White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)
TO BEGIN THE WORLD ANEW
Thomas Jefferson’s Rubbish
A Curious Topography of Class
By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go… .
The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787)
Like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson thought about class in continental terms. His greatest accomplishment as president was the 1803 acquisition of Louisiana, a vast territory that more than doubled the size of the United States. He called the new western domain an “empire for liberty,” by which he meant something other than a free-market economy or a guarantee of social mobility. The Louisiana Territory, as he envisioned it, would encourage agriculture and forestall the growth of manufacturing and urban poverty—that was his formula for liberty. It was not Franklin’s “happy mediocrity” (a compression of classes across an endless stretch of unsettled land), but a nation of farmers large and small. This difference is not nominal: Franklin and Paine used Pennsylvania as their model, while Jefferson saw America’s future—and the contours of its class system—through the prism of Virginia.1
Eighteenth-century Virginia was both an agrarian and a hierarchical society. By 1770, fewer than 10 percent of white Virginians laid claim to over half the land in the colony; a small upper echelon of large planters each owned slaves in the hundreds. More than half of white men owned no land at all, working as tenants or hired laborers, or contracted as servants. Land, slaves, and tobacco remained the major sources of wealth in Jefferson’s world, but the majority of white men did not own slaves. That is why Mr. Jefferson wafted well above the common farmers who dotted the countryside that extended from his celebrated mountaintop home. By the time of the Revolution, he owned at least 187 slaves, and by the Battle of Yorktown he held title to 13,700 acres in six different counties in Virginia.2
Pinning down Jefferson’s views on class is complicated by the seductiveness of his prose. His writing could be powerful, even poetic, while reveling in rhetorical obfuscation. He praised “cultivators of the earth” as the most valuable of citizens; they were the “chosen people of God,” and they “preserved a republic in vigor” through their singularly “useful occupation.” And yet Jefferson’s pastoral paragon of virtue did not describe any actual Virginia farmers, and not even he could live up to this high calling. Despite efforts at improving efficiency on his farms, he failed to turn a profit or rescue himself from mounting debts. In a 1796 letter, he sadly admitted that his farms were in a “barbarous state” and that he was “a monstrous farmer.” Things continued downhill from there.3
Though we associate Jefferson with agrarian democracy and the yeoman class, his style was that of a gentleman farmer. As a member of the upper class, he hired others or used slaves to work his land. He did not become an engaged farmer until 1795, prompted by his growing interest in treating agriculture as a science. He experimented with new techniques taken from his reading, and kept meticulous records in his farm and garden books. He owned the latest manuals on husbandry—there were fifty in Monticello’s library. He could ignore what didn’t spark his curiosity. His dislike of the vile weed of tobacco, which he kept growing for financial reasons, led him to admit in 1801 that he “never saw a leaf of my tobacco packed in my life.” For the most part, agricultural improvement fascinated him, and he did design a new plough, with its moldboard of least resistance, in 1794, hoping in large and small ways to modernize American farming.4
The irony is that Jefferson’s approach to improving American farming was decidedly English, and not American at all. The books he read and the kind of husbandry he admired came primarily from the English agrarian tradition and British improvers of his day. His decision to raise wheat so as not to be completely dependent on tobacco, coupled with his plan to introduce merino sheep into every Virginia county in order to produce better wool, were attempts to correct what his fellow improver George Washington lambasted as the “slovenly” habits in farmers of their state. Virginians were far behind the English in the use of fertilizers, crop rotation, and harvesting and ploughing methods. It was common for large planters and small farmers alike to deplete acres of soil and then leave it fallow and abandoned. “We waste as we please,” was how Jefferson gingerly phrased it.5
Jefferson knew that behind all the rhetoric touting America’s agricultural potential there was a less enlightened reality. For every farsighted gentleman farmer, there were scads of poorly managed plantations and unskilled small (and tenant) farmers struggling to survive. How could slaves, who did most of the fieldwork on Virginia plantations, assume the mantle of “cultivators of the earth”? For Jefferson, it seems, they were mere “tillers.” Tenants, who rented land they did not own, and landless laborers and squatters lacked the commercial acumen and genuine virtue of cultivators too. In his perfect world, lower-class farmers could be improved, just like their land. If they were given a freehold and a basic education, they could adopt better methods of husbandry and pass on favorable habits and traits to their children. As we will see, however, Jefferson’s various reform efforts were thwarted by those of the ruling gentry who had little interest in elevating the Virginia poor. Even more dramatically, his agrarian version of social mobility was immediately compromised by his own profound class biases, of which he was unaware.6
Historically hailed as a democrat, Thomas Jefferson was never able to escape his class background. His privileged upbringing inevitably colored his thinking. He could not have penned the Declaration of Independence or been elected to the Continental Congress if he had not been a prominent member of the Virginia gentry. He had the advantages of an education in the classics, and was trained in law and letters at the elite College of William and Mary. He collected books, amassing 6,487 volumes. Proficient in Latin and Greek, he enjoyed Italian, read old French and some Spanish, and was also versed in the obscure Anglo-Saxon language. He surrounded himself with European luxury goods and was an epicurean in his tastes, as displayed by his love of French sauternes. To imagine that Jefferson had some special insight into the anxious lives of the lower sort, or that he truly appreciated the unpromising conditions tenant farmers experienced, is to fail to account for the wide gulf that separated the rich and poor in Virginia.7
If Franklin thought of class as principally conditioned by demography—the human compulsion to seek pleasure and avoid pain—Jefferson subscribed to a different philosophy. Though equally drawn to numbers and political arithmetic, he saw human behavior as conditional, plastic, adaptable; across generations, it would conform to shifts in the physical and social environment. If the hand of nature bestowed merit on some, so did local surroundings and the choice of a mate. But above all, what divided people into recognizable stations was the intimate relationship between land and labor. As he wrote in 1813, “the spontaneous energies of the earth are a gift of nature,” but man must “husband his labor” in order to reap its greatest benefits. In Jefferson’s larger scheme of things, class was a creature of topography; it was shaped by the bond forged between producers and the soil. By producers, of course, he meant husbandmen and landowners—not tenants, not slaves.8
The occupation he loved, the descriptor that most delighted him, was cultivator. This word meant more than one who earned his bread through farming; it drew upon the eighteenth-century idiom that arose from the popular study of natural history. To cultivate meant to renew, to render fertile, which thus implied extracting real sustenance from the soil, as well as good traits, superior qualities, and steady habits of mind. Cultivation carried with it rich associations with animal breeding and the idea that good soil led to healthy and hearty stocks (of animals or people). Proficiency in tapping the land’s productive potential had the added benefit of improving the moral sense, which was what Jefferson meant when he described that “peculiar deposit of genuine and substantial virtue” found in the breast of every true cultivator. In this way, the soil could be regenerative, much like a deposit of calcium-rich marl, which educated farmers used to restore nutrients to the land.9
In Jefferson’s taxonomy, then, class was less about Franklin’s commercialized language of “sorts,” whereby people and goods were readily equated and valued. Instead, Jeffersonian-style classes were effectively strata that mimicked the different nutritive grades within layers of the soil. To this bookish Virginian, idealizing rural society, classes were to be regarded as natural extrusions of a promising land, flesh-and-blood manifestations of an agrarian topography.
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Revolutionary Virginia was hardly a place of harmony, egalitarianism, or unity. The war effort exacerbated already simmering tensions between elite Patriots and those below them. In British tradition, the American elite expected the lower classes to fight their wars. In the Seven Years’ War, for example, Virginians used the infamous practice of impressment to round up vagabonds to meet quotas. During the Revolution, General Washington stated that only “the lower class of people” should serve as foot soldiers. Jefferson believed that class character was palpably real. As a member of the House of Delegates, he came up with a plan to create a Virginia cavalry regiment specifically for the sons of planters, youths whose “indolence or education, has unfitted them for foot-service.”10
As early as 1775, landless tenants in Loudoun County, Virginia, voiced a complaint that was common across the sprawling colony: there was “no inducement for the poor man to Fight, for he had nothing to defend.” Many poor white men rebelled against recruitment strategies, protested the exemptions given to the overseers of rich planters, and were disappointed with the paltry pay. Such resistance led to the adoption of desperate measures. In 1780, Virginia assemblymen agreed to grant white enlistees the bounty of a slave as payment for their willingness to serve until the end of the war. Here was an instant bump up the social ladder. Here was the social transfer of wealth and status from the upper to the lower class. But even this gruesome offer wasn’t tempting enough, because few took the bait. Two years later when the Battle of Yorktown decided the outcome of the war, the situation was unchanged. Of those fighting on the American side, only a handful hailed from Virginia.11
There were other attempts to mollify poor white farmers. In drafting a new constitution in 1776, Virginia rebels embraced freehold suffrage: adult white men who were twenty-one and who had a freehold of twenty-five acres of cultivated land were awarded the right to vote. Yet the same Revolutionaries were stingy when it came to redressing landlessness and poverty. Jefferson’s proposal to lift up the bottom ranks, granting men without any land of their own fifty acres and the vote, was dropped from the final version of the constitution.12
Appointed to a committee to revise Virginia’s laws, Jefferson tried another tactic that aimed to shift the balance of class power in the state. He succeeded in eliminating primogeniture and entail, two legal practices that kept large amounts of land in the hands of a few powerful families. His purpose was for land to be distributed equally to all children in a family, not just vested in the eldest male. Entail, which restricted the sale of land, would be replaced with privately owned land grants. Meanwhile, the committee considered a proposal granting each freeborn child a tract of seventy-five acres as an incentive to encourage poorer men to marry and have children. Jefferson’s freeholders needed children to anchor them to the land and as an incentive to turn from idleness.13
But reform did not take easily. Virginia’s freehold republic failed to instill virtue among farmers, the effect that Jefferson had fantasized. The majority of small landowners sold their land to large planters, mortgaged their estates, and continued to despoil what was left of the land. They looked upon it as just another commodity, not a higher calling. Jefferson failed to understand what his predecessor James Oglethorpe had seen: the freehold system (with disposable land grants) favored wealthy land speculators. Farming was arduous work, with limited chance of success, especially for families lacking the resources available to Jefferson: slaves, overseers, draft animals, a plough, nearby mills, and waterways to transport farm produce to market. It was easy to acquire debts, easy to fail. Land alone was no guarantee of self-sufficiency.14
If the ruling elite at the Virginia constitutional convention were unwilling to grant poor men fifty acres to become freehold citizens, they were quite content to dump the poor into the hinterland. With the opening up of the land office in 1776, a new policy was adopted: anyone squatting on unclaimed land in western Virginia and Kentucky could claim a preemption right to buy it. Like the long-standing British practice of colonizing the poor, the Virginians sought to quell dissent, raise taxes, and lure the less fortunate west. This policy did little to alter the class structure. In the end, it worked against poor families. Without ready cash to buy the land, they became renters, trapped again as tenants instead of becoming independent landowners.15
Public education accompanied land reforms. In bill no. 79, for the “General Diffusion of Knowledge,” Jefferson laid out a proposal for different levels of preparation: primary schools for all boys and girls, and grammar schools for more capable males at the public expense. For the second tier, he called for twenty young “geniusses” to be drawn from the lower class of each county. Rewarding those with merit, he devised a means of social mobility in a state where education was purely a privilege of wealthy families.16
Writing of his plan in Notes on the State of Virginia, his wide-ranging natural history of his state, he chose a rather unsavory allusion to describe the reform. His handful of lucky scholars would be “raked from the rubbish,” leaving the majority to wallow in ignorance and poverty. “Rubbish” was his alliterative variation on the ever-present theme of waste people. He wasn’t anticipating Teddy Roosevelt’s Bunyanesque allusion to muckraking journalists, but rather was invoking the older, Elizabethan meaning of raking the muck of a bad crop. The “rubbish” designation showed contempt for the poor, a sad reminder that very few were capable of escaping the refuse heap. But the bill failed to pass: the Virginia gentry had no desire to pay for it. They had no interest in raising up a few stray kernels of genius from the wasteland of the rural poor.17
The education reform bill had little chance of passing, but its companion piece for funding workhouses did. As was the case with England’s poor laws, the bill penalized those who “waste their time in idle and dissolute courses,” loitering and wandering or deserting their wives and children: such people were “deemed vagabonds.” The solution for poor children was not education, but hiring them out as apprentices. Jefferson made a minor change to the existing law, which dated to 1755: the poor would no longer wear identifying badges. But vagrants would still be punished, and their children would pay the price for their idleness in a way that was reminiscent of the exploited orphans of dead servants at Jamestown. They may have been a less visible class without badges, but they remained a powerful symbol of vice and sloth.18
All of Jefferson’s early reforms were less about promoting equality or democracy than moderating extremes. Like the farmer’s use of marl soil or peat, his approach was closer to breaking up clumps or concentrations of wealth and poverty. Virginia’s social order was stagnant; it was weighed down by a top-heavy planter class and an increasingly immobile class of landless families. His powerful words, “raked from the rubbish,” captured his philosophy in an unmistakable, visually compelling way. Raking was comparable to ploughing, the process of turning over tired and barren topsoil and unearthing new life from the layers below. Such improvements, though gradual in spreading benefits, promised a stronger crop of citizens in the future.
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Jefferson’s influential survey of class (as a product of topography) appeared in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Mostly written during his governorship of Virginia in 1780-81, the book was not published until several years later, when he was serving as the U.S. minister to France. Jefferson had been encouraged to put his ideas to paper by a series of questions posed by François Barbé-Marbois, the secretary of the French Legation in Philadelphia. His Notes became a kind of diplomatic intervention, offering European readers a combined defense of his home state and his new nation.
Notes offered a natural history of race and class, replete with Jefferson’s own empirical observations, from facts and figures he had compiled. It was part travel narrative in the tradition of Hakluyt, and part legal brief. He imagined the opposing counsel to be the acclaimed French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon, who had offered up a highly unappealing portrait of the American continent as a backward place cursed with widespread degeneracy. In Notes, the only book Jefferson ever wrote, he stripped away the ugliness and replaced it with a Virginia of natural beauty and bounty. Here, in Jefferson’s version of the New English Canaan, the continent promised unmatched resources for commercial wealth. Class was significant. The rich topography afforded a home for his “cultivators of the earth,” an American breed that represented the world’s best hope.
Buffon’s work was troubling for a number of reasons. In his Histoire Naturelle, first published in 1749, he had reduced the New World to one giant and nefarious Dismal Swamp. All of America, as it were, had become North Carolina. A suffocating mixture of moisture and heat had produced stagnant waters, “gross herbiage,” and miasmas of the air, which retarded the size and diversity of species. Buffon sounded at times like the colorful William Byrd, complaining of the “noxious exhalations” in America that blocked the sun, which made it impossible to “purify” the soil and air. Swamp creatures multiplied in this environment: “moist plants, reptiles, and insects, and all animals that wallow in the mire.” Domestic animals shrank in size in comparison to their European counterparts, and their flesh was less flavorful. Only Carolina’s prized critter, the hog, thrived in such a godforsaken terrain.19
Native Americans were not just savages to Buffon; they were a constitutionally enfeebled breed, devoid of free will and “activity of mind.” As the forgotten stepchildren of Mother Nature, they lacked the “invigorating sentiment of love, and the strong desire for multiplying their species.” They were “cold and languid,” spending their days in “stupid repose,” without the strong affective bonds that united people into civilized societies. Buffon had converted Indians into quasi-reptilian swamp monsters. They lurked in marshes, hunting prey, ignorant of the fate of their offspring, concerned only with the next meal or battle. The desire to reproduce, Buffon contended, was the “spark” of life and the fire of genius. This essential quality was missing from their constitution—all because they languished amid a debilitating environment.20
In contesting Buffon, Jefferson had to wipe the canvas clean of the swamp monsters and paint a very different, eco-friendly picture. He conjured another America, a sublime place of endless diversity. His Blue Ridge Mountains were majestic; the Mississippi River was alive with birds and fish in a way comparable to the Nile—the birthplace of Western civilization. Native Americans existed in an uncultivated state, he admitted, yet they were endowed with a manly ardor and displayed a noble mind. America was not plagued with pathetic stocks of animals or people. On the contrary, the young continent heralded one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the age: the bones of the woolly mammoth, ranked as the largest species known to man, which according to Jefferson still roamed the forests. English and European settlers had excelled, not suffered. That rare spark of genius, nurtured in Washington, Franklin, and David Rittenhouse, the Philadelphia astronomer, was solid proof, to his mind, of the invigorating and regenerative natural landscape.21
Jefferson fundamentally agreed with Buffon’s science. He did not abandon the Frenchman’s ruling premise that the physical surroundings were crucial in cultivating races and classes of people, or that land could be either regenerative or degenerative. Buffon’s theory wasn’t wrong then; his observations were incomplete. As Jefferson argued in 1785, in a letter to the Marquis de Chastellux, who had visited Monticello three years earlier, Native Americans were not feeble. Over time they had developed muscles to make them fleet of foot for warfare. Euro-Americans were equally adaptable to the congenial American environment. They drew upon an inbred strength passed down from generations of ancestors who had labored in the fields. Cultivation was in their blood, Jefferson was saying, and they were already engaged in transforming the land and making it their own.22
Jefferson’s ideas of topography went beyond the natural environment. He was equally concerned with human chorography—the way humans adapted to the land, exploited its fertility, and built social institutions. Husbandry itself was a crucial stage that elevated human societies beyond the rudiments of savagery and barbarism. The American cultivator needed some safeguards. Degeneracy was certainly possible, Jefferson admitted, but not on Buffon’s scale. Dangers lurked for Americans who were too close to the wilderness, or for those too enamored with the commercial luxuries of the Old World. In one of his dreamier moments in 1785, he wrote of the hope that America would be like China, completely cut off from European commerce and manufacturing and other entanglements: “We should thus avoid all wars, and all our citizens would be husbandmen.” He wished for a middle zone, between the two extremes.23
Jefferson was not above social engineering, believing that manners could be cultivated. His scheme for the Northwest Territory built upon his reforms for Virginia. As the chair of two congressional committees, he assumed a leading role in shaping how the land would be distributed and governed. In his report on the Land Ordinance of 1784, he devised a grid plan that would have divided the land into perfectly formed rectangles, offering individual lots, the basic unit of the family farm. He wanted the area divided into ten potential states, and gave them names. And not just any names: Sylvania, Cherronesus, Assenisipia, Metropotamia, Pelispia, to name a few. He chose fanciful names, with pseudo-classical or agrarian meanings, suggesting that in this act of state building, Congress was engaged in the regeneration or rebirth of Western civilization. He insisted that no hereditary titles be recognized in the Northwest, and after 1800 slavery and involuntary servitude would be permanently banned there. Following in the footsteps of Oglethorpe, Jefferson envisioned a free-labor zone.24
What was Jefferson up to? One goal was to forestall the growth of manufacturing, which in Notes he described as a canker on the body politic. The grid system resembled rows of garden plots, something that would have made sense to his fellow naturalist J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, author of Letters from an American Farmer (1782). A French-born migrant who spent years in New York’s Hudson Valley, and a devotee of Buffon, Crèvecoeur celebrated an “intermediary space,” which created a “separate and distinct class.” “Men are like plants,” he believed, and the seeds of classes could be planted and cultivated. The typical class of cultivators whom he imagined filling this middle zone owned a 371-acre farm; they were not tenants or squatters, nor were they overseas merchants importing English manufactured goods. Crèvecoeur’s perfect farmer turned the fields into a classroom, placing his son on the plough, having him feel the up-and-down rhythm as it moved through the soil.25
Jefferson, too, wanted Americans tied to the land, with deep roots to their offspring, to future generations. Agrarian perfection would germinate: a love of the soil, no less than a love of one’s heirs, instilled amor patriae, a love of country. He was not promoting a freewheeling society or the rapid commercial accumulation of wealth; nor was he advocating a class system marked by untethered social mobility. Jefferson’s husbandmen were of a new kind of birthright station, passed from parents to children. They were not to be an ambitious class of men on the make.26
Jefferson’s idealized farmers were not rustics either. They sold their produce in the marketplace, albeit on a smaller scale. There was room enough for an elite gentry class, and gentleman farmers like himself. Using the latest husbandry methods, improving the soil, the wealthier farmers could instruct others, the less skilled beneath them. Education and emulation were necessary to instill virtue. American farmers required an apprenticeship of a sort, which was only possible if they were planted in the right kind of engineered environment. The Northwest Territory served that purpose, as a free-labor zone that cultivated middling aspirations and was safely decontaminated of any noxious influences. The relics of noble titles were gone, slavery was prohibited, and commercial impulses were subdued.
In one of his most ambitious plans for reform, sketched out in 1789, Jefferson thought of importing German immigrants, who were known to be superior laborers, and to place them on adjacent fifty-acre plots opposite slaves, who would be “brought up, as others, in the habits of foresight and property.” At the same time, he contemplated the recruitment of Germans just to improve the caliber of Virginia’s poor white farmers. The Anglo-Virginians were supposed to intermingle with and learn from the better German farmers around them.27
Of course, Jefferson was not always honest about the class system that surrounded him. He preferred to project an America of “tranquil permanent felicity” than confront the unpleasant reality that persisted. His most extreme statements describing the United States as the land of unparalleled opportunities usually came as responses to criticism. As he had done in Notes, he saw himself as a public sentry, the intellectual defender of the reputation of a rising young country.
He had a lot to defend in the aftermath of the American Revolution. The war years had taken their toll. A postwar depression created widespread suffering. States had acquired hefty debts, which caused legislatures to increase taxes to levels far higher, sometimes three to four times higher, than before the war. Most of these tax dollars ended up in the hands of speculators in state government securities that had been sold to cover war expenses. Many soldiers were forced to sell their scrip and land bounties to speculators at a fracture of the value. Wealth was being transferred upward, from the tattered pockets of poor farmers and soldiers to the bulging purses of a nouveau riche of wartime speculators and creditors—a new class of “moneyed men.”28
The officers of the Continental Army had staged a mutiny in Newburgh, New York, in 1783, threatening to disband if Congress did not grant them full pensions. During the same year, army officers organized the Society of Cincinnati, a fraternal organization, accused of laying the foundation for a hereditary aristocracy. The society initially granted hereditary privileges to the sons of veteran officers and awarded medals as badges of membership in the highly selective club. Jefferson’s prohibition on titles in the Northwest Territory was a not-so-subtle rebuke of the society’s flagrant pretentions. It also explains why he banned badges previously worn by vagrants in Virginia.29
While Jefferson was more than willing to attack a pseudo-aristocracy, he wore rose-colored glasses when it came to acknowledging class turmoil arising from below. British papers had published reports of the mutinies and riots in the United States, which Jefferson dismissed as inconsequential. In 1784, he declared in a published response that not a single beggar could be seen “from one end to another of the continent.” Poverty and class strife simply did not exist. He wrote this just a year before the Virginia bill to round up vagabonds finally passed.30
Jefferson had a different opinion in 1786, when Shays’ Rebellion broke out across western Massachusetts. Rising taxes and mounting debts among middle-class and poor farmers had fueled a class war. Captain Daniel Shays had served in the Continental Army, and whether or not it was an accurate description, he was called the “Generalissimo” of the uprising. Shays had acquired over two hundred acres of land, only to see half of his holdings lost during the postwar depression. His supporters closed down courts that were auctioning off farms and homes, forming an ad hoc army that attempted to take over the armory in Springfield. Similar protests took place as far south as Virginia. Writing from France, Jefferson did not deny the existence of the rebellion, but treated it as a naturally recurring, even therapeutic phenomenon. In an odd twist, he calculated that such political tempests would most likely happen every thirteen years. A “little rebellion” was analogous to “storms in the physical environment”; temporarily jarring, it would settle back down, leaving society’s core principles refreshed.31
Jefferson’s language betrayed him. He envisioned rebellion as a process of regeneration, removed from human agency and, most important, devoid of class anger. For her part, Abigail Adams had little sympathy for the Shaysites. “Ferment and commotions,” she curtly observed in a letter to Jefferson, had brought forth an “abundance of Rubbish.” Others agreed. Captain Shays was described in newspapers as an ignorant leader, a pathetic man living in a “sty,” his fellow insurgents nothing more than “brutes.” Critics compared them to “Ragamuffins of the earth,” lowly vagabonds who owed more than they were worth. To the naturalist Jefferson, they belonged to the sedimentary debris unearthed and let loose across the human terrain.32
In the same year, he wrote lengthy comments on an article entitled “Etats Unis,” meant for publication in the famed Encyclopédie Méthodique. After summarizing the history of the Society of Cincinnati, Jefferson offered a curious explanation for the convulsions it caused. “No distinction between man and man has ever been known in America,” he insisted. Among private individuals, the “poorest labourer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest Millionary,” and the poor man was favored when the rights of the rich and poor were contested in the courts. Whether the “shoemaker or the artisan” was elected to office, he “instantly commanded respect and obedience.” With a final flourish, Jefferson declared that “of distinctions by birth or badge,” Americans “had no more idea than they had of existence in the moon or planets.”33
Though Jefferson sold Europeans on America as a classless society, no such thing existed in Virginia or anywhere else. In his home state, a poor laborer or shoemaker had no chance of getting elected to office. Jefferson wrote knowing that semiliterate members of the lower class did not receive even a rudimentary education. Virginia’s courts meticulously served the interests of rich planters. And wasn’t slavery a “distinction between man and man”? Furthermore, Jefferson’s freehold requirement for voting created “odious distinctions” between landowners and poor merchants and artisans, denying the latter classes voting rights.34
One has to wonder at Jefferson’s blatant distortion, his desire to paint the Society of Cincinnati as so otherworldly to Americans that only extraterrestrials could appreciate it. He failed to recognize that many elite Americans were fond of the trappings of aristocracy.
Under the administration of George Washington, the Federalists established a “Republican Court,” with rules of protocol, displays of genteel etiquette, and formal weekly levees—visits by invitation only extended to the national elite to meet with the president. Martha Washington held her drawing-room salons, and around the president emerged a cult of adulation that imitated certain aspects of royal pageantry. Powerful families in Philadelphia established dynastic marriages with European peers. Elizabeth Patterson, the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant, became an international celebrity when in 1803 she married the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. At the time, President Jefferson wrote his minister in France to inform Napoleon that his sibling had married into a family whose social rank was “with the first of the United States.”35
In 1789, when Vice President John Adams proposed before the U.S. Senate that the president required a more daunting title, such as “Majesty,” he accepted that political distinctions needed to be dressed up in pomp and circumstance. Unlike Franklin, Adams felt that the “passion for distinction” was the most powerful driving human force, above hunger and fear. Americans not only scrambled to get ahead; they needed someone to look down on. “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species,” Adams concluded, and even he needed his dog to love him. He also sarcastically acknowledged that while Jefferson and his brand of republicans might disdain titles and stations, they had no intention of disturbing private forms of authority; the subordinate positions of wives, children, servants, and slaves were left safely intact.36
Jefferson was not above his own brand of political stagecraft. Unlike Washington and Adams, who rode in fancy carriages to their inauguration ceremonies, Jefferson rode his own horse back to the President’s House after delivering his inaugural address. He dispensed with the levees and greeted diplomats and guests at the executive mansion while wearing an old vest and worn slippers. He was known for his casual attire—not while he was in France, but upon his return.37
His version of rustic republican simplicity reflected his experience in Virginia, where the gentry lived in grand houses like Monticello, and yet dressed down when commingling with the mass of small farmers during elections. A Federalist he particularly despised, the Virginian and chief justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, was known for his slovenly appearance. Two men’s politics could not have been more different, but they dressed in the same style. Elite Virginians had a strong distaste for the nouveau riche, and believed that those with wealth, land, family names, and reputations didn’t need to show off. Some observers saw Jefferson as playing a role, appearing “affectedly plain in his dress.” In this climate, eliminating external signs of class did not necessarily erode expectations of deference. Dressing down just as easily masked social distinctions. The conservative art of emulation, assuming that the head of state had something to teach others, was very much a part of Jefferson’s philosophy. Indeed, he allowed his sheep to graze on the lawn of the President’s House, letting everyone know that a gentleman farmer occupied the highest office in the land.38
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Jefferson may have hated artificial distinctions and titles, but he was quite comfortable asserting “natural” differences. With nature as his guide, he felt there was no reason not to rank humans on the order of animal breeds. In Notes, he wrote with calm assurance, “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other animals.” With emphasis, he added, “why not in that of man?”39
Careful breeding was one solution to slavery. In his Revisal of the Laws, Jefferson calculated how a black slave could turn white: once a slave possessed seven-eighths “white” blood, the “taint” of his or her African past was deemed gone. In 1813, he explained to a young Massachusetts lawyer how the formula worked: “It is understood in Natural history that a 4th cross of one race of animals gives an issue of equivalent for all sensible purposes to the original bloods.” This was the same formula Jefferson used in breeding an original stock of merino sheep. William Byrd had earlier talked about blanching Native Americans through intermarriage with Europeans. As Buffon put it, breeding back to the “original” stock meant reconstituting blacks as white people.40
Jefferson’s friend William Short took Buffon’s ideas quite seriously. In a 1798 letter to Jefferson, he noted how blacks in the United States were becoming lighter. He admitted that this was partly due to mixing with whites, but he felt that climate mattered as well. In posing a possible scenario, he came close to endorsing Buffon’s idea of regeneration: “Suppose a black family transplanted to Sweden, may we not presume … that in a sufficient number of succeeding generations, the color would disappear from meer effect of the climate?”41
It was more than a theory. Jefferson was practicing race mixing under his own roof, fathering several children with his quadroon slave Sally Hemings. What is striking about this relationship is Hemings’s pedigree: her mother, Elizabeth, was half white, and her father was John Wayles, Jefferson’s English-born father-in-law. Jefferson’s children with Sally were the fourth cross, making them perfect candidates for emancipation and passing for white. Two of the children, Beverly and Harriet, ran away from Monticello and lived as free whites, while Madison and Eston were set free in Jefferson’s will and later moved to Ohio. Eston’s offspring also intermarried with whites.42
On his plantation, Jefferson had little difficulty in breeding slaves as chattel. He counted slave children in cold terms as “increase,” and considered his female slaves to be more valuable than males. Men might raise food, but it was quickly consumed; women produced children that could be sold as stock. He did not shrink from saying, “I consider the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and a child raised every 2. years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.” Women were meant to breed, for “providence has made our interests & duties coincide perfectly.”43
The impulse to breed played an equally significant part in Jefferson’s agrarian republic. His trust of the people rested on his belief that a new kind of leadership class was bound to emerge in the United States. He laid out this theory in a series of letters he exchanged with John Adams in 1813. It was Adams who opened the friendly debate by mentioning the long human history of upholding the idea of the “Wellborn.” To prove his point, he quoted the ancient Greek poet-philosopher Theognis: “When we want to purchase Horses, Asses, or Rams, We inquire for the Wellborn. And every one wishes to procure from the good breeds. A good man does not care to marry a Shrew, the Daughter of a Shrew, unless They give him a great deal of money with her.” His contention was that men marry for money more than the desire for producing healthy offspring.
Adams returned to this favorite theory that men are driven by vanity and ambition. Put a hundred men in a room, he conjectured, and soon twenty-five will use their superior talents, their cunning, to take control. This impulse would inevitably lead all kinds of men to divide into classes, and he was confident that the United States had not evolved beyond being ruled by this passion for distinction. By the eighteenth century, “wellborn” was synonymous with the landed aristocracy. Adams reminded Jefferson of the powerful families in Massachusetts and Virginia who were bound together through kinship and property. He observed that he and Jefferson were products of the desire to marry well. Jefferson’s lineage on his mother’s side linked him to one of the First Families of Virginia, the Randolphs, and Abigail Adams, by pedigree, was a Quincy.44
Jefferson was unconvinced. He interpreted Theognis differently, believing that the poet was making an ethical argument. He was actually chastising humanity for marrying the “old, ugly, and vicious” for reasons of wealth and ambition, while they more sensibly bred domestic animals “to improve the race.” As Jefferson saw it, humans were animals guided by the overriding impulse (as Buffon said) of sexual desire. Nature made sure that humans would propagate the race, implanting in them lust mixed with love, through the “oestrum.” The oestrum was the state of female animals in heat, and provided the capacity for sexual arousal; in Notes, he wrote that “love was the peculiar oestrum of poets.” Sexual desire, in this way, would produce what Jefferson called a “fortuitous concourse of breeders.” He meant that desire was the real engine of breeding, and according to the law of averages, unconscious lust would outflank even unbridled greed.45
Jefferson’s model of breeding generated an “accidental aristocracy” of talent. Class divisions would form through natural selection. Men would marry women for more than money; they would consciously and unconsciously choose mates with other favorable traits. It was all a matter of probability: some would marry out of sheer lust, others for property, but the “good and wise” would marry for beauty, health, virtue, and talents. If Americans had enough native intelligence to distinguish the natural aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi in choosing political leaders, then they had reasonable instincts for selecting spouses. A “fortuitous concourse of breeders” would produce a leadership class—one that would sort out the genuinely talented from the ambitious men on the make.46
The question that Jefferson never answered was this: What happened to those who were not part of the talented elite? How would one describe the “concourse of breeders” living on the bottom layer of society? No matter how one finessed it, rubbish produced more rubbish, even if a select few might be salvaged. If the fortuitous breeders naturally rose up the social ladder, the unfortunate, the degenerate remained mired in the morass of meaner sorts.
In all of his musings on class, Jefferson rarely used the word “yeoman.” He preferred “cultivator” or “husbandman.” One time that he did use the term was in an 1815 letter to William Wirt. Born to a Maryland tavernkeeper, Wirt was one of Jefferson’s apprentices whom he took under his wing, and he rose to become a noted attorney. He was one of the natural aristocracy of talent, and one of the beneficiaries of Jefferson’s patronage. In 1815, Wirt was putting the finishing touches on the biography of Patrick Henry, and he asked Jefferson to paint a social picture of eighteenth-century Virginia. Conjuring a potent topographical metaphor, Jefferson contended that the colony had had a stagnant class system, whose social order resembled a slice of earth on an archeological dig. The classes were separated into “strata,” which shaded off “imperceptibly, from top to bottom, nothing disturbing the order of their repose.”
Jefferson divided the top tier of supposed social betters into “Aristocrats, half breeds, pretenders.” Below them was the “solid independent yeomanry, looking askance at those above, yet not ventured to jostle them.” On the bottom rung he put “the lowest feculum of beings called Overseers, the most abject, degraded and unprincipled race.” Overseers were tasked to keep slaves engaged in labor on southern plantations. By pitting the honest yeomanry against the “feculum” of overseers, Jefferson harshly invoked the old English slur of human waste. That wasn’t enough. He portrayed overseers as panderers, with their “cap in hand to the Dons”; they were vicious men without that desirable deposit of virtue, who feigned subservience in order to indulge the “spirit of domination.” Jefferson endowed his Virginia class of overseers with the same vices that he attributed to those toiling in manufacturing. The twirling distaff at the workbench had been replaced with the slave driver’s whip.47
In this strange sleight of hand, slaves became invisible laborers outside his tripartite social ranking. Jefferson made them victims of overseers, not of their actual owners. The yeomanry might be the progenitors of his noble class of cultivators, but their lineage remained unclear. The small farmers whom Jefferson knew were neither noble nor particularly independent. But he presented the upper class as an odd collection of breeds: great planters (pure-blooded Aristocrats) sat at the top, but their children might marry down and produce a class of “half breeds.” The pretenders were outsiders who dared claim the station of the leading families, where they were never really welcomed. Despite his pose in his exchange with John Adams two years earlier, Jefferson’s brief natural history of Virginia’s classes proved that elites and upstarts married the “wellborn.” The Virginia upper class was a creation of marrying for money, name, and station, in which kinship and pedigree were paramount.
In the end, though Jefferson hoped this old Virginia had disappeared, the truth was more complicated. Waste people lingered on, just as overseers did. The children of aristocrats, those of the half-breed class, and a new class that Jefferson called the “pseudo-Aristocrats” were rising to replace those who had once ruled Virginia. The composition of the strata of soil that he compared to the different classes may have changed, but the process of distinguishing the richest loam on the top and the less fertile lower layers remained in force.
Class was a permanent fixture in America. If the yeoman looked askance at those above him, the poor farmers heading west faced a new breed of aristocrats: shrewd land speculators and large cotton and sugar planters. The more cynical Adams reminded Jefferson in 1813 that the continent would be ruled by “Land jobbers” and a new class of manor lords. The glorious title of cultivator would remain beyond the reach of most backcountry settlers.48