TCS Daily

The Re-Jeffersonization of America

By James Pinkerton - April 27, 2004 12:00 AM

MONTICELLO, Virginia, July 4, 2026 -- On this day, on the bicentennial of Thomas Jefferson's death, admirers of the Third President's legacy have gathered at his home in suburban Washington DC. Here are excerpts from the remarks of one speaker:

"So now, well into the 21st century we turn to the paradox of Jefferson's political vision. His ideas about how America would best be governed -- through decentralization of political power and widespread distribution of property -- are as valid now as they were two centuries ago. But the weakness in Jefferson's vision was its neglect of the 'techno' component of what we now familiarly call 'technopolitics.' That is, Jefferson had the right idea about governance, but Jeffersonianism was swamped in a torrent of industrialization and centralization in the century after his death. Indeed, through the middle of the 20th century, the march of science and technology -- and the ideologies that grew from those marchers -- caused an unmistakable loss of personal freedom; call it de-Jeffersonianization.

"But in the past few decades, the further march of science and technology has boomeranged the other way; America has re-Jeffersonized. Today, distributed and networked technology, having smashed or obsolesced the mainframes of the last century, has created the political and social space for a new birth of freedom. Thus the paradox: Jefferson's un-technological vision could only be fully realized through quantum increases in technology. And so we should sing the praises of those technologies -- the personal computer, the Internet, and VoIP -- even as we honor Jefferson, because together, the wisdom of a man born in 1743 and the genius of machines born in the 20th century have formed a swelling chorus of freedom that has carried America back to its rightful Jeffersonian roots.

"In 1785, Jefferson wrote to James Madison, 'The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.' That vision of a sturdy yeoman citizenry never left the Sage of Monticello. Four decades later, long after he had cycled through the presidency, Jefferson wrote that the ideal political unit was a rural 'ward,' smaller even than a county, consisting of just 24 square miles of territory. As he explained, 'Each ward would be a small republic within itself.' Each of these little jurisdictions would have its own school, militia, constables, and courts; in his mind, free and equal citizens would gather at their local 'folk-house' to vote and thus to guide 'common government.' Jefferson concluded, 'The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable and well administered republic.'

"Underlying Jefferson's vision was his exaltation of agriculture. As he declared in 1785 to John Jay, 'Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.' By contrast, Jefferson feared urban concentrations, writing to Madison in 1787, 'When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become corrupt as in Europe, and go to eating one another as they do there.'

"But the problem, of course, is that farming alone can't support a modern standard of living. And so the centralizing, industrializing vision of Alexander Hamilton -- Jefferson's great rival -- came to dominate. The factories in the cities attracted workers from the land and from overseas, and so the politics and ideologies associated with industrialism gained sway. Soon, rural areas were losing most of their people, as low productivity on the farm led to mechanization, sweeping still more millions off the land. In 1800, according to the US Census, 94 percent of the United States (pop. 5.3 million) was rural. But by 1920, for the first time, less than half of Americans -- 105 million of them by then -- lived on the land. The rest lived in the increasingly teeming -- and radicalizing -- cities.

"During this time, too, the Democratic Party, once the political embodiment of Jefferson's vision, shifted from being the party of the yeoman to being the party of the proletarian. It embraced left-wing ideas about taxation, income redistribution, unionization, and regulation, mostly from the continent that Jefferson had disdainfully described as 'piled-upon' Europe. And so class warfare -- one group attempting to eat another -- became popular, validating yet another of Jefferson's anti-urban premonitions.

"But then came the counter-trend. Suburbanization was a recognizable phenomenon by the 1920s, and has accelerated ever since, spurred on by the automobile, the highway, cheap mortgages and, most of all, by the natural desire of people to live in their own little castle. By 2000, almost half of Americans lived in the 'burbs, much to the consternation of urban planners, mass transit officials, and other 'experts.' These experts derided such growth as 'suburban sprawl,' but others -- most notably those doing the sprawling -- described their outward-bounding as 'The American Dream.'

"So just as urbanization had created one kind of politics, suburbanization created another kind -- one that would have put a gleam in Jefferson's eye. As the well-regarded political observer Michael Barone declared in 1995, 'We seem to be returning to a Tocquevillean America, to something resembling the country that the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831 and described in his Democracy in America.' That America, as Barone described it, was 'egalitarian, individualistic, decentralized' and also 'property-loving, lightly governed.' As Barone explained, by the 1990s, big government, big labor, and big business -- the 'big units' that dominated America in the mid-20th century -- had 'lost their hold on the economy and on people's imaginations.'

"'Geographically,' Barone continued, "ordinary Americans have been spreading out to edge cities and beyond, in computer-equipped houses in low-priced subdivisions.' His prescient reference to "computer-equipped houses" -- he was writing more than a decade after the introduction of the personal computer, but still several years before the Internet became a world-historical force -- underscored one of the few tenets of Marxism which has any validity: 'situation determines consciousness.' That is, the mode of production in a society determines much about the nature of that society. An economy based on decentralization of power and property creates a looser kind of culture and politics, while a centralized economy creates a tighter kind.

"And so it is that urban, New York City-centric America elected a New Yorker -- Franklin D. Roosevelt -- to the presidency four times in the middle of the last century. And so it is that a suburban country elected mostly Sunbelters -- Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and the three Bushes -- in the decades since.

"But in the course of our chronicle, we might pause over one particular year that has been somewhat neglected by historians, but which stands out as a major inflection point for American culture, economics, and politics. And that year is 2004, the year that VoIP came into its own. At the time, observers mostly thought that VoIP would simply cut the price of phone calls. And it did -- although, of course, the price of phone calls had been declining steadily for many decades prior.

"But from the perspective granted to us by the passage of two decades, we can see better the real significance of VoIP. Two-thousand-four was the year in which VoIP dramatically accelerated the power of both the computer and the Internet. What we now know as 'VoIPing' ushered in the Ubiquity Era, in which the old notion of a broadband 'pipe,' delivering data from one point to another point, gave way to the more holistic contemporary vision of a Data Ocean in which everything swam, in which every new device or tool became 'smart.' That is, anything with an IP address -- the automobile, the garage door opener, the gas tank, even the road itself -- soon became, in effect, a Net-based computer, to be activated by a touch, a voice, or a thought. And so while most 'futurists' grossly underestimated the impact of VoIP, it must be remembered how hard it was back then to grasp the evo-revo potential of a technology that allowed anybody to communicate with anything, anytime, through any mental or technical portal.

"It was in the years after '04 that the last vestiges of government planning fell away, as it became obvious that no bunch of bureaucrats could be as smart at anticipating future trends -- anything from economics to demographics -- as the Network itself. And since bureaucrats couldn't beat the Network, they joined it; substantial portions of the government were either privatized or government-sponsored-enterprize-ized in the years that followed.

"To be sure, it was not always a smooth path. Aunt Samantha -- or 'Uncle Sam' as the government was called before the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton -- did her best to block VoIP, but the dawning of the Age of Ubiquity was not to be stopped. And so, of course, the presidency of the second Clinton was just a one-term bump in the upward-sloping of VoIP and VoIP2.

"And of course, not all of the private sector took easily to being VoIPed. The 'Standards Wars' -- wars for technological uniformity and business supremacy within the VoIP network -- were so litigiously costly that they made the 'Browser War' and the "Operating System Wars" look like mere puffings on a peacepipe by comparison.

"The cyber-visionary David Colton was right when he prophesied 22 years ago that '04 would be remembered as a hinge-year: 'VoIP will massively speed the shift from the old tethered world to the new untethered world. That untethering will be the dominant trend in economics and culture, as well as in politics.'

"In this century, hundreds of millions of Americans learned that 'VoiProductivity' increased their effectiveness at home so much that the notion of a workplace separate from the home mostly broke down. This realization was not without its downside: fortunes were lost as the commercial real estate market crashed, as people abandoned what was once quaintly called a 'work office,' in favor of the now-standard 'home office" or 'Starbucks office.' Hence the grim graffito that was painted on so many offices back then: 'Dilbert was Here.' Happily, many of those central-city office towers have now become condos, or have been retrofitted into clean-running and people-free robot factories.

"The collapse of The Office has changed lives in many ways. Some were predictable; traffic has been greatly alleviated, as has pollution. Other changes were harder to foresee, notably, the improvement in family life. Not only did parents -- both parents -- spend more time at home, but the old excuse of straying spouses, 'Honey, I have to work late at the office,' no longer washed.

"Some Americans used their new affluence to move completely 'off the grid,' forsaking the old forms of infrastructure connectivity in favor of new forms of self-reliance, such as home energy production and 100-percent onsite recycling. But most Americans were content to use their wealth to do more of what they had been doing for a long time -- moving further and further out into the country, into larger and nicer homes, on bigger pieces of land, complete with forests. Thus did 'suburbia' yield to 'exurbia,' then 'metaburbia,' a recent coinage that neatly captures both the extremely dispersed nature of the population, as well as the extremely knowledge-rich nature of work in the 21st century. And so it that Charlottesville, nestled in amongst a VoIPed population, is counted by the Census Bureau as a suburb of DC, even though few people here in this VoIPville ever go to DC, except maybe for sight-seeing.

"To be sure, tragedy has been part of the neo-Jeffersonian transformation of American society in the past few decades. As we all remember with sadness, the disaster of 9/11/01 was followed by a string of further attacks on the Homeland, starting with Al-Qaeda's infamous attempt to 'fix' the 2004 election through that dreadful -- and mercifully, unsuccessful -- mega-attack. And while for the most part, our Homeland Defense Force has proven its value over the last 15 years, the losses we have suffered have accelerated the metaburban trend. Put simply, what Michael Barone called 'big units' -- most obviously, big cities -- are just too brittle and vulnerable; the inevitable trend these days is toward robust and compartmentalized 'small units.' And so America is becoming a Jeffersonian country once again -- a sturdy nation of cyber-yeopersons, thinking freely, living well, doing good.

"Yet at the same time, Americans have not retreated from the world. Travel continues to be less expensive, even if it is more of a hassle. And here at home, awareness of the world has been increasing steadily over the years, especially after the Fox News Channel introduced its 'FBI' programming: 'Fair, Balanced, and Immersive.'

"So in closing, we can observe that while the path to small-unit re-Jeffersonization has been splashed with the blood of martyrs and patriots, the ultimate result has been happy, because America today is not only richer than ever, and freer than ever; it is, at the same time, safer than ever. The population and economy are more dispersed than in any year since before the advent of weapons of mass destruction over a century ago.

"In 1824, just two years before his death, Jefferson expressed this hope about the Fourth of July and the freedoms it had brought to Americans: 'For ourselves, let the annual return to this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.' Like all of his wisdom, those words are worth remembering and living by. But because we are Americans, always dreaming great dreams, let us allow that the two centuries since the Sage's death have given rise to new ways of redeeming his promise for an ever-increasing number of people, in America and around the world."


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