A Rich Country
Hugh Mercer Curtler
|Quaker Meeting House, Greenwich, NJ|
In one of his travel notes written in 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.” He was even then concerned about America’s preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself. As Jefferson saw it, the reason wealth interferes with freedom is to be found in the captive nature of avarice.
As it happens, Aristotle had the same thought more than two thousand years before Jefferson when he attributed the breakdown of aristocracies to the unnecessary accumulation of wealth; the aristocracy degenerated into an oligarchy, rule by the rich. The problem as Aristotle saw it was that the rulers lose sight of the common good out of a growing concern with their own self-interest. Jefferson, along with other eighteenth-century American thinkers, came to call concern with the common good “public virtue.” It was supposed to be a republican virtue and should keep men away from the lure of self-interest and the accumulation of unnecessary wealth and luxuries. But both of these thinkers were putting their fingers on a central problem that worried the founders of this nation: what are the effects of unnecessary wealth on a republic?
In The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, Gordon Wood, quoting from a sermon delivered in 1778 by the Rev. Payson, has this interesting paragraph for us to ponder:
Because it was commonly understood that “the exorbitant
wealth of individuals” had a “most baneful influence” on
the maintenance of republican governments and “therefore
should be carefully guarded against,” some Whigs were even
willing to go so far as to advocate agrarian legislation limiting
the amount of property an individual could hold and “sumptuary
laws against luxury, plays, etc. and extravagant expenses
in dress, diet, and the like.”
Though a number of the framers of our Constitution were themselves deists, we must recall the prevailing influence of both the Puritans and the Quakers on the minds of those who prepared the nation to revolt against England. This is especially so in an age in which the conservative element among us tends to emphasize the influence of the Christian religion on the founders of this nation while at the same time they promote the conflicting myth of free enterprise capitalism–which was never regarded as an ideal in the minds of the colonists. In fact the early colonists insisted that “commerce . . . had destroyed England’s soul”; it was beneath the true calling of human beings who are at their best when they remain close to the earth and control their appetites and desires.
Much of this thinking stemmed from their reading of the New Testament, of course. But many of them were avid readers of history and were convinced that excessive wealth and luxuries were among the major causes of the downfall of the Roman republic, which they greatly admired. They advocated “enterprise,” to be sure, but there were both legal and moral restraints in many of the colonies against the unlimited gathering of wealth and luxuries–laws against entail, primogeniture, and even monopolies. Indeed, as Wood tells us, “A preliminary draft of Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights even contained an article stating ‘that an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind,’ and therefore should be discouraged by the laws of the state.”
The very problems the colonists were most concerned about have come to pass largely as a result of the combination of the role of very wealthy individuals–like the Koch brothers–and multi-nationals, who have bottomless pockets when it comes to playing poker at the political table. The rest of us hope to get by by bluffing. Let me expand.
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