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Looking at the lessons of history, the Founders agreed with Aristotle who recommended “the distribution of offices according to merit”. This was “a special characteristic of aristocracy”and the underlying “principle of an aristocracy is virtue, as wealth is of an oligarchy, and freedom of a democracy.” The Framers were well aware of this concept and wanted a Constitution by which “all offices lie open to men of merit, of whatever rank or condition.” In their hoped-for meritocracy, “even the reins of state may be held by the son of the poorest men, if possessed of abilities equal to the important station.” Stephen Burroughs, the author of a hugely popular 1798 memoir, wrote that the Constitutional delegates were “so far republican” that they thought “a man’s merit to rest entirely within himself, without any regard to family, blood, or connection.” Thomas Paine was more blunt about abandoning the British type of aristocracy based on family: “Virtue,” he wrote, “is not hereditary.” Ben Franklin, after a decade witnessing the hereditary corruption of England, believed honor should remain with those who had earned it and not be passed to heirs:

“Let the distinction lie with those who have merited it.”



The Framers’ intent was to institutionalize a new type of aristocracy that would, consistent with its democratic ideals, be open to all classes, featuring merit as its gauge, not wealth or family. This philosophy resonated with the 23 war veterans of the 40 signers who had won the Revolution by jettisoning the British officer system that conferred rank by wealth and title, whereas the Continental Army based its promotions on the ability of young officers to command in the field. In the same way as the necessities of armed conflict clarified America’s military hierarchy, so too did the social conflicts of 1787 help clarify the young nation’s path to virtuous governance. In the final analysis, merit among leadership would be the driving impulse for effective governing.



Although overseas during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Jefferson was the most active proponent for the new type of virtuous leadership contained in The Federalist. He called it a “natural aristocracy” and considered it the “most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and the government of society.” It represented Jefferson’s primary governing principle during his political career and continued until later in his retirement years when he and John Adams, once political rivals, found they shared common ground on this ideal. Jefferson wrote John Adams that “there is a natural aristocracy among men” based on virtue and ability, distinguished from an “artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.” Francis Hopkinson, a Convention delegate and the designer of America’s first flag, wrote Jefferson during the ratification process that “all disputes about a technical aristocracy” were unnecessary because the people should instead “pay strict attention to the natural aristocracy, which is the institution of heaven.” He went on to agree with Jefferson: “This aristocracy is derived from merit and that influence, which a character of superior wisdom, and known services to the commonwealth, has to produce veneration, confidence, and esteem . . . .” Adams concurred: “I am as much as a Republican as I was in 1775”; natural aristocracies are institutions of “admirable wisdom and exemplary virtue.” He believed them “the only institutions that can possibly preserve the laws and liberties of the people.”



The Constitution’s reliance on a meritocracy codified a fundamental inequality among Americans that did not shy away from notions of unequal abilities among Americans. John Adams summarized it best: “What are we to understand here by equality? Are the citizens to be all of the same age, sex, size, strength, stature, activity, courage, hardiness, industry, patience, ingenuity, wealth, knowledge, fame, wit, temperance, constancy, and wisdom? Was there, or will there ever be a nation, whose individuals were all equal, in natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches? The answer of all mankind must be in the negative.” He identified inequality as a God-given principle: There are inequalities which God and nature have planted there, and which no human legislator ever can eradicate.



The Founders philosophically reconciled the principle of inequality with virtuous government by having democratic elections empowering an informed citizenry to elect only those politicians committed to the public good, thereby reducing the threat of entrenched corruption. This natural aristocracy drawn from the common people and elite alike, represented an Aristotelian “golden mean” between an oppressive hereditary aristocracy and a populist democracy that rejected all aristocracy, including one of virtue and talent. Jefferson argued that this was “the best remedy . . . provided by our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi.” He went on to support this republican reform as the “best” because it “provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government.”



So John Adams’ questions, “How shall men of merit be discovered? Who shall be the judge?” were especially poignant since, as James Madison asserted, “enlightened and impartial people” are outnumbered by “the unreflecting multitude.” Madison’s concept expressed in the Federalist Papers was to utilize “a process of elections” to “most certainly extract from the masses of society the purest and noblest characters which it contains.” The proposed constitution, according to him, was designed to ensure that political leadership would be entrusted to those American gentlemen who had neither excessive commercial interests nor irrational biases; they would “possess most wisdom to discern and most virtue to pursue the common good of society.” Madison felt the federal structure was a sort of refining mechanism that purified the will of the people by passing through the successive filters of state and national elections. This seemed a credible means to build a natural aristocracy using elections or, as Jefferson said, to separate “the wheat from the chaff.” For Madison, the thing to be refined was virtue; in its impure state it was mingled with personal interests and factional biases, but through repeated electoral processing, candidates could be purged until virtuous gentlemen were rendered. In Federalist no. 57, Madison claimed this mechanism as the primary “aim of every political constitution”; being “first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society.” Jefferson agreed, while adding, that this process was the best way to preserve harmony between the people and their natural superiors because it fairly provided “most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government.”

Modern political scientists tend to get confused when sorting out the cause-and-effect relationships underlying the rise and fall of great societies. Perhaps too steeped in technocratic skills or so divorced from the exigencies of natural existence, they lose sight of first principles buried beneath the clutter of political and economic theories. The leaders of the Enlightenment, especially America’s Founders, did not suffer such confusions. It was all about virtues—the classical ones—and how to sustain them. And the primary sustainer of virtue was aristocracy. As aristocracy goes, so goes society.



As committed freethinkers, the Founders were not dogmatic. So while they resolutely promoted the need for an aristocracy of virtue, they harbored personal biases as to the best source for republican elites: Jefferson’s wise leaders sounded almost Athenian in composition, Washington’s warrior governors echoed Rome’s, and Franklin’s bourgeois prescription was reflective of Renaissance and Enlightenment gestalts. Hamilton, by contrast, while not disagreeing with the need to sustain classical virtues, felt that moneyed men could be both classically grounded and commercially successful (defying Aristotle’s warning), while Adams tiptoed toward elitism with good breeding necessary to cultivate virtuous leaders. But only Jefferson and Adams survived into the nineteenth century (with Madison parroting Jefferson’s views). And there was no topic more aggressively explored between the two aging patriots than the type of aristocracy required to sustain the United States. Any student of the American soul should read their correspondence as one of the most salient explorations on the subject ever written.



It began with John Adams, the founder with the strongest opinions, beginning the conversation by explaining he had “never read reasoning more absurd, sophistry more gross” than those contesting the existence of inequalities among men:

Inequalities of mind and body are so established by God Almighty, in His constitution of human nature, that no art or policy can ever plane them down to a level. “Was there, or will there ever be,” he asked, “a nation whose individuals were all equal, in all natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches?” Inequalities were “common to every people, and can never be altered by any, because they are founded in the constitution of nature . . . we cannot alter the nature of men.” 



So Adams asked the fundamental question in his letter to Jefferson: How should society be designed so “that men ought to be respected only in proportion to their talents, virtues, and services? How shall men of merit be discovered? Who shall be the judge?”

Jefferson answered in October 1813 by reiterating his theory of a “natural aristocracy among men.” He wrote that 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 for distinction.” Unfortunately a world without the diviner of “bodily power” accelerated the development of “an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents . . . .”Jefferson continued by insisting aristocracy consistent with natural law was essential to enlightened government:



"The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of 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?"

But, he warned, counting on the public to select men of virtue and talent meant they had to possess a minimal level of knowledge and wisdom. So he defended his “bill for the more general diffusion of learning . . .” so that “worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts . . . .”



Jefferson argued that enlightened self-interest when coupled with education would foster a public willing to support a natural hierarchy because each citizen would “labor for himself” until every “one, by his property, or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order.” He concluded that the difference which he had with Adams was not over natural aristocrats, but whether to squash a pseudoaristocracy altogether or use constitutional mechanisms to control its power: “You think it’s best to put the pseudo-aristoi into a separate chamber of legislation,” Jefferson summarized, “where they may be hindered from doing mischief by their coordinate branches . . . . 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 . . . . I think the best remedy is . . . to leave to the citizens the free selection and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the really good and wise.”

Adams quickly answered Jefferson by announcing: “We are now explicitly agreed upon one important point, viz., that there is a natural aristocracy among men, the grounds of which are virtue and talents . . . .” He then recited the historical dangers of corrupt aristocrats including “the folly, the pride, the vanity, the selfishness, the artifice, the low craft and mean cunning, the want of principle, the avarice, the unbounded ambition, the unfeeling cruelty . . . .” But he also expressed dismay at “the stupidity with which the more numerous multitude not only become their dupes, but even love to be taken in by their tricks.”



Ultimately Adams contested Jefferson’s need for “distinction between natural and artificial aristocracy” by arguing, “Birth and wealth are conferred upon some men as imperiously by nature as genius, strength, or beauty.” So, he concluded, “You suppose a difference of opinion between you and me on the subject of aristocracy. I can find none. I dislike and detest hereditary honors, offices, emoluments, established by law. So do you. I am for excluding legal, hereditary distinctions from the United States as long as possible. So are you. I only say mankind has not yet discovered any remedy against irresistible corruptions in elections to offices of great power and profit, but making them hereditary.”

There it was: The Founders agreed that a cadre of virtuous leaders was necessary to sustain the republic, and it only remained to discover the means for preventing corruption among them. Jefferson thought an enlightened republic would cultivate incorruptibles, while Adams held more hope for men of talent and virtue from well-bred families. Regardless, Adams said aristocracy was a “monster to be chained; yet so chained as not be hurt, for he is the most useful and necessary animal in his place. Nothing can be done without him.” 



Any doubt as to the need for a natural aristocracy was incomprehensible to the Founders because its role had been repeatedly validated throughout history and during the young republic’s early administrations. One of the best examples was Jefferson’s undisputed claim that Washington—an aristocrat to his core—“probably prevented this revolution from being closed” by his “moderation and virtue.” Many early Americans understood this:



Why may there not be a Congress of philosophers as well as of statesmen?
                                                                                                              —Jeremy Belknap, 1780


Why may there not be a Congress of philosophers as well as of statesmen?                                                                                                                       - Jeremy Belknap, 1780

Leaders of "Virtue & Talent"