My friend and sometimes co-worker Ilan Wurman's final piece in The Claremont Independent calls me out, sub silentio, for being a "libertarian," as if that were a dirty word. With this straw man construction, he besmirches those of us who question whether or not there ought to be a federal role in health care, in education, in social security. Limited government is not anarchy, it is limited government, limited not because it is only a preference, but because it is the only preference.
Extracting Silver in the Mine: Education and the American Republic
Charles C. Johnson
“Preach . . . a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against the evils [of monarchial government].” – Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1786.
Genius without education is like silver in the mine. – Ben Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack
Education comes from the Latin, educere, meaning to “draw out from within.” Among the founding fathers, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both sought to “draw out” that republican spirit by inculcating in the public a healthy respect for virtue.1 To a woman inquiring as to form of government just drafted at the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin famously quipped that the new government was “A Republic, if you can keep it.” The language reveals much and the emphasis is on “you,” the people. We, the People, had endowed the government with its limited powers, but You, the People and posterity would guarantee that it would endure. The onus, as the founders saw it, was on the people to maintain the government and its yeoman mores, untethered from the royal and noble sophistry of European haute culture.2
Into this world arrived Ben Franklin, whose life neatly bookends America’s rise from farming colony to manufacturing republic. His early schooling at Boston Latin was rudimentary, but thoroughly classical and religious. (His father was a minister, after all.) He served as a clerk at his brother’s printing shop, careful to learn the craft that would become the first half of his life’s work. There, he learned to first by first imitating his favorite authors, especially that of the British Spectator, and then by crafting his own, often comic, always perceptive voice.
As with many autodidacts, so Franklin’s mind wandered where it wanted, without consideration of the proprieties of its inquiry and bursting with the eagerness to have others follow him along. His disputatious nature came from the shelves of his father’s library, where as a boy he studied the writings of Plutarch3 and Xenophon, as well as Daniel Defoe and Cotton Mather, author of Essays to do Good. (He ridiculed that last writer and theologian as a sixteen year old boy, when Franklin crafted the persona of “Silence Dogood.”4) It was in that library, Franklin tells us in his Autobiography and not in the religious instruction of his parents or Puritan Boston, that Franklin formed his appreciation of argument as a form of reason and education. After exhausting the library and the offerings of Boston, Franklin resolved to run away to Philadelphia,5 where the self-described “poor, ignorant boy” set about creating the “sage of Philadelphia.” And before long, he came to the attention of not one, but two governors, one of whom, Keith, promised a line of credit to help Franklin establish his own printing press with materials brought back from London.6
Every autodidact is by at first a teacher – if only of himself and every autodidact soon finds that the accommodations for his learning are limited in his surrounds. But Franklin’s curious mind sought to expand its domain – and its influence – and hence, Franklin became an editorialist. Franklin intuitively grasped what Tocqueville argued that for a democratic society to work, it must “multiply infinitely the occasions for citizens to act together and to make them feel every day that they depend on one another.”7 But not every citizen is a dispenser of wisdom or intellect. How might they get along and help preserve the Republic?
Most famously Franklin’s musings and witticisms found their form in Poor Richard’s Alamanack, which he continued to publish for twenty-five years and earned Franklin a considerable sum and reputation as a best-selling author. Franklin’s form, the aphorism, followed its function: by writing short phrases in a folksy wisdom, he could guarantee that they would be remembered on long days in the fields.
But Franklin’s press wasn’t solely a means of employment. In all of his writings and pronouncements there is a question of how man ought to live in the city, and by extension, the republic. He writes in The Autobiography that the chief purpose of his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, was to serve as
another means of communicating instruction, and in that view frequently reprinted in it extracts from the "Spectator" and other moral writers, and sometimes published little pieces of my own, which had been first composed for reading in our Junto. Of these are a Socratic dialogue, tending to prove that, whatever might be his parts and abilities, a vicious man could not properly be called a man of sense; and a discourse on self-denial, showing that virtue was not secure till its practice became a habitude and was free from the opposition of contrary inclinations.
Franklin made a point of helping to secure the good, virtuous community around him. His first acts of charity, the library and, the Junto, the town’s first intellectual society, served to help citizens of Philadelphia educate themselves, as he had done. He led the efforts to build the University of Pennsylvania and promoted the American Philosophical Society. All of this work had a purpose. His charity was the logical extension of the opportunity that he had been presented in his father’s home. The hope was that those who were virtuous and bright might use their intellect to make Philadelphia, and the country as a whole, better off and that they might follow Franklin’s lead by building the next Franklin stove or lamps. It didn’t matter whether or not the citizens were religious or irreligious, what mattered was that virtuous, intellectuals be educated as he had been.
Like Franklin, Thomas Jefferson concerned himself with the education of his fellows. He believed as Franklin did: that “man is an imitative animal” and that this “quality is the germ of all education in him.”8Jefferson’s views, however, prided the agrarian farmers over the city dwellers. Perhaps that’s why he believed that Virginia circa 1800 was more capable of achieving the Platonic city of the guardians approach to educating its citizens. Unlike Franklin who seems not to have dwelt much on the classics, except for in his youth, Jefferson believed in their importance to educating the republic. Greece, Jefferson wrote to A. Coray in 1823, was “the first civilized nation [which] presented example of what man should be.” Writing to Joseph Prisestly, he was even more explicit.
“I think the Greeks and Romans have left us the present models which exist of fine composition, whether we examine them as works of reason, or of style and fancy; and to them we probably owe these characteristics of modern composition. I know of no composition of any other ancient people which merits the least regard as a model for its matter or style. To all this I add, that to read the Latin and Greek authors in their original is a sublime luxury; and I deem luxury in science to be at least as justifiable as in architecture, painting, gardening, or the other arts.”9
And lest one think Jefferson was merely extolling the language or forms, he wrote to his friend, Thomas Cooper, that while he believed knowledge of Latin and Greek “hypercritical,” he also believe that it was essential to “possess a substantial understanding of their authors.”10
By considering the Greeks as a model, Jefferson assuredly wanted to make the process of education far less informal than it had existed in Franklin’s time. In a way, this difference may stem from their professional background: Franklin stressed frugality, but there seems to have been no extravagance in which that supposedly yeoman Jefferson didn’t indulge. Jefferson fell prey to that most common of intellectual impulses: unable to distill what was essential, he recommended everything, without regard to cost.
But for Jefferson, there was no cost to large to bear. Jefferson’s education is essentially a state affair; Franklin was more concerned by creating the means by which people could furnish their own affairs. In a letter to M. Correa de Serra, Jefferson outlines the economic imperative of his education bill.
“The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries.”11
Jefferson assuredly had the Franklins of the world in mind when he proposed a Plato-like Republic-inspired means of sorting the best talent from the people. Nature, he believed, had distributed the talents and virtues among the poor as well as the rich “so liberally.” Failing to educate the poor would harm the country.12 It was an essential public good, that if not provided for would leave the people exposed to “kings, priests and nobles” who would “rise up among us if the people in ignorance.”13
But in the process of educating the poor, Jefferson wanted to remove the responsibility for providing that education from individuals and place it alongside government, funded by a tax “levied on the wealth of the county” so that all children could be educated for three years gratis.14 In his 6th Annual Message to Congress, Jefferson recommended a foundation, “independent on [sic] war,” endowed for the purpose of a “national establishment for education.”15 He even favored making citizenship in Virginia contingent upon literacy requirements. Revealing, Jefferson wrote to Thomas Cooper, “that discipline is the most difficult in American education” and that “premature ideas of independence, too little repressed by parents, begets a spirit of insubordination which is the great obstacle to the [political] science with us and principal cause of its decay since the Revolution.” The liberty of education, so cultivated by Franklin, would have to go because, as Jefferson wrote Cornelius Camden Blatchly, the project of “extending to the great mass of mankind the blessings of instruction.” Franklin believed in extending it, yes, but only for those willing to grab it with both hands. Only then would the new republic, to continue Jefferson’s lofty letter, advance the “prospect of great advancement in the happiness of the human race.”