The American Gothic as the Aristocracy of Virtue

American Gothic (1922), by Grant Wood.

American Gothic (1922), by Grant Wood.

The American Dream, once an endless stream of possibilities, is today guaranteed only to those born of primogeniture and entail. For the industrious, this will never kill the moral resolve due diligence employs as one’s uniquities lead to opportunity for all to live in prosperity. As man is not indigenous of the Americas, the entire hemisphere was settled by the nomadic savage. And as man is born innately corrupt, the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can only be assured through the impartial mediation by a legitimized third party. If happiness means owning property, the right to be free is not constrained under an artificial caste system. We are each born free of preconceptions (“tabula rasa”) with the will to assert ubi panis ibi patria (“where there is bread, there is my country”). In that sense, Americans individually evoke Grant Wood’s masterpiece American Gothic. We are a nation born of yeoman farmers, an unprecedented diversity of poets’ who bequeathed in rhyme tales of the ancient mariners who sailed our forefathers to this undiscovered country as pilgrims on their exodus to their promised land.

De Crevecoeur

Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur (1735-1813), author of Letters of an American Farmer (1782)

No better definition of the American Dream is recorded than by French migrant farmer Hector St. John De Crevecoeur in his landmark account for all that is Americana, Letters from an American Farmer (1782), artfully communicated through applied metaphor.

What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.

Reverend John Winthrop (1587-1649), 2nd, 6th, 9th, and 12th Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

John Winthrop (1587-1649), 2nd, 6th, 9th, and 12th Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

John Winthrop in 1630 inscribed aboard the Arbella as he prepared to settle his new home at Massachusetts Bay an invocation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that the eyes of the world are on this “New England” as the land of the exceptional chosen people of God.

Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it likely that of New England.” For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), left; John Adams (1735-1826), right.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), left; John Adams (1735-1826), right.

In an October 28, 1813 reply to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson engaged in a dialogue differentiating natural and artificial aristocracy.

For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground of distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent it’s ascendancy.

Furthermore, Jefferson extolled the naturally aristocratic as the conscientious arbiters preserving justice and liberty’s synonymity.

You think it best to put the Pseudo-aristoi into a separate chamber of legislation where they may be hindered from doing mischief by their coordinate branches, and where also they may be a protection to wealth against the Agrarian and plundering enterprises of the Majority of the people. I think that to give them power in order to prevent them from doing mischief, is arming them for it, and increasing instead of remedying the evil. For if the coordinate branches can arrest their action, so may they that of the coordinates. Mischief may be done negatively as well as positively.

Hence the delicacy debating the foundation of America’s popular republicanism. Jefferson’s reply to his dear friend but fierce political foe echoed best what our culture so deeply values, to engage in civil debate over differences in opinion. Adams advocated a very American brand of Toryism in once supporting the presidency to be our king, yet he failed to recall George III as the poster child for the three percent who fought for and died to establish our own land of milk and honey. Indeed, the meek shall inherit the earth granted by the synonymity of liberty and the scales of justice weighted for all under God. Rag tag colonists subverted the world’s most powerful empire. America alone can subvert herself.

Whereas Adams supported perpetuating Toryism akin 17th Century England’s civil warfare, Jefferson encouraged its final demise.

It was a Bill for the more general diffusion of learning. This proposed to divide every county into wards of 5 or 6 miles square, like your townships; to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools who might recieve at the public expence a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects to be completed at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught. Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completly prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts

As Adams supported a government akin to the British House of Lords, Jefferson promulgated individualism as the one key to a more virtuous society of faith-based cultural ethos:

My proposition had for a further object to impart to these wards those portions of self-government for which they are best qualified, by confiding to them the care of their poor, their roads, police, elections, the nomination of jurors, administration of justice in small cases, elementary exercises of militia… with a Warden at the head of each… which, being under their eye, they would better manage than the larger republics of the county or state.  

Man is meant to be free of all temporal machinations subverting the legitimacy of God; yet all are tempted by their very nature to partake of the forbidden fruit. We may attribute our liberty to Jefferson’s great influence John Locke. America was founded on the strength of small townships and villages more virtuous due to a greater individual imperative, with a town hall archetypical of the Athenian polis. As no two people are equal aside their eyes watching God, a social contract where people agree to a general will must be federalized through partitions governed by local authorities. The survival of our liberties and diversity rest on this great laurel of our history alone.

The law for religious freedom, which made a part of this system, having put down the aristocracy of the clergy, and restored to the citizen the freedom of the mind, and those of entails and descents nurturing an equality of condition among them, this on Education would have raised the mass of the people to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety, and to orderly government; and would have completed the great object of qualifying them to select the veritable aristoi, for the trusts of government, to the exclusion of the Pseudalists….

As no religious nor noble authority supersede the yeoman farmer nor to the contrary under God, we are no longer Jefferson’s America but Adams and Alexander Hamilton’s due to the rise of large cities where temporal corruption harvests discontent, its permafrost killing the will for seeds of talent to spring virtue.

“I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.”
― Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787, in PTJ, 12:442.

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