The Jefferson Project: Thomas Jefferson’s Death Day and a Fourth of July Remembrance

Back in the mid-1980s, an outfit called Anvil Press published a book of mine. Its title was—still is—Nature’s Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture. The topic (or its urgency) hasn’t gone away.

Anvil Press printed the book as a special issue of its occasional quarterly magazine, North Country Anvil. The magazine was full of larger-issue farm news and analysis, and it made the Anvil shop a hub and gathering spot for farm activists—all this in southeastern Minnesota, in a village called Millville, nestled below limestone bluffs, through which the Zumbro River tumbled toward the Mississippi.

Caught up in the energetic and even optimistic apocalypsis of that political energy field, I thought we’d do several hundred extra copies and celebrate the upsurge by selling them, Mob by Mob, for a “Jefferson”: two dollars a pop to help fuel the rural revival.

Well, ha ha. Two bucks a pop hardly paid for the paper this rural revival got printed on. (I should have known better. I’d already watched as my wonderfully alive eccentric friends, Jack Miller and Pauline Redmond, had on multiple occasions printed the Minnesota “Land Stewardship Newsletter” on their well-maintained nineteenth-century printing apparatus. It was, in the end, ongoing acts of optimistic love.)

Jack and Pauline walked in the illustrious footsteps of that cranky, lascivious printer Ben Franklin. They were earnest folks struggling to figure out and articulate in public the kind of analysis that explores and explains how we got ourselves into the extinctionary pickle we’re in, including agriculture’s role in the development of that deadly brine. “King Kong,” as it were, devouring the world—and we’re so happy that the stock market rises and so sad when it doesn’t. Perhaps (these farm activist lovers thought) it’s time for a new and different enlightenment. One with a decidedly rural perspective and point of view.

So, anyway, back to the two-dollar bill that features the face of Thomas Jefferson.

I was actually rather ambivalent from the get-go about selling Nature’s Unruly Mob up and down the Zumbro for a “Jefferson”—up and down the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the O-high-o—quite aside from the improbable economics of rarely seen two-dollar bills. I’d grown up on a subsistence farm in northern Wisconsin—a dozen or so cows, a big garden, woods to hunt in, a nearby river for skinny dipping—and I had learned as a kid about Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian vision, his advocacy for an America of small farms. The world I grew up in was, in many ways, a recent embodiment of that vision: not Norman Rockwell perfect by any stretch, but still an authentic expression of the vision.

But I also learned that Jefferson had a kind of contempt (I think it might’ve been fear) for the indigenous. His perspective was closely associated with the dominant white view in our colonialist and republican past. And, of course, I later learned that the farm I grew up on was Ojibwe ceded territory—1837 was the year of that particular ceding—when it was either give up the land or get smashed. (My father bought his first “brush forty” in 1930 or thereabouts. The area has been stripped of its old growth white pine forest forty or fifty years prior. Lots of brush forties available that were developed into—by today’s measure—tiny homestead farms. That’s the world I grew up in.) And now we continue to live in and with the civilized wreckage of the indigenous landscape, from what once were well-tended “primeval forests” to Walmarts at every convenient stop on any major cement highway slicing across the “primeval prairie.” Quite a vast wreckage in such an amazingly short period of time. Something of a cosmic record, no doubt. Greed and aggression under the flag of God’s Will and Manifest Destiny. The Right of Christian Discovery.

Well, and then there’s slavery. The human beings Thomas Jefferson owned.

I think Jefferson truly and deeply loved Sally Hemings. He may even have tried to expiate his deep sense of slavemaster guilt by loving his wife’s half-sister with the lovely chocolate skin.

But I think Jefferson’s real problem was class and wealth. Once an aristocrat, it’s hard to give up the carriage and stable, the servants, the leisure, the fine wines. Jefferson never developed the spiritual courage to abandon the prestige and protection of being a member of an explicit ruling class. And all those hesitations, resistances, and prohibitions were written into the spirit of the founding documents, many of which Jefferson authored or helped write. Always a dignified, elegant writer—yet oddly “democratic” as a consequence of his wide reading in European political thinking that steadily reflected rapidly growing democratic energy—he saw the need for commoner self-governance, and he imagined it as a land of small farms and small towns for artisan needs, a few commercial supplies, and a gathering place for the discussion, consideration, and deciding of collective responses to collective problems and aspirations: now that explicit hereditary aristocracy is on its way out—no king for us!—how do we commoners self-govern? What’s the scope of our inclusion? Who gets to participate? What are our cultural objectives?

Southern slaveholding planters maintained a lifestyle more closely imitating aristocratic prerogatives—more closely, that is, than their northern class cousins who largely had their wealth by land and sea confiscations. The south couldn’t do white serfdom any longer—the rise of Euro-American democracy made that politically impossible—so they did black slavery instead. Of course some of their northern cousins had ships to sail, ships for sale, to expedite the enslaving and delivery process. These moral prerogatives were written into our founding documents and into the laws that were born rigidly permanent and ethically stillborn from the intellectual womb of those founding documents.

In other words, it was difficult to the point of impossible to sell the Mob for a measly two bucks. Thomas Jefferson may have had his mug on the two-dollar bill, and his agrarian vision made utilizing that mug sorely tempting; but he just had too much ethical baggage for me to be able to follow through with a clean conscience. The economics didn’t work—that wasn’t Jefferson’s fault—but neither did the political morality. The market wouldn’t bear the financial weight or the freighted history. We needed factually clean history. Putting lipstick on a pig was not an honorable rural evasion.

Such a perspective may be anathema to those who consider themselves “conservative.” But it is conservative. Conservatives may move more slowly than liberals or progressives. But that’s alright. That’s just fine. Haste always needs the tempering of an immensely deep past to help put things in a more comprehensive perspective. The Tao breathes deeply and feels an ancient compassion for the hasty ones who may misidentify slow consideration as brittle fear. If the progressives are out winning the rhetorical battle—no mean feat, and not to be despised—conservatives know that they’re the ones who’ll have to integrate this new thing, this surprising development into actual daily living. Also no mean feat.

Well, we all have to live with the consequences of our political decisions and choices. Real conservatives recognize (even if the recognition is painful) the immense collective sin of white Christian European imperialism. Real conservatives examine themselves, their ideas, their institutions and beliefs, for elements of cultural distortion, for manifestations of collective cultural, religious, and political sin–of multigenerational institutional sin.

Yes, we are America, the (presumed) number one superpower in the world, with a military budget blank times bigger (fill in the blank) than the next blank countries combined (ditto to the blank). We also have elaborate justifications for violence and theft.

The justifications are built into our founding documents, into our laws, and into the myths that are both secular and religious. That is, we’re in the rather astounding circumstance of having to deliberately, consciously, and democratically disembark from the righteous slaveship Manifest Destiny sailing under the flag of American Exceptionalism. These are very real mental conditions and cultural conditionings to let go of. Presumed purity of purpose is a hard, hard sin to get one’s righteous mind around. It can be a tough face to recognize in the historical mirror.

Those who resist this transformational recognition and refuse the follow-up conversion are not conservatives. Conservatives—real conservatives—are deeply honest people. They’re capable of facing facts. Conservatives are also nature conservatives. Conservatives like a slow footpath through the woods. Conservatives honor ecological integrity. Conservatives like a natural landscape well lived in.

Greens may have rainbows in their hair, but they’re conservative to the bone.

Well, what about the two-dollar Jeffersons? Bring this wandering rant to an optimistic close.

Fewer people are going to church. Our vertical preoccupation and obsession—stunned by Jesus in the sky and scared shitless by a glowering god—has got a multimillennial crick in its neck and needs some spiritual chiropractic. The vertical has also been depicted as a pyramid, and a pyramid is a magic symbol for trickledown authoritarianism. But democracy is growing. And it’s women, more and more, whose liberation from motherhood forever who are supplying the vital, ethical energy, who are deepening our understanding of democracy, and who are increasingly capable of recognizing the pickle we’re in—even as turning toward “simple living” raises longstanding issues of gender inequality. What’s needed as preconditions for the Green world we’re headed for are gender reconciliation and racial equality. With those achievements, “simple living” will be a hoot. Jefferson’s agrarian vision liberated from its gender presumptions and racial obscenities provides a nice bit of a rural road map.

Let’s be done being so civilized for a while. The civilized vertical, both church and state, mostly got us believing in and conditioned to trickledown salvation. We were always looking up for permission and redemption. It’s time to look around.

Now we’re beginning, more and more, to look at each other. We’re contemplating the condition of this Earth, a place I don’t think we’ll ever leave, at least not in any timeframe I can imagine. And, since we’re here, it seems reasonable to work at living here. That means our ethical ecology is becoming more bodily present. This is spiritual transformation.

Thanks to solid scholarship, conservatives now know that before Father got to be the sole divine god, Mother was goddess of the pre-civilized agrarian villages—the non-civilized agrarian villages, the real Mother in Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian village vision. She may even have had a lovely tawny sin color.

Conservatives do not pretend to know what happens when we croak. Keeping open the possibility of some cosmic consciousness with a guiding will, in some unfathomably deep embrace of Time and Space, with all the commotion in constant flummox between the two—eternity and infinity in a joyous cosmic wrestle—conservatives feel pretty good in their own skins. We may not—we may never—get a handle on the mystery of being self-conscious living human critters; but it’s an astounding privilege to have our turn of wonder in the world, to respect that privilege for others, and to insist on an ecologically clean world in which to explore that wondrous privilege.

For all his sins of commission and omission, I still love Thomas Jefferson. But to redeem himself, he’s got to publicly acknowledge Sally Hemings as his lover and wife, hug and ask forgiveness from his former slaves, and confess his wicked fear to the nearest indigenous healing circle. When Thomas Jefferson’s sins are confessed, repented of, and forgiven—and this is to be a public celebration—is when his agrarian vision comes alive in a post-imperialist America. For all the evidence otherwise, I believe we’re on the cusp of just that.