Sunday, July 20, 2008

Louis Hartz on Jefferson's Error

"(W)hat Jefferson was doing when he assailed the industrial worker was overlooking the magical alchemy of American life which was responsible for the very small liberal farmers that he loved. That alchemy, in addition to transforming passive peasants into dynamic liberal farmers, was going to transform bitter proletarians into incipient entrepreneurs. Jefferson emphasized the concrete fact of ownership of property which to be sure was not a characteristic of the industrial worker. But this was a kind of Marxian mistake, emphasizing economics at the price of thought, for the French peasant also owned property and he was far from being the enlightened liberal yeoman that Jefferson relied so heavily upon. The fact is, the liberalism of the American farmer was largely a psychological matter, a product of the spirit of Locke implanted in a new and nonfeudal world; and this spirit, freed as it was of the concept of class and the tyranny of ancient tradition, could infect the factory as well as it infected the land...Indeed, the irony of Jefferson's fear of an urban 'mob' is that he himself became its philosophic idol when it began to develop, and not merely in a general egalitarian sense: in the sense also of his theory of agrarian independence. The labor literature would not give up the old idea of yeoman free-holding..."

Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955, pp. 122-3.

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