When America Was Transformed

Library of Congress
Thomas Jefferson; aquatint by Michel Sokolnicki, after a portrait by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, early 1800s

Far too many congressmen were ignorant and unlearned, complained Benjamin Latrobe, President Jefferson’s surveyor of public buildings, in 1806. Philadelphia and its suburbs, Latrobe said, had not sent a single man of letters to Congress. Well, it was true that one representative was a lawyer—though he was of “no eminence”—and another was a bank clerk. But others were “plain farmers.” And making matters worse, one county had even sent a blacksmith to Washington—and another a butcher.

As Gordon Wood observes in his magisterial new book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, that same butcher went on to use his congressional franking privileges to mail his linen home for laundering. At least it was not a totally egregious abuse, his detractors admitted, since he seldom changed his shirt. President Jefferson once invited the butcher-turned-congressman to dine at the White House. When the guests seated around Jefferson’s elegant table were served a scrawny-looking leg of mutton, he forgot his new position and blurted out that he would never have sold such a sorry specimen in his stall.

Latrobe recognized that he was witnessing the twilight of the “ideal rank” of gentlemen who had led the Revolution, drafted the Constitution, and created a great republic. He granted that there were “solid and general advantages” to the new egalitarian society, but he still had to swallow hard. “To a cultivated mind, to a man of letters, to a lover of the arts, it presents,” he sighed, “a very unpleasant picture.”

And yet this was the democratic society that America’s gentlemen- founders—Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and John Jay among them—bequeathed to the next generation. Today we may still be awed by their brilliance, their political ingenuity, the sheer magnitude of their achievement. Well-to-do, privileged, well-educated in Enlightenment thought, they were the social and intellectual leaders of their colonies. But they were also civic-minded men who accepted the political burdens and responsibilities that came with their elevated social status, sacrificing private interests and personal happiness for the Revolution and the cause of independence and freedom.

Within a few decades, however, that kind of visionary and courageous patrician political elite would fade in importance, displaced by butchers and tradesmen wearing the plain shirts, leather aprons, and buckskin breeches of ordinary men. Though America would never again have a generation of leaders of the intellectual caliber of the Founders, we gained something more valuable, a relatively egalitarian culture and a democratic society.1

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson viewed with enthusiasm the displacement of the old gentry by new men who were, as the Virginia businessman Roger Atkinson wrote, “not so well dressed, nor so politely educated, nor so highly born.” They were “the People’s men (and the people in…

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