposed by George III, but had no intention of abolishing the British system of government by and for the “rich and well-born”; while a few had no nobler purpose man to grind their own axes. But Jefferson lived at a time when the doctrine of natural rights was on the upswing. For a political thinker to reject or even question this starting point of social institutions was to invite doubt as to his intellectual soundness, just as any one who today points to the state as a disease of society is regarded as something of a freak. Morover, the abundance of free land in this new world gave natural rights a solid meaning; one could escape intolerable conditions within the colony by merely moving out beyond the limits of its exercisable power, and one could always find subsistence. Under such conditions faith of the individual in himself flourished easily, and it was not difficult to root that faith in “naturalness.” The climate was good for the Jeffersonian philosophy of government.
Times have changed. There is no free land to which one can apply oneself when factory wages fall below the level of mere subsistence; there is no frontier escape from the long arm of the law. Thus economically frustrated and politically hemmed in, the individual tends to lose faith in himself and is not above selling his soul for a mess of pottage. He who is hungry for food has no stomach for natural rights. At this point political science conveniently changes its postulates. Now that the poverty-ridden public is more concerned with “security” than with natural rights, philandering philosophers are quick to cast doubt on the virtue of the Jeffersonian charmer; and as their forebears fell to praising “divine right of kings” when that courtesan was riding high, wide, and handsome, so our current stock of “best brains” is all for the seductive charm and voluptuous promise of state regulation, and to hell with principle!
Somehow, notwithstanding, the lure of natural rights is persistent; she has her admirers always, and their ardor is of the kind that brooks no obstacles, even to the point of martyrdom. Were it not for the ebullience of these swains, serenading most vigorously when human dignity hits bottom, there would be no revolutions and the history of man would indeed be a drab story of hopeless decadence. But, though at times she seems forsaken—as at present—the lovers of liberty will always put in an appearance.
During the war of 1917–18 there were a number who for their espousal of the Jeffersonian ideal were put in jail. Memory brings up the glamorous name of Eugene V. Debs, but there were thousands of unknowns who for insisting on the right not to kill or be killed were unceremoniously flogged and incarcerated, while the number of World War I anarchists who boldly declared what the war was all about and were therefore locked up, peremptorily and illegally, will never be known. While many of them, as Jefferson foretold, suffered from “misconceptions,” nevertheless they did not “remain quiet,” and thereby they kept alive the “spirit of public liberty.”
In like manner, the conscientious objectors of the second war are rendering an inestimable public service. In an age in which the doctrine of natural rights has all but gone under, these boys have questioned, refused, objected, and in so doing have just about kept her head above water. The majority of them, unfortunately, are without a basic philosophy; they just “hate war.” Cunningly, the state has indulged their pet passion by simply removing them from society, but has scrupulously avoided acts which might be interpreted as punishment for holding to principle; so that, having avoided the horror and danger of war, these boys have gradually sunk into personal adjustment with the state. Their quarrel with the state is no longer on a point of principle, but over the minor discomforts of camp life, loss of wages, financial suffering of their relatives. A comparative few—like those who walked out of the camps and into prisons, and those so-called incorrigibles consigned to the late “Alcatraz” at Germfask, Michigan—resisted the “passive resistance” by which the state sought to subdue their ardor, and by so doing gave notice to the world that natural rights is not without admirers. But, alas! they are few; among them is no name of such prominence as to force the subservient public press to call attention to the principle they stand for; and, except for the glorious self-respect which they maintained by it, their fight for the Jeffersonian doctrine is without visible victory.
The war is drawing to a close. Soon the lickspittles who switched philosophies on December 7, 1941, will be perjuring themselves anew; on a mountain of Bibles they will swear fealty to peace. Then there will be a flood of “disillusionment” literature, beside which that which came after 1918 will be a puny trickle. The selfsame professionals who for the past three years have been preaching the sermon of destruction and murder and hate will now shamelessly tell us how the war was mismanaged (as if sound management is ever applicable to a crazy enterprise); how the period of slaughter was improved upon by fortune hunters (as if that opportunity did not always influence the rationalization of war); how moral values went down in the holocaust (as if moral values ever have a place in any adventure of the amoral state); how liberty was seduced by our politicians while we were fighting its battle in Asia and Europe (as if this were an unfortunate accident and not a necessary consequence); and so on.
But all these protestations and fulminations will be sound and fury, signifying nothing. It will be pleasant and popular, and perhaps profitable, to attack where there is no resistance; a peacetime pacifist, an exposer of past iniquities, or a defamer of dead politicians courts neither a prison sentence nor social ostracism. He effects no opposition. Let him rant. He is not a rebel in the Jeffersonian sense, but must be put down as a quixotic attacker of nothing in particular; for he advocates no principle dangerous to the status quo.
The “spirit of resistance to government” which in the Jeffersonian political philosophy is the taproot of liberty finds its justification in an unprovable axiom: the inalienable rights of the individual. These inhere in every man by the fact of existence; any infraction of them by a single citizen or a group of citizens, organized or unorganized, is immoral. It is to prevent such immoral behavior, or at least to discourage it, that governments are instituted among men. That is the ethical basis for political authority. In the final analysis it amounts to nothing more than a covenant between citizen and policeman, whereby the latter is hired for the sole purpose of protecting the former’s life and property; or, as political science puts it, to maintain a social climate in which the individual may carry on his business of pursuing happiness. Nothing more. When the individuals who constitute government utilize the power vested in it for those purposes, even those which in their opinion make for “the greatest good for the greatest number,” they have broken the covenant and should be sheared of their power. That is the principle, the moral tenet, upon which Jefferson justified “the spirit of resistance to government.”
Jefferson did not pursue the thought; but in postulating the principle he started the train of investigation which later came up with a clear distinction between government and state. The one is a social instrument, the other an unsocial perversion of it; the one is healthy, the other pathological. It is when those in power engage in projects which jeopardize the life or property of the individual, or utilize that power so that either they or a favored group benefits at the expense of the producing public, that government is transformed into state. Perhaps Jefferson vaguely sensed this distinction when he commented, in a letter to Madison, on the highly organized and orderly society among Indians, getting along on customs and public opinion, and seemingly without any of the coercive powers associated with government. He wondered whether this condition might not be the best; but he dismissed that thought as “inconsistent with any great degree of population.”
Jefferson was short on economics; the absence of chaos which he found among the free Indians traced not to their lack of government but to the fact that whatever political authority existed was devoid of the power of taxation. It is in fact this power which transforms the social government into the antisocial state, and must in the end bring about a softening of the moral fiber of a people. The process of deterioration is quite simple. As more of the individual’s production is absorbed by the state, the less he has for his own enjoyment, and the greater effort he must put out to maintain himself or to better his circumstances. A man’s worth to himself is in indirect ratio to the toil entailed in his pursuit of happiness; the dignity of the individual disintegrates under the hammering of want and the fear of it. On the other hand, the power of the state waxes in proportion to the wealth it absorbs through taxation. And as economic power is thus transferred from the individual to the state, the individual is pressed into bargaining for some of what was properly his by right of production; in the bargaining process he offers up his inalienable rights for a handout. The handout might be unemployment insurance or a place on the public payroll or a subsidy, but in any case the nonproductive state gathers economic strength and political power, while the productive individual becomes a supplicant. We have seen the ultimate of this moral disintegration in Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan, where the power to tax made a shambles of all property rights, and for further evidence we might look into the history of lost civilizations. The power to tax is the power to destroy human dignity.
Never before in the history of the country was Jefferson’s admonition more pertinent than now. Never before has the state battened on so large a proportion of the wealth produced by its subjects. What is even more ominous is the growing public acceptance of the doctrine that state taxation may be made an instrument for social good; for which we can thank that brood of anti-natural rights theorists hatched out of the Marxist cesspool. So thorough has been the work of these missionaries of state paganism that they have got people to put a moral purpose on being robbed. It is this mental adjustment to the confiscatory inclination of the state, this rationalization of an immoral use of power, that bodes no good; for it is evidence of “a lethargy, the forerunner of death to liberty.”
George Mason of Virginia
“George Mason of Virginia” appeared as the lead article in the September 1945 issue of analysis.
These days it is the “right to work.” Yet the fervor put into this newfangled American ideal falls flat when we reflect that toil is on a par with disease in desirability. Men want things, not work. So that, when we shake down this right to work, the residue turns out to be the “right to a living and we don’t give a damn how we get it.”
What, specifically, are the advocates of this doctrine pumping for? Is it not a mess of gratuities? Is it not unemployment insurance, make-wage jobs, pensions, free doctoring, free schooling even up to the postgraduate courses? For such largess these idealists are quick to settle out of court. The right to work thus appears to be every individual’s claim, inherent in citizenship, on the production of everybody else. The claim is made on government, of course, and therefore amounts to a demand to partake of the tax fund. Thus the privilege of being an American becomes the privilege of pushing one’s snout into the public trough.
It was not always so. Before the fear of want became the national psychosis the word rights had an entirely different connotation. There was nothing mundane or sordid about it; rather, it gave expression to a high moral value. And it was peculiarly American, for nowhere else in the world had there ever been an attempt to establish a polity based on this ethical principle. To be sure, the question of rights—or natural rights, as it was called—had been the subject matter of philosophic speculation for several centuries before America became a political entity, and it had also been the battle cry of a few rebellious undertakings in Europe; but never and nowhere was its content equivalent to that which it attained in the freak republic carved out of the western wilderness. Here it became a formula for the guidance of organized life, a standard by which to measure the correctness of political institutions. It was a principle, not a handout.
But what are rights? How did the idea originate? When we look to the background of rights, we see how the right to work is indicative of decadence in the American character. We have gone back in our political thinking—back to the theory that the state is some superior sort of person.
The earliest notion of a right came from the boon granted a slave by his master. It was the conqueror’s voluntary restriction on the exercise of his power over the vanquished. The purpose of such self-imposed restraint was to further the economic purpose of conquest, for it was evident that the unlimited harassment of the slave would reduce his productive capacity and thus lessen the loot. The slave was advised how far the master would go and made his adjustment accordingly; the conqueror profited by the resulting orderly modus vivendi. In time these limitations became traditionalized, even put into legal form, and the conquered endowed them with the value of prerogatives, privileges, and immunities. The inhibitions of privilege became rights. So much so that when unscrupulous members of the conquering class overstepped the bounds, the slave class could invoke their rights and demand that restraint be put upon the offenders; it was not uncommon for the rulers to enforce these rights with severe punishment of their own people.1
The Romans, of all the ancients, were most adept at this procedure. It paid them to guarantee to their subjugated peoples noninterference in all matters relating to religious customs and social habits, limiting their overlordship to the maintenance of order and the collection of stipulated tribute. The story of the trial of Jesus illustrates the scrupulousness with which Pontius Pilate recognized the “rights” of the Jews and the manner in which the latter invoked them.
But the Romans always remained a people apart and the rights they established were concessions which might be conveniently withdrawn. Furthermore, whenever they left a territory, the rights disappeared with them. It was only where conquerors settled down and became integrated with the conquered, thus forming a new nation, that the doctrine of rights acquired a fixed place in the mores of the people. The best known of such integrations is the English nation, and since our modern concept of rights is a direct lineal descendant of the English concept, we might profitably look into the latter.
It was not long after William the Conqueror established himself on the British isle that demands were made on his suzerainty, not by the natives but by his own nobility. These demands amounted to nothing more than the privilege of retaining for themselves a greater share of the proceeds of exploitation. The culmination of this rivalry between king and barons was the affair at Runnymede. Tradition has made the Magna Carta the cornerstone of the British structure of rights; and so it is, but the structure and the cornerstone are not what romance has read into them, that is to say, a charter of human freedom; for all mat happened at Runnymede was a clipping off of the king’s power of exploitation in favor of the barons. Henceforth, John agreed, the sovereignty over their vassals which his kingship invested in him was to be shared with his tenants-in-chief, and in the exercise of these privileges they were to enjoy immunity; and he conceded, not as an article of justice but as a guarantee of noninterference, the trial by a jury of peers. Now, the point to be kept in mind was that the barons did not question the king’s sovereignty, for to do so would have undermined the polity which supported their own prerogatives. The validity of his signature to the compact could not be doubted without throwing doubt on their own position. And so, Magna Carta established the underlying principle of British “rights,” that they are patents and indulgences wrested from the higher political power.
The same holds with the Bill of Rights, of 1688. It came, be it noted, as a petition to the king, for the parliament was well versed in precedent and could not but acknowledge the necessity of the king’s seal on the contract. Again we find a class— the rising industrialists—demanding privileges and immunities, and employing their coercive position to enforce these demands; for William and Mary were in need of war funds and the petition was presented as a quid pro quo for a tax levy. And, as in the case of the Magna Carta, the rights which were thus woven into the fabric of English law were mere pieces of power captured from the acknowledged source of power by a group temporarily strong enough to rival it. That is the history and the theory of British rights. Throughout the years this clipping-off process has all but divested the kingship of its original prerogatives, but the tradition of a sovereign and transcendent state in which all political authority resides, and from which all privileges and immunities are derived, is still the basis of British polity. For the total of the contracts between this state and the long line of successful pressure groups forms that pattern of precedents known as the British constitution. It is a tacit compromise with conquest, not a stated philosophy of government.
And so we come to America.
We cannot know just when or how the concept of the primacy of the individual—as distinguished from the claims of his clan—took root in the human mind; most likely it was always there. Some are pleased to give credit for its discovery to the prophets of Israel, others find in the parables and the life of the Nazarene the finest, if not the first, expression of the idea. There are historians who trace to the Protestant Reformation the individual’s revolt against his political debasement. Regardless of its original expression, for at least two centuries before the American Revolution political philosophy had been phrasing such ideas as—that the unit of social life is the individual, that political institutions derive their justification from his purposes, that the moral basis of political authority is the necessity of existence. They bolstered this thought with the hypothesis of a natural law, and pointed to the prevalence of friction and unhappiness as evidence that this law had been ignored and violated. The high goal of human endeavor could be achieved only in a condition of harmony or justice, and this condition, they maintained, can exist only when political institutions chart their course by the natural law.
But the speculations of Rousseau and Montesquieu and Locke and the physiocrats seemed destined to remain lost between the covers of their books. Then came the American Revolution, and out of the virgin soil of the spawning nation sprang an intrepid band of philosophic adventurers who made bold to give the ideal of freedom a working chance. Among these the foremost, because he held most closely to the visionary blueprint, was George Mason of Virginia.
Americans know but too little of this great American, and, what is most regretful, less about the definitive value he gave to Americanism. Now that we are on the high road of abandoning that value, substituting for it the opposite one, the one which the “well-born” strove so persistently and unscrupulously (and with some success) to incorporate into the basic law of the new nation, we would be well served by a full acquaintance with the work of Mason. A review of his arguments before the Constitutional Congress and the Virginia Convention for ratification would be mighty helpful in any discussions of current events. For Mason foresaw the dangers the new nation was heading for because its foundations did not rest foursquare on the law of justice, and now that these dangers have met up with us it might save us from further trouble if we gave thought to his reasoning. It is as sound today as it was then, and more pertinent. But in the space allotted to this article, all that is possible is an attempt to show how Mason tried to give the new nation a political soul.
On May 17, 1776, the state of Virginia having declared for independence, its delegates assembled at Williamsburg for the purpose of drawing up a constitution. It fell to the lot of George Mason who, although no lawyer, had already achieved some reputation as a political thinker, to frame a bill of rights as a guide in framing the constitution; the declaration he produced was destined to become in effect part of each of the forty-eight state constitutions and is embraced in the first Ten Amendments to the federal Constitution. On the first and second articles all the others rest:
- 1. That all men are created equally free and independent and have certain inalienable rights, which they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity, among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
- 2. That all power is by God and nature vested in and consequently derived from the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.
If we accept these two propositions as axioms of government, then any bill of rights based on them becomes a mere memorandum—a lest-we-forget reminder for every political situation. For here we have a philosophy to guide us, not a compendium of precedents; a light for the future not the past. The rights, be it noted, are not the subject of legislative action, which can only conform with or run contrary to them, for they existed before lawmakers were and will continue as long as human life persists; they inhere in the individual by the fact of existence and need no other confirmation; they are not to be gotten, hat in hand, by a supplicant citizenry. Indeed, it is to implement these rights that men institute government, appointing magistrates whose business it must be to carry on communal affairs according to these tenets.
The vision of Mason in proclaiming this moral basis for political authority is matched by his courage, for at the time all the known governments in the world were built on the conquest principle by which they came into being. Even among his contemporaries there were comparatively few who held with him in this departure from the established order, and it was only the ardor of these few which prevented the establishment of a self-contained power instrument in the new nation. At the Philadelphia Convention he struggled vainly to hold the delegates to this new American ideal, and when the Constitution which emerged failed to live up to that ideal he not only refused to sign it but returned to Virginia resolved to fight its ratification by his home state. Though there again he lost in the fight against the centralizers, the “well-born” who relished political power in the European manner, the cogency of his argument had made a strong impression on the times, and at last the bill of rights which he had prescribed for the health of the new nation was ultimately, though grudgingly and only in part, incorporated into its Constitution.
Mason was a slave owner, but he opposed slavery; he was an aristocrat, by any standard, yet he rejected government by aristocrats; he advocated a single term of seven or eight years for the presidency lest an ambitious man seek to perpetuate himself in that office; he feared a standing army in peacetime, seeing how this instrument of force was the backbone of autocratic government, and declared a volunteer militia all the military a free nation should have; he anticipated Jefferson and Washington in opposing foreign alliances; he opposed federal power to regulate elections because he saw in this a centralizing force; he was a wealthy man, but he fought features of the federal judiciary which he knew would favor the wealthy litigant; he thought that tariff bills and all commercial measures should require a two-thirds vote of both branches of Congress; in the general-welfare clause of the Constitution he recognized the danger of undefined authority; taxation he feared because of its political potential and he espoused weak government because its corollary is a strong people. But in taking these positions on particular measures Mason had no choice. One can always foretell the direction of thought which starts with a philosophy; the unpredictable is the expedient. Mason’s contribution to America is not what he advocated or opposed, but the character he tried to give its political philosophy.
Factually, the doctrine of natural rights hasn’t a leg to stand on. This is so by very definition. Nature has not made a right visible, nor does she notify us in unmistakable manner when we have hit on one. The niggardliness of nature in this instance is matched by her reluctance to identify other abstractions which we trace to her, like justice and freedom. To get to the bottom of the question: What exactly is nature? Who is the accredited liaison officer between nature and man?
On the basis of this lack of sensual evidence, the latter-day logicians who hog the front row of philosophic fashion peremptorily throw the doctrine out the window of reason. According to them, natural rights are an absurd assumption. They are an assumption, all right, but whether absurd is another question. When we reject this assumption we come logically to conclusions which in themselves are absurd, and because of these absurd conclusions we are forced to restore the unprovable hypothesis to its place as a starting point for our thinking. Thus, if we deny that in the nature of things a man has an exclusive right to the product of his labor—because we are not on speaking terms with “the nature of things”—then we actually deny him the right to life, and we are on the way to asserting that the master has a right to the property and life of the slave. But, where did the master get that right? From his good right arm, since, it is admitted, he also has no “pull” with nature. So then, by denying the hypothesis of natural rights we are forced to the conclusion that a right is a relationship between man and man, resting on power and shifting with the incidence and intensity of mat power. And where does that conclusion lead us to? To the absurdity that the only way for men to live together in harmony is for each one to maintain an arsenal as big as any likely combination of arsenals his neighbors might bring to bear on him.
Confronted with such logical though nonsensical conclusions, the show-me pragmatists—some of them—have come up with an as if escape. That is, even if the doctrine of natural rights is an unprovable assumption, they say, it is a necessity of experience that we accept it as a functional idea, and we must act and reason as if natural rights were factually demonstrable. They are willing to go along with the doctrine so long as they are not asked to take it as a fact. It would be poor sportsmanship to deny them this face-saving device.
But the harm of this pragmatic approach to political problems has been done. It is difficult to say whether the philosophy was the cause of it, or was merely an expedient accommodation to a fait accompli; but the fact of the matter is that opposition to the doctrine of rights, as exemplified by Mason, has been successful in liquidating the only norm by which freedom can be measured. The Constitution which Hamiltonian centralists forced upon the new country, against the advice of Mason, Henry, Gerry, and the other pleaders for government to serve, not to master, the people, has done its work; so that today the rights of an American, like those of an Englishman, are the privileges he can force a reluctant government to disgorge. Whereas our country began as a more or less voluntary association of freedom, while British polity was born in conquest, because our basic law permitted the concentration of power, our doctrine of natural rights has become a dead letter and we are operating on the British system. We have been conquered by our original error.
What is standard practice today in the relations between the American government and the American people? When a group of us are determined to obtain certain privileges—which we euphemistically call rights—we organize ourselves and in various ways notify our representatives how many votes we control, and they had better be sensible and give us what we want. So long as they submit to our demands we have no objection to their acquiring additional power over us, by the imposition of more taxes or the passage of laws which restrict our freedom of action; we relish being subservient to benevolent despotism. And, are our representatives guided by basic principles in the handling of public affairs? Hardly. Their business is primarily to “keep their ears to the ground”—to ascertain which pressure group has the most to deliver and to make settlement accordingly. That is the conquest principle.
Mistakes multiply themselves. If the federal Constitution had been built in the spirit of Mason’s recommendations, it is quite likely that many of the economic errors which have since come home to plague us would have been avoided; certain it is that the institution of slavery would have been scotched, the Civil War prevented, and our stupid wall of protection would not have been built. When you study the “Virginia Bill of Rights with an eye to economics, you see how a faithful adherence to its dictates could not but have suggested measures which would have avoided the economy of scarcity from which we suffer, and to overcome which we vainly pile power upon power on our government. For, in the final analysis, we get the kind of government our stomachs want.
Whether the situation can be righted at this late date is doubtful. As a people we have no knowledge of freedom and therefore no taste for it. So low has our concept of freedom fallen that we interpret it as the right to work. The old Greeks knew enough to let Fate have its way. So be it. But for some of us, the incorrigibly unadjusted, there are music and poetry and spiritual uplift in the advice given by George Mason, in his will, to his sons:
I recommend it to my sons from my own experience in life to prefer the happiness of independence and a private station to the troubles and vexation of public business, but if either their own business or the necessity of the times should engage them in public affairs, I charge them on a father’s blessing never to let the motives of private interests or ambition induce them to betray, nor the terrors of poverty and disgrace or the fear of danger or of death deter them from asserting the liberty of their country and endeavoring to transmit to their posterity those sacred rights to which themselves were born.
Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau was one of Chodorov’s great favorites, as one can see from this article printed twice in analysis (November 1945 and February 1949). It also appeared as chapter 20 of Out of Step.
The secretary of the Thoreau Society reports increasing interest in the long-forgotten “ne’er-do-well.” It takes a long rime for word-of-mouth advertising to get around, but because that kind of publicity attaches itself only to first-class merchandise, its effectiveness is irresistible. Recognition of Thoreau’s contribution to the philosophy of individualism could not be put off forever. Several books and articles have, of course, cropped up to meet the market created by this new interest in Thoreau, but unfortunately these “lives” and commentaries have come during an era when the dominating thought vogues are psychology and collectivism; so that these studies are somewhat overladen with psychoanalysis and social theory.
Therefore, if you want to know Thoreau you had better pass up the diagnosticians and get down to reading Thoreau. You will find him an open book—quite willing to tell you frankly, and interestingly, what he thought and why he lived as he did. He is quite companionable. Begin, then, with his essays: CivilDisobedience, Slavery in Massachusetts, John Brown, Life Without Principle; if you want more, and you will, go in for Walden—but you will have to read it slowly to get the full value of it—and then put in an evening or two with the revealing extracts from his journals, or diaries as we call them.
Maybe you too will decide that Thoreau was “maladjusted.” But you might withhold judgment until you define this pathological mouthful. Before the war the boy who ran away from home and joined the army was “maladjusted”; during the war the boy who refused to join the army on principle was similarly labeled. The word, therefore, as used, simply means that the person so described is either incapable or unwilling to submit to the herd cult. It connotes some emotional mental weakness, and carries a bit of condescension and of pity with it; that the ability and willingness to stand the crowd off may indicate that exceptional self-reliance is overlooked. Sometimes one cannot help suspecting that the “adjusted,” those who are quick to fit themselves into any thought pattern prepared by the neighbors, find the term maladjusted a convenient covering up of some weakness of their own. Maybe the word is plain name-calling, pulled up out of the gutter by “science.” The suppressed rebel in us resents the courage of those who rebel openly.
In this connection I am reminded of a story told by Artemus Ward about Billson, his partner in show business: “Billson,” says I, “you hain’t got a well-balanced mind.” “Yes, I have, old hossfly,” he says (he was a low cuss). “Yes, I have. I’ve a mind that balances in any direction the public rekwires, and that’s what I calls a well-balanced mind.” Thoreau did not have that kind of a mind; which makes him, it seems, quite a tidbit for psychologists. Their scalpels might more usefully dig into the minds of conforming mediocrities; it would be socially beneficial to discover the consistency of mass putty.
A biography of Thoreau worth reading, because it concerns itself with revealing the man from his own point of view and not with the biographer’s estimate of him, was done by a Frenchman, Leon Bazalgette. “The gods,” says Bazalgette, “have made a Henry who is all of a piece, and they have placed him on the earth among objects and souls that are different and queer.” There you have it. What do we mean by “queer”? If all but one of us were color-blind, that one would indeed seem queer to us; but how would our inability to distinguish colors appear to the gifted one? And so, as this country bumpkin went through Harvard in his stout green suit, while the fine young gentlemen were uniformed in traditional black, the incongruity which caused them to smile was as nothing to the oddity, as he saw it, of voluntarily squeezing one’s personality into a convention. Even in his teens he displays that “militant devotion to various axioms that he identifies with himself.” He could not be cast into a mold; he was not made of that stuff. Harvard had facilities which he could use to improve himself. It was a means; the end was a better Thoreau. It was not for the “old joke of a diploma” that he read enormously, far beyond the requirements of his curriculum, though outside of it. At nineteen he wrote: “Learning is art’s creature, but it is not essential to the perfect man: it cannot educate.”
When we reflect on a Thoreau, we must always consider the sanity of the world in juxtaposition to his. Take his first experience as a schoolmaster. In his pedagogy he finds no place for the whipping rod; for this heresy the headmaster calls him to account; being an honest man he must deliver what is expected of him for his wages; therefore, he lines up at random a half-dozen pupils and thoroughly flogs them. But, he must be honest with his axioms, too; therefore he resigns. He could not afford to let Thoreau drift into false values. Was he or the recognized rule of pedagogy queer?
A professor of economics once told me he was convinced that the last word on the subject was pronounced by Henry George. “Do you teach him?” I asked. “No, he is not in the curriculum, and if I tried to teach Henry George it would be worth my job.” Thoreau could not understand that kind of thinking; if flogging were part of the curriculum he would cut himself off from it. He valued Thoreau more than his job.
We talk a lot about freedom these days. When you get to the bottom of this talk you realize that, first, very few know what freedom is and, second, still fewer want it. The fact is that what we call freedom is an increase in wages (or doles), more profits (or subsidies), or a bottomless abundance of privileges. For such things we—particularly the affluent among us—are ready to lay freedom on the line. The essence of freedom, which is an inflexible respect for oneself, is being bartered every day for mere trifles.
Thoreau was not in that business. Once the dwindling fortunes of his father’s pencil factory needed looking into. Henry undertook the job and made the best pencil in America. He made only one; that was enough. As an honest workman he satisfied himself; as a good son he put his father on the way to a competence. Why should he sell himself for pencils? Profits were not among the axioms which he identified with H. D. Thoreau. Luxuries came too high if the price was freedom. Imagine our “captains of industry” passing up a profit or a privilege for a chance to be men.
Freedom is an individual experience. If you have it, its objective expression will find many forms; but if you don’t have it, you will get along all right, like any four-footed animal or “sound” citizen, and you may even go to heaven; but you can never be free. Chattel slavery was the issue in Thoreau’s time, just as state slavery is now. A lot of people talked about the iniquity of the institution. What did Thoreau do? He refused to pay the poll tax on the ground that it would be used by the commonwealth of Massachusetts to capture and return fugitive slaves. Now, when you refuse to pay taxes you are really a dangerous man, for you undermine the structure by which some men live on the labor of others; therefore you must be clapped into jail until you see the error of your ways and make your “adjustment.” Of his one night spent behind bars Thoreau writes:
I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar … I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance. As they could not reach me, they resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come against some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the state was half-witted, that it was as timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons. … I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.
Such a man can never be enslaved.
It need hardly be said that Thoreau had no truck with institutions, organizations, or “movements.” When freedom submits to a formula it rids itself of responsibility, the responsibility to one’s own axioms. To check one’s thought and behavior against the dictates of one’s conscience may prove unflattering; to chart one’s course by such a checkup requires a powerful will; it is to avoid such revelation and responsibility that people are prone to hide behind rituals, constitutions, and bylaws. But flight from individual responsibility amounts to an abandonment of freedom. You are not free when you refuse to make choices in your own name. You enslave yourself when you take refuge from the consequences of your decisions in a committee, a nation, or any collective fiction. To Thoreau such “escapism” was unthinkable, queer. So, he writes: “as a snowdrift is formed where there is a lull in the wind, so, one would say, where there is a lull of truth, an institution grows up.” For him there never was a lull of truth.
The value you put on freedom is, like all objective value, the price you are willing to pay for it. Thoreau’s price came very high, and the difference between him and other people is to be found not in the lingo of psychology but in the greater worth he put on self-esteem, which is the essence of freedom. He rejected the mob because mingling with it demanded a sacrifice of that self-esteem at the altars of convention and hypocrisy. That he was not unsocial is evidenced by his friendship with people of similar timber and by his devotion to his family; whether it was with Emerson or the woodcutter, with Channing or an Indian guide, his social contacts had to be on an aboveboard basis, unencumbered with trivialities; any other terms did not interest him. If being social at any cost to self-esteem is the mark of balance, then Thoreau was decidedly queer. But the testimony points rather to his having a higher sense of values than the ordinary run of men. He was determined to be free of rubbish. Once he was asked to sign a pledge, to which the names of the “best” people in Concord were attached, that he would treat all people as brothers. He declined to do so until he found out how other people would treat him. He was not going to be sociable for the sake of sociability; he demanded as much as he gave.
He would neither accept nor bestow condescension.
But the real price he paid for freedom was not in ridding himself of the strictures of society, but in curtailing his desires. He conquered his appetite in order to be free; he was not going to be a slave to things. His venture into the pencil business shows that he had the makings of a successful industrialist. With a brother he operated a school that was the envy and chagrin of rival schoolmasters, not only because of its success but more so because of some advanced ideas of pedagogy which the brothers introduced. As a surveyor he was in demand and highly respected, both for his accuracy (he made his own instruments) and for his integrity. Those who hired him out for any kind of a job, whether farm work or painting a fence, were sure to get their money’s worth because Thoreau would not cheat himself by doing a poor job.
He might have made money also as a lecturer and a writer had he been willing to compromise his standards, for he was proficient in both fields. But he was not willing to give up what the making of money costs: freedom. For that reason he refused regular occupation of any kind—although he was never idle— and got himself the reputation of being a ne’er-do-well. From his own point of view he was doing far better than his detractors, for while they got only respectability for their pains, he had self-respect.
The rock upon which every attempt to rid man of his shackles is ultimately wrecked is man’s unwillingness to pay the price of freedom—the price which Thoreau cheerfully paid. Every “cause” must crash on it. For when the theorizing is done, the books are all written, the debates have been resolved into a formula for action, there remains always this immovable obstacle: “One must live.” By this dodge the lip-servicers simply admit that the worth they put on the ideal is less than that they put on their accustomed way of living or the prospect of improving it. The ideal was something nice to talk about, to use as a tonic for one’s sluggish intellectual liver, but when it comes to giving up for it, that’s another matter. It is more pleasant to make one’s peace with the going order of things, right or wrong. And if your conscience is pricked by someone who insists that you pay the price, you simply kick him out of the way; and you salve your conscience by telling it the “time is not ripe” or “wait until I make my pile.”
Thoreau said that if he saw a reformer coming his way he would run for his life. He had no need for reform. The man who identifies axioms with himself wants no preacher to show him how, while the preacher will have no influence with those who are constitutionally incapable of axioms. If the reformer justifies his calling on the ground that through education the lacking moral values may be instilled, the answer is that all experience denies that possibility. Education can present choices; it cannot make decisions. No pedagogical system has ever succeeded in eliciting values which do not exist in the person.
Improving on Jefferson, Thoreau says: “That government is best which governs not at all”; then he wisely adds: “And when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” Will they ever be prepared for it?
The Articulate Individualist
This was the lead article in an eight-page memorial issue of analysis dedicated to Albert Jay Nock (August 1946). Chodorov was forty-nine when he first met Nock, but Nock stood next to Henry George as an intellectual mentor. Also see Chodorov’s chapter on Nock in Out of Step.
Nobody gives a damn what you write; it’s how you write that counts.” So said a friend to Albert Jay Nock; when he repeated the bon mot, you detected in his expression the pride of the craftsman and the disappointment of a man misunderstood.
It is only when you reread Our Enemy the State and Thomas Jefferson and his Memoirs—when you take his style in stride and are no longer dazzled by its perfection—that you catch the flavor of his thought and you plumb its substance. He was not a voluminous writer. He had the rare gift of editing his ideas, so that he wrote only when he had something to say and he said it with dispatch. When you use the right word you are under no obligation to explain because the right word explains itself; elucidation for the benefit of people who cannot read is cheap and futile at best. This standard of literary exactitude sets a fast pace for the ordinary reader to follow, especially when his concentration is being diverted from the thought by the style, and a second reading is necessary to catch up.
Nock had a very definite philosophy. He had plenty to say. Though he wrote on many subjects, from political science to marriage, from literary criticism to manners, a distinctive pattern of philosophic thought pervades all his books and essays. It is what we would name, for lack of a surer word, the philosophy of individualism. But, it is not a doctrine or theory; it is a quality of the man himself, elusive and somewhat mystical, but nevertheless rational and communicable. It is possible only to sketch in this limited space the outlines of his philosophy.
Individualism, as a social philosophy, starts with the axiom that in the nature of things only the individual exists. Even the world about him is a matter of conjecture, since its existence is subject to his consciousness. When two individuals cooperate for their mutual advantage neither assigns his consciousness to the other; it simply cannot be done. As individuals, each of us is born, lives, and dies—alone.
Therefore, that which we call society has no reality. In point of fact, the word society is merely a convenient abstraction, designating a number of cooperating individuals, and the character which the ensuing milieu acquires in our minds is simply the reflection of the characteristics of its constituent parts. If the individuals are given to heavy drinking we have a drunken society; a free society consists of individuals who are under no restraint by others; a slave society is one in which a few are masters whose bidding the others must do. The individual is the only reality. That being so, the good society of which men have dreamed since the beginning of time is a matter of good men. There cannot be any social improvement except by way of individual improvement, and any formula which tries to shortcut the process is fatuous. On whether the human is capable of indefinite self-improvement—there cannot be any other kind—Nock has grave doubts. Nevertheless, he is all for giving men a chance at it, not only to see what they will do for themselves, but more so because as an individualist he is under obligation not to interfere.
The only obligation of the individual to his neighbor is to let him alone in all matters except when the neighbor interferes with his equal right to life and property. Therefore, while rebellion against repression is in order, the reformer with a “mission” is quite out of place. Nor has the reformer much chance of success. If he has something to say he ought to say it to those who will listen, but when he insists that those who do not listen are sinful as well as in error, he oversteps bounds. Besides, if people will not listen it may be because they are not prepared for what is being offered and the reformer is presumptuous in trying to force acceptance of what has no value to them. You can “put people in the way of learning,” but you cannot educate them; that is a private operation. If the people are fools, they have a right to be and you have no right to disturb them against their will.
It may be asked, then, why Nock speaks in such high praise of Henry George, who was very definitely a reformer with a “mission.” Those who are familiar with what Nock has to say on this point will recall that he protests a lifelong dissociation from the George “movement,” and that he deplores George’s reduction of his philosophy to a political nostrum. But, as in your reading you must learn to pick the good out of a book and throw the rest away—a favorite expression of his—so you must gather knowledge wherever you find it and not judge it by its presentation. Henry George enabled him to evaluate the state.
The individualist has one enemy: the state. As a scholar it was incumbent on Nock to look into the nature and equipment of this enemy, so as to show it up for what it is. He finds that this political institution originates in robbery and thrives on it. But, what is the technique by which it carries on its business? In the first place, the state’s predatory income is taxation; in the second, it gains comfort and aid from those to whom it dishes out privilege, at the expense of producers; in the third place, the principal privilege which it supports, by force, is the one which in the long run absorbs the productive power of the working population, that is, the privilege of demanding a fee for the use of the earth. Well, when Henry George advocates the abolition of taxes, he is hitting the state at its vitals. And when he further demonstrates how community collection of rent will abolish the basic privilege, thus destroying the exploitative power of monopoly, he gives you the main ingredient of that economic freedom without which political freedom is a mirage.
Without this understanding of the economic implementation of the state, the argument against it is one-sided. It is because of that lack that theoretical anarchism drifted into communism, the most vicious form of statism; and individualism which ignores the basic economic principles of Henry George is too likely to become that “rugged” kind which is nothing but legalized buccaneering. So Nock takes his economics from the philosopher, because without it he cannot round out his argument against the state, and passes up the reformer.
But what does the individualist propose to “do about it”? Nothing; that is, if by “doing” is meant commotion, organization, political action. That kind of “doing” is unwarranted by his basic premise. The ingredients of our social order determine its character, and if these ingredients are unprepared for freedom, incapable of understanding what it is, what can one do about it? There is strong reason to believe that such incompetence is widespread; in fact, that competence in this regard is very scarce. In spite of the aphorism that “all men are born equal,” nature very specifically abhors uniformity. It is obvious that there are some men who, regardless of their backgrounds and environments, are more plentifully endowed with intellectual curiosity than others; that the proportion of this unexplainable “intellectual elite” to the number who are content to grub along is small; and that its cultural standards cannot be generally applied.
What hope is there for a stateless society? If by an accident of nature this “remnant” does run up as a proportion of the population, it may make its influence felt. Maybe a complete collapse of our civilization, brought about by the crushing weight of statism, will throw the “intellectual elite” into the ascendancy, as a last resort, and some good will come of it. In the meantime, the only thing anyone can “do” is to go to work on the one unit he can improve, the only one he has a right to tackle—himself.
Whether this is a negative and pessimistic point of view is beside the point. Does it accord with historical fact? Does it check with experience? Only by this test can its soundness be evaluated.
But, it is very definitely not the point of view of a misanthrope. Far from it. Any self-improvement which the individual does effect is a gain not only for himself but also for those with whom he comes into contact. Say he makes of himself a better keeper of bees, a more reliable banker, a more finished actor, does he not add to the fund of satisfaction by which men live? Every man becomes his brother’s keeper by way of self-improvement, and it is the only way.
“I believe,” Nock used to say, “that we are put on this earth to have some fun.” He had lots of it; he found it in himself, where each of us must find it. Neither gadgets nor money nor acclaim interested him. A good book, congenial Mends, a lofty discussion, a helping hand to a worthwhile person, how else can one find happiness?
Speaking of the New Deal, he would say, “The one thing Franklin cannot take from me is my memories.” He did a good job with his life.
The American army now in Japan has agreed to respect the “prerogatives” of the emperor. These rules of behavior, if the army stays there long enough, will come to be looked upon by the Japanese as their “rights”; infractions by American soldiers or politicians will bring complaints to the higher command or even to Washington. It now appears that the Russians will not move out of the territories they occupy and take their “rights” with them, but will settle down with and completely enslave the inhabitants.
3:09 am on July 4, 2013 Email Charles Burris