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Re: The Role of Jefferson


The great Jim Bennett of Anglosphere fame was kind enough to respond to my query on behalf of Daniel Hannan with his assessment of the role of the founders. Daniel published an earlier version on his website, but Jim added some more thoughts, so I thought I’d reproduce the final version here.

Jefferson was a mixed bag, as was Adams, although on balance Adams was probably sounder. Jefferson was an agrarian romantic who didn’t really understand the financial side of the Anglosphere toolkit, an ideological republican who had some of the shortcomings of all ideological romantics, and because of those things, a Francophile who lingered with the French revolution far too long.  On the plus side, he understood the cultural roots of England and English-speaking society quite well, although in an excessively Whiggish way – he believed in the purity of Anglo-Saxon society and the corruption of the Norman yoke.  He saw the American revolution as the vindication of the freedom-loving Saxon against the Norman crown and aristocracy – the Witangemot reborn in America.  This was based on a fairly good reading of Montestquieu whose appreciation of English constitutionalism was basically correct.  His Anglo-Saxon romanticism led him to institute Anglo-Saxon courses at the University of Virginia.

He was also good on decentralism, suspicion of Federal power, and entrenched rights.  He was good on the Louisiana Purchase.  He was bad on foreign policy in general, and the terrible Embargo.
Adams is better on his theoretical understanding of society, and particularly good on his appreciation of Common Law.  He was too reflexively anti-British in foreign policy (Coincidentally, I am right now reading Kathleen Burk’s Old World, New World where she is discussing his record)

I had never liked Hamilton very much, as too much of a centralist – he was perhaps our first National Greatness Conservative – but as I start to understand the financial side of the  Anglosphere Toolkit better, the more I realize what he was about.  He understood the tools that England had been applying for a century, realized that America was getting the dregs of mercantilist policy while England was enjoying the fruits of a better policy, and understood that with independence we could use those tools at home — which he proceeded to do, and very well.

But perhaps best of all was Franklin.  Underneath the homespun PR façade, he understood both England and America quite well (France too, which is why he was so effective there.) He spent so much of his life in London that he really should be considered a great Londoner.  He had a very clear-minded picture of what America and Britain could do together if only they could create an effective constitution for it – and spent a great deal of his life trying to create such an Imperial constitution and promote it in England.  He only gave up at the very end, and went home to make the best of an independent America, putting his insights to work at the Constitutional convention.  That imperial constitution (of which the Comonwealth was only a weak realization) was perhaps the greatest of his inventions that never came to fruition.

It’s also worthy to note why a united Anglo-America might have been desirable — above all, that the power of such a united entity would have either prevented WW One altogether, or ended it much more quickly.  The truly horrific events of tbe Twentieth Century — the loss of a generation of Europe, the Bolshevik revolution and Stalin’s terror, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust,  Mao’s takover of China and the 30 million dead — all might have been avoided.  Easily a hundred million lives saved.

Undoubtedly some good things would have been lost in such an alternative history, but the bar for it being a worse world is very high.

I should also add, lest I be accused of being an imperialist nostalgic or a traitor to the American republic, that the actual course of events was probably the best achievable outcome in the real world.  The creation of a mutually acceptable Imperial constitution, with or without the American states, may have been like squaring the circle — a problem that just won’t close.  It’s worth noting that the 1763-1776 period was only the first of several attempts at such, the English-Speaking Union movement of the late 19th/early 20th century being another, and the Imperial Federation movement of the same period being another, the latter sans the USA.  
Their failure may not have been inevitable but the fact that very intelligent people struck out three times trying certainly demonstrates the magnitude of the challenge they faced.  It was “one of the most audacious political projects of modern times’” as historian Duncan Bell recently described it.


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