Alexander Campbell and Thomas Jefferson
A Comparative Study of Two Old Virginians


    In an effort to describe Jefferson's idea of "the Good Life," the noted historian H. W. van Loon speaks of him as the American counterpart of the English yeoman. While yeoman is of uncertain meaning, he sees it as referring to those younger sons of a family of free landowners who did not share in the inheritance with their older brothers and who therefore by way of individual initiative worked their way to the top. The yeomen were proud of their freedom; they belonged to no group and refused to be categorized as either nobles or lords. They were what might be called the "natural aristocracy" in that they achieved nobility of character and wealth through self application.

    A yeoman might be poor, but he realized he had certain natural rights and these were precious to him. His cottage, no matter how simple or dilapidated, was his own, and even the king himself could not cross the threshold of that edifice unless he had provided himself with an official warrant. Mr. van Loon quotes William Pitt as saying of the yeomen: "Even the poorest of them may, in his own cottage, bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. That cottage may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through the seams of the walls. The storms may enter it. The rain may enter it. But the King of England cannot enter and all of the King's forces dare not cross the threshold of the shrined tenement of a free man."

    One begins to grasp Jefferson's sense of the good life when he weighs the meaning of a freeman. Freedom to Jefferson not only meant that a man is a king in his own house, which was so precious to the yeomen, but it made possible the two virtues he stressed beyond all others: self-reliance and self-respect.

    Jefferson was philosophically speaking a utilitarian, which means that he believed happiness should be one's goal in life. Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher who was contemporary with Jefferson, fathered Utilitarianism through his teaching that the only intrinsic good is pleasure and the only intrinsic evil is pain. His adage was that the social institutions should produce "the greatest happiness for the greatest number." Jefferson wrote much the same way. While he admitted that "perfect happiness was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of one of his creatures in this world" he nonetheless believed that God "has very much put in our power the nearness of our approaches to it."

    He liked to quote Horace: "Enjoy today and put as little trust as possible in the morrow." And Euripides: "More easily shalt thou bear thy sickness with quietness and a noble courage; to suffer is man's fate." And Cicero: "We follow our fate here and there wherever it takes us. Whatever will happen, destiny must be overcome, by bearing it." These quotations sound more stoical than utilitarian, and he was of course greatly influenced by the ethics of the Stoics. But it was the Epicureans that supported his happiness principle.

    Speaking of the influence of these ancient philosophies upon Jefferson's thinking, Adrienne Koch says: "Epicureanism seemed to provide the goal for the good life, Stoic discipline was the method of attaining it." (The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, p. 7) The goal for man is the greatest possible happiness; the method of attaining it is discipline of the will.

    As much as he stressed the stoical concept of self-discipline, still he believed that circumstances could not be ignored. To be happy one must place himself in that circumstance most conducive to happiness. It is here that his hatred for big cities finds expression. He thought of the people in the crowded slums of Europe's big cities as so many "sardines in a box." He hated such conditions with a passion, and he believed that such urban life is the cause of most human misery. He contrasted such scenes with the wide open spaces of his own beloved Virginia, where every man could have a bit of soil he could call his own. It was his conviction that man's only real chance for happiness is to be close to the soil, for it is there that he finds freedom and independence. The good life, therefore, is the rural life. The Creator never intended that man live as they do in the tenements of big cities.

    Central to Jeffersonian ethics is self-understanding. It is the man who knows himself that is free. Man has the natural right to be himself. It is morally wrong for any man, whether he be king or priest, to have such power over another that he cannot act and think for himself. Monticello was something sacred to him, not simply because it was his home all his life, but, as van Loon puts it, "there he could be himself and to be one's self seemed to him the highest form of human happiness."

    Some thirty years ago the famous American historian James Truslow Adams produced a book entitled Jeffersonian Principles in which he listed those principles of "The Art of Living" that he thought most noteworthy in Jefferson's thinking. One he mentions is Jefferson's insistence that the human mind gains more by looking forward than backward. This was part of his effort to free the mind from the bigotry caused by the clerical canonization of the past. Adams also refers to Jefferson's reference to indolence, extravagance and infidelity to duty as cardinal sins. Many of us would shrink from his plea that "the maxim of buying nothing without the money in our pocket to pay for it would make of our country one of the happiest upon earth."

    Adams is also impressed with his insistence that man make proper use of his time. Indolence is a cause of much unhappiness. He sees industry as the means to mental health. "No laborious person was ever yet hysterical. Exercise and application produce order in our affairs, health of body and cheerfulness of mind, and these make us precious to our friends. It is while we are young that the habit of industry is formed."

    He speaks of "the inestimable value of intellectual pleasures," and he avows that "nothing is ours which another may deprive us of." And he includes sympathy in his description of the good life: "What more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven hath smitten . . . and to share our bread with one to whom misfortune has left none!" The alleviation of human misery is the good man's goal in life: "This world abounds indeed with misery: to lighten it's burden we must divide it with another."

    In spelling out some rules of good society, Jefferson mentions good humor as a preservative of peace and tranquility. He also states that one should make it a rule never to enter into an argument with another. It never pays to contradict anybody. "Conviction is the effect of our own dispassionate reasoning, either in solitude, or weighing within ourselves, dispassionately, what we hear from others, standing uncommitted in argument ourselves. It was one of the rules that made Doctor Franklin the most amiable of men in society, 'never to contradict anybody.' If he was urged to announce an opinion, he did it rather by asking questions, as if for information, or by suggesting doubts."

    He believed that pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold; and one of his adages was "Take things by their smooth handle." Another was: "We never repent of having eaten too little." And another: "Never trouble another for what you can do for yourself."

    From our study of his religious philosophy we may conclude that there was a religious base for Jefferson's ethics. Indeed to him religion had to pass a moral test: "I must ever believe that religion substantially good which produces an honest life, and we have been authorized by one whom you and I equally respect, to judge of the tree by its fruit."

    He revealed in a letter to John Adams how he related morality to religion:

    If by religion we are to understand sectarian dogmas, in which no two of them agree then your exclamation on them is just, "that this would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it." But if the moral precepts, innate in man, and made part of his physical constitution, as necessary for a social being, if the sublime doctrines of philanthropy and deism taught us by Jesus of Nazareth, in which all agree, constitute true religion, then without it this would be, as you again say, "something not fit to be named even, indeed, a hell."

    Jefferson's view of the nature of man made him neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Though he spoke often of a moral sense being implanted by God within man, which is as much a part of man as a leg or arm, still he believed that this moral sense was given to men in varying degrees. It is something that must be strengthened by exercise and cultivation. His melioristic view of human nature (that is, that man's condition is sinful or evil, but he is capable of greatly improving his condition) led him to say: "Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and, most of all, in matters of government and religion." (Koch, p. 118)

    "I do not believe that fourteen out of fifteen men are rogues," he wrote one time from Monticello, then added: "but I have always found that rogues would be uppermost, and I do not know that the proportion is too strong for the higher orders, and for those who, rising above the swinish multitude, always contrive to nestle themselves into places of power and profit." Though all men are not rogues, the rogues are usually in power. His faith in human nature is protected by the principle of eternal vigilance. While he believed that man's natural benevolence must be viewed in the light of his disposition to self-interest ("All know the influence of interest on the mind of man, and how unconsciously his judgment is warped by that influence"), he had faith in man's improvement and progress.

    While Alexander Campbell thought much more in terms of the glory and dignity of man than his sinfulness and degradation, he too had a realistic view of human nature. "My acquaintance with men and things," he wrote in the 1838 Millennial Harbinger, p. 386, "has very reluctantly compelled me to think either that there is no common sense view of justice or that there is at this day a great lack of common honesty among mankind." In another context he wrote: "Some men would be the janitors of Pandemonium for a living. They would invent machines for cursing, perjury, and blasphemy, if they could find a ready market for them . . . Oh! what pitchy darkness has sin thrown over the intellects of men! Many who once could have reasoned like angels now reason as the demons of perdition." (Mill. Harb. 10, p. 339)

    Yet the "Dignity of Man" was one of his favorite lecture topics. "At the bidding of the Almighty our father's body rose from the earth in all the symmetrical beauty of stately stature, form and color," he said to a college audience in 1838, "a splendid monument of the consummate wisdom, power and benevolence of the Creator, and stood erect in the presence of God." Like Jefferson, who believed man had no business trying to define God, Campbell was aware that men "impiously presume to scan the Deity." Yet because man is created in the image of God, and since it is essential that man study the model of his own being in order to understand himself, man should seek to know God to the full extent of his revelation both in Nature and in the Bible.

    Like Jefferson, the Sage of Bethany believed that morality is the chief end of education, and he too was convinced that God had implanted moral consciousness within man: "In our judgment education does not wholly make nor unmake the man, but gives form and character to all that is within him sown or planted by the hand of his Creator." (Mill. Harb. 9, p. 530) Also like Jefferson, he believed that morality begins with self-knowledge. Man is by nature a thinking being; he ought not only to think, but to think for himself. To do this one must free himself from the bondage of the past.

    Even though God implants the moral sense, moral character is cultivated only by one's own efforts, Campbell insisted. "It is an acquisition, the fruit not of a single effort, but of a series of efforts terminating in fixed habits . . . It is the combined result or compound product of the understanding, conscience, and affections as displayed in all the actions of our lives towards God and man, things temporal and eternal, celestial and terrestrial." (Ibid, p. 194) Along this same line of individual responsibility he stressed that morality demands that one do good, and not merely that he restrain from doing evil. Both Jefferson and Campbell believed that morality consisted very largely of doing good works. Campbell certainly stressed Christian morality more than Jefferson, pointing out that one's heart must be pure before God, which is realized only when man yields his will to God, still he saw no virtue in a man that professed Christianity whose life was not a blessing to the world. In his many essays on morality he liked to quote Isaiah's "Cease to do evil--learn to do well."

    Morality is thus something to be learned. He saw love as the fulfillment of the whole law of morality. "The shortest and most effectual way to cultivate all moral excellence is to cultivate love." A man will be good to the man that he loves. "Love does no ill to its neighbor." To cultivate love one must involve himself with mankind, suffering with those that suffer and rejoicing with those that rejoice. No man can be truly good without love; love and morality are inseparable.

    Campbell speaks pointedly in his essays on morality about those things that promote immorality. The pulpit seems to be uppermost as a promoter of "hypocrisy, insincerity, irreverence, licentiousness, antinomianism, and profanity." It would take someone as anti-clerical as a Campbell or a Jefferson to write: "I am still persuaded that the pulpit has been more fatal to the souls of multitudes than the stage." He also chastises the religious press for encouraging licentiousness. It disturbed him to see a treatise on poultry and eggs alongside an article on the New Birth in a newspaper.

    He was sensitive to the occupations men choose who profess Christian morality. Some callings are simply immoral, he warned, such as the manufacturing of Bowie knives. "The maker and the vender of such barbarous and savage instruments surely cannot pray for a blessing upon their labors and profession." The case of the gallant soldier who carries his weapons openly is different. But a man cannot pray for holiness and yet carry or manufacture secret weapons.

    The distillers come up for the strongest censure. The 10,000 distillers in the united States in 1839 (his own estimate) were equally responsible for the thousands that were ruined annually by drink. Speculators also are rebuked: "This calling, in all its branches, is but sheer selfishness at work to enrich itself on the labors of others." It is the art of living upon nothing, the art of making a fortune by cunning. Even politics is scored: "Neither an Apostle nor a Christian could compatibly devote any portion of his time to the trade of politics." He underscores trade, so perhaps a Jefferson and even himself could indulge in politics without making a trade of it!

    Censoriousness is an especially ugly vice to Campbell. He suggests that we should speak only of one's virtues in his absence, and if we speak of his faults in his presence it should be with such a disposition that he would not be offended. A reprover should be at least as old as the reproved. He points out that he would question a man's love for him who would reprove him without any fear of offending him. "A censorious spirit is an immoral spirit," he insists. He quotes from Pope's Universal Prayer: "Teach me to feel another's woe, To hide the fault I see."

    He also scores prevarication, equivocation, double meanings, and mental reservations. Insincerity and dishonesty he hated, and he found too much of these in the churches. He strikes at the preachers for their lack of punctuality, even to counting up the man hours and money lost by the audience when a preacher is late for a speaking appointment. In an effort to make worldliness a matter of the disposition of the heart he says: "To see a Christian in love with a ballroom or a theatre is not more demonstrative of a worldly and fleshly temper than to see him eager in the pursuit of wealth or popularity at the expense of truth, honor, and generosity."