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Perhaps the most peculiar thing about the Declaration of Independence is that the portion of it that seemed commonplace when it was written now seems revolutionary, and the part that seemed to its framers as most central, to us seems trivial, even whiny.

As a piece of rhetoric, it begins in generalities, narrows to specifics, and ends in a course of action. It couldn’t be more concisely structured. The committee charged with drafting it in the summer of 1776 chose wisely when it asked Thomas Jefferson to write the first version. Jefferson’s prose is a model of late 18th-century style: precise, lucid and syllogistic. declaration 3

It states baldly and without argument or support, that all men are born equal, have certain rights by virtue solely of being born, and that when a government fails egregiously to effect the safety and happiness of the people, it is their right to replace it.

But Jefferson didn’t invent its ideas whole cloth. In fact, as Jefferson wrote years later, the purpose of his stirring words was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

Much of the remainder of the Declaration is given over to a litany of complaints the colonies had about British governance. Some of these complaints still seem legitimate; many seem trivial, even trumped up. “The King did this” and “The King did that.”

“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people,” it says. Pure hyperbole.

These complaints were the part of the Declaration that was “news” in 1776. They constituted what made the document inflammatory.

Few can read through the whole of the Declaration of Independence now without a sense of fatigue: Those complaints were the issues of 1776, not of today.

It is the second paragraph that seems told to all people at all times, and remains news to us in the 21st century.

Bridge between ages

But to follow those ideas from the century before the Declaration into the ink on its page shows just how important its year of birth was. It was born in the cusp between two great ages, two overriding sensibilities, and partakes of both.

The period from about 1775 to about 1825 is one of the richest in humankind’s history, fertile, even febrile. It is in many ways, the hinge between the past and the modern, between the classically minded 18th century and the Romantic 19th. From an age of Reason to one of Sentiment — as it was called at the time. In Europe, it was the age of Goethe and Rousseau.

And no figure in the American experiment better demonstrates that shift of sensibilities than Jefferson.

On one hand, he epitomized the faith in science and logic of the Enlightenment; on the other, he shared with the revolutionary Rousseau the belief in the nobility of humanity and its drive to social improvement.

You can hardly fail to notice this point when you visit Jefferson’s home in Virginia.

Monticello is a mirror of its maker. Jefferson built a model of Palladian proportion and filled it with moose antlers. The outside lines of the house are clean and mathematically rational. The inside is a warren of peculiar and unnerving spaces.

Jefferson never fully reconciled these two aspects of his personality. He was a slave owner who sings of the dignity of the free man. How much more conflicted than that can you be?

The Declaration of Independence speaks to us now, in large part, because of this clash of sensibilities in Jefferson.

On the one hand, you have the ideas of the Enlightenment, that brilliant flame of philosophy and science that sprang up in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

On the other hand, you have the growth of the individual as a thinking and feeling person.

The Enlightenment preached rationality and temperance, tolerance and universal principals.

One of its most influential writers was John Locke, who, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, from 1690, wrote that all human beings have natural rights and that these included “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.”

It was an idea that took hold and flourished.

By the time of the American Revolution, the idea was commonplace. It shows up in George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights in June 1776, in slightly altered form:

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

When you compare that with what Jefferson first wrote, you can see how much better a writer Jefferson was. He only needed 31 words to say what Mason required 57 for, and say it more forcefully and memorably. Two dollar bill

An economy of words

Jefferson’s first take on this was considerably more sonorous, but still not quite there:

“We hold these truths to be sacred, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of property.”

It was a committee of five, delegated by the Second Continental Congress, that were given the responsibility to draw up the Declaration. Jefferson wrote that first draft, but Benjamin Franklin, also on the committee, struck out “sacred” and replaced it with “self-evident.”

By 18th-century reasoning, self-evidence was universal, while sacredness could be construed as sectarian. Franklin wanted to emphasize the universal truth of the proposition.

And Jefferson himself changed “property” to “happiness,” and with that stroke made the Declaration jump from the past into the future.

The past was Thomas Hobbes, with his sense of the nastiness, brutishness and shortness of life, and a belief that the natural order of mankind was greed, rapine and thievery. Only strong central government, he wrote, could possibly control the natural impulses of humankind.

The future was Rousseau’s perfectibility of man, his belief in the nobility of those uncorrupted by society and government, the “natural man.”

The middle was Jefferson, perfectly if perilously balanced between.

The right of life remained pretty much the same looking forward and back, but the other two rights changed meaning over the cusp of 1800.

Locke believed that all humans coveted was property; Jefferson realized that there were many routes besides ownership to humanity’s true goal, individual happiness. Hence, the change in language.

Liberty is the word that has changed the most. In the 18th century, it meant being left alone, basically. Your government let you be: Taxes shouldn’t be too onerous and armies shouldn’t be quartered in your home at the whim of the commandant.

But by the 19th century, liberty took on a more revolutionary turn: Romantic writers saw liberty as the antidote to repressive regimes around the world and one read poems to Count Egmont, the Prisoner of Chillon and Nat Turner. It fueled popular movements all across Europe and led to a crisis year in 1848. Liberty meant revolt — a very different thing from what John Locke had in mind.

(And it makes almost comic the confusion of the two versions of liberty conflated by contemporary anti-tax factions and the paranoid fringe looking for the black helicopters that we can get all belligerent and militant about “tyranny” in Washington, when compared to what is happening in Sudan, Russia or North Korea, we remain among the most liberty-ridden people on earth. Admittedly, the Declaration of Independence itself is full of the same sort of inflated rhetoric.)

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This meant that the Declaration could speak, Janus-like, forward and backward. The fulcrum of modern history. The Age of Reason is emerging from its pupa into the language of Romanticism.

 
 

Dog and cat battle dan kincaidDrawing by Dan Kincaid


“It’s Je-Ne-Vee-Ev, not Jeneveev,” said Stuart, introducing his live-in, Genevieve, the viola player. She is 50-ish, stylish and thin, with a shock of white in her hair, like Susan Sontag. She was born in Belgium and takes the same offense as Hercule Poirot for being assumed French. She has a throaty voice in the same register as her viola, although her instrument probably didn’t spend a lifetime smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

We were having dinner, the four of us: Stuart and Genevieve and my wife and me. Stuart did the cooking; Genevieve poured the wine. And oh, how a little Beaujolais can get Stuart talking.

“It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not. But I’ve never met any of those.”

And Stuart was off to the races.

“Everybody and his brother-in-law splits the world into two categories: male and female; conservative and liberal; Gene Autry fan and Roy Rogers fan; those who get it, and those who don’t.”yeats

Stuart had just finished reading A Vision by William Butler Yeats. Stuart had an epiphany, he said.

“Yeats divides human personalities up into 28 ‘phases,’ like the phases of the moon. It’s really brilliant, if a little loony. Ideally, there is no Phase 1 or Phase 15 — the first and middle phase of the moon’s monthly round of waxing and waning: The new and full moons; these are too pure and unmixed to exist in the real world. But all the phases are defined by their ‘tinctures’ of two essential personality engines, which Yeats calls the ‘primary’ and the ‘antithetical.’ Simply put, the lumpy and the poetic.

“He gets quite lawyerly in parsing the bits. And I had this vision of my own, although it is somewhat simpler to understand.vision phases

“It is that underlying every other distinction is this basic, fundamental one: between dog and cat. You can have your phases of the moon, but really, but all those personalities are either canine or feline.”

“You mean, like a dog-person or a cat-person?” my wife asked. “I’m a cat person; we gotta have cats around the house.”

“No,” said Stuart, “not a question of which animals you prefer as pets, but rather, which you are in your cor cordium, your self of selves. We are all one or the other. You can see it in the faces of everyone around you.

“But it goes beyond people. As I now see it, every animate being on the planet is one or the other.

“They are opposed personality types. They function in the world differently and see the world differently.

“For the dog, the world is essentially simple. Truth is truth, up is up and down is down. The dog has a direct relationship with the things of the world: They are what they are.

“A cat, on the other hand, sees the world metaphorically. Things may be what they seem, but are never only what they seem. They can mean one thing Monday, and something entirely different on Tuesday.

“When dogs read poetry, they like to read, ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ They can be scholars and critics, and they can be quite discerning and bastions of good taste, but their world view is essentially single-tracked. Their vision is clear, if not very imaginative. Their word is their honor and they have 30-year mortgages.woman in the dunes

“Cats love Japanese movies with subtitles and long shots of shifting sands. Dogs like Adam Sandler and Kristin Stewart.

“Cats enjoy the jostle of ideas. Dogs talk about wines.

“You may think I’m tipping the scales in favor of cats, but that is only because I am one. There is downside to either class, and dogs really are important for the continued functioning of the society that makes cats’ lives possible.

“Cats never decide on a college major and fritter away their parents’ money taking courses in Incan pottery and creative writing. Dogs stick to their curriculum and go to Career Days.

“Dogs become Eagle Scouts and join the Rotary Club. Dogs dream of a house in Syosset and a Bill Jr. to take to the zoo. Cats dream of pirates, scoundrels, military heroes and Tamerlane.

“There are many kinds of dogs in the world. Some are bureaucrats and some, the more stylish, wear whatever is touted in Esquire. Hell, the Playboy Advisor was written for them. Some are noble and become doctors or missionaries; others bring my slippers at day’s end.

“It is plain, especially to dogs, that the world functions only because of them. And truly, we couldn’t do without them.

“But cats have eyes that change as the moon changes. They live by their own rules and amend them as their mood shifts. They are filled with prevarication and treachery. Their minds shuffle like a gambler’s deck of cards and we never know what face will show, or what suit. ‘Spades and Diamonds, Courage and Power; Clubs and Hearts, Knowledge and Pleasure.’

“When it comes to poetry, cats often prefer to write their own.”

Stuart noted that my wife writes poetry. He explained that cats don’t only write bad poetry, but rather, all poetry, no matter what the quality.

“Well, there are exceptions,” he admitted. “Edgar A. Guest and Ella Wheeler Wilcox are woof-woofs. But you get the gist.”rust sings

(My wife’s poetry has been published in a book, called Rust Sings. I recommend it.)

“There can be little meaningful dialog between the dog and the cat,” Stuart continued, “because they mean different things when they use the same words.

“This frustrates the dog no end; he cannot pin the cat down, while the cat delights in the ambiguity, and will even do what he can to amplify it.

“Dogs are trustworthy. A dog will be on time; a cat will be late, cancel or forget.

“A dog joins the Rotarians; a cat never does, unless he can use his membership toward the end of world domination, or something else he thinks might be fun.

“Among women, cats can wear too much eye makeup; dogs put too much mousse in their hair, like a TV news anchor. The difference is total and complete.

“For instance, a dog can certainly be selfish, but it takes a cat to be egocentric. A telling difference.

“Dogs have faith in the basic goodness of the world, and although they make a place for evil, they nevertheless believe it is something that can be overcome. A cat may or may not believe in evil, but whatever else, he believes in the relativity of goodness and truth.

“This isn’t just people: All animals are also dogs or cats. Think of a sea otter. Cat or dog? There can be no question. Anything that can sleep floating on the ocean surface so curled up that its head rests comfortably on its own belly, is a cat. Sturgeon are dogs. So are bears, horses, elephants and cows — ungulates as a class are dogs.fox cheetah dyad

“It is interesting to see this play out in nature. Don’t be confused by taxonomy. It is not names that define dogness and catness. Foxes, for instance, are classified as canines by the doggy scientists, but they are nevertheless cats. And cheetahs — you only have to look at those stiff, tensioned legs to recognize their essential dogginess.

“The main physical difference is in their bendability. Pick up a dog by his middle and what do you feel? The beast is stiff as a two-by-four. He is uncomfortable off the ground. He whimpers. Put him back down and his tail wags.

“Pick up a cat, and it drapes over you, form-fitting and at ease. I know a man who used to wear his big orange cat as a kind of living Davy Crockett hat. The cat sagged over his skull and down his neck and never wavered. The cat just purred.

“You can tell the relative caninicity or felinicity of a person when you dance some old-fashioned thing like a waltz. If your partner’s spine is rigid, he or she is a dog. A cat-partner will swing and sway with the rhythm like an willow in a gust.

“Does anyone remember seeing archival TV film of Richard Nixon attempting the Twist? The very definition of a dog.

“That is because a dog is all of a piece; he is one thing, head to tail. A cat is a loose concatenation of impulses, a pile of multiple personalities. When a dog dances, every part of him has to move in the same direction at the same time. A cat is syncopated.

“This pervades their world views. A dog is regimented and feels most comfortable when most conventional. A cat is individual, and often takes little notice of what is expected of him.

“Cats and dogs have been eternally at war. The dogs think the cats are kooks, hippies or commie sympathizers (although most communists are as doggie as the board of directors at General Motors). They have difficulty conceiving of anything not established by precedent. Community standards actually mean something to a dog.

“And when it gets down to battle, the dogs, like the redcoats of the American revolution, fight according to the book, in lines standing and kneeling, firing volley after volley on command.

“The cats, rather than being organized soldiers, find the dogs a nuisance and, like American Minutemen, take potshots from various convenient hiding places.

“Groucho Marx, taking his potshots, is the quintessential cat. If a canine becomes too officious, a cat is always there to flick his cigar and wiggle his eyebrows. Although dogs do not understand cats, cats understand dogs all too well.

“Interestingly, although almost all politicians are dogs, the most effective religious evangelists are cats. They don’t actually believe the piffle they spout, but get a great deal of pleasure from persuading listeners to line up behind them, cheering (and sending money).

“Or rather, the cat believes what he is saying as he says it. It is just that tomorrow, he can say something else. I’m thinking of Marjoe Gortner, for instance, or Lyndon Larouche. ‘A foolish consistency,’ they rejoinder.

“A true cat will really enjoy making one argument now, then switching hats or podiums, proving himself wrong in the next breath. The pleasure is in the arguing, not the results. Strife is the natural order of things.

“This makes dogs very, very uncomfortable. For the dog, arguments are proof that the world is out of balance. Equilibrium must be restored: The two sides in a dispute must work it out, so the truth will prevail and peace — the dog’s natural order of things — will reemerge.

“The dichotomy is at the bottom of some of the most familiar cultural pairings we know. Benjamin Franklin, with his “early to bed, early to rise,” was a dog; Thomas Jefferson, with his house filled with maps and stuffed elk, inventive contraptions and lack of heat, was a cat. It takes a cat to say ‘All men are created equal,’ while owning slaves and fathering children with them.hemingway faulkner dyad

“Tolstoy was a dog; Dostoevsky was a cat. Hemingway went woof woof; Faulkner, meow.

“If you have ever wondered why some old sayings seem to contradict others — ‘Opposites attract’ vs. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ — it’s because one is true for dogs, the other for cats.

“Even the proverbs that cats repeat, sitting around a cracker-barrel in an old Vermont store, bear this out.

–”The dog sees not the same tree the cat sees.

–”The hours of a dog are measured by the clock; but of a cat, no clock can measure.

–”If a cat would persist in his folly he would become wise; a persistent dog becomes the village idiot.

–”One law for the dog and the cat is oppression.

“Cats have a built-in sense of the ultimate void and how much fun it can be.

“The very earliest organized philosophies broke down along these lines. Plato was a cat. Even now, you can never know for sure when he actually believes some of the hogwash he comes up with. Aristotle, on the other hand was the very model of a dog. ‘Let’s make lecture notes.’

“Of course, just as with Yeats’ A Vision, there are wheels inside wheels, all spinning on their own doggie-cat axis. Yeats expands his vision to include not just personality types, but all of history. Well, my dogs and cats does the same.

“The ancient Greeks were cats, proving with logic, when it amused them, that it was impossible for anything to exist. Romans were dogs: They invented concrete and designed plumbing.

“The Renaissance was a quintessentially dog era, the Baroque that followed it was all cat. Modernism barked, Postmodernism meows. wayne-nicholson dyad

“Nothing makes my case better than concrete examples. Think John Wayne and Jack Nicholson. Both fine actors, each in his way — think of The Searchers — but I think there is little doubt who is the dog in this pair. Your reaction is instantaneous. You don’t need to explain: It just is.”

“Yes,” said Genevieve. “Like Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

“Of course,” said Stuart, “That’s why Biden will never be president.”

“What do you mean?” asked my wife. “A cat can never be president? What about Bill Clinton?”

“You got me there,” Stuart said. “But that is a reversal of the pairing. Clinton was a cat and Al Gore was pure dog. These pairings make clear the dog-cat dyad, the paradigm.Martin Luther King

“Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Dog and cat,” I said.

“It can become a party game,” Stuart said. “Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.”braque picasso dyad

“Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso,” Genevieve said.

“Perfect.”

“Mahler and Bruckner,” she said.

“For years, the nation divided between doggie Jay Leno and cat-man David Letterman,” Stuart said.

“Well, until Letterman lost his cat license,” I said. “He’s gotten kind of doggie in his later years.”

“See, what a profitable lens this is for understanding the world?” Stuart said.

“It explains the difference between Obama and Putin,” Genevieve said.

“And between Andrew Wyeth and Andy Warhol; between George Burns and Gracie Allen…”

“And between Fidel Castro today and Castro 50 years ago,” Genevieve said.

“Between Jane Pauley and Garry Trudeau.”

“When it comes to marriage, a dog can be happy married to a dog,” Stuart said. “But a cat can be happy married to either a cat or a dog. There is fun either way. matalin carville dyadThink Mary Matalin and James Carville. But you see, there is a built-in paradox. How many marriages do you know where one party is happy and the other isn’t? The reason, I tell you, is always the same: One dog, one cat.

“Two cats mated can be happy briefly. But such marriages don’t tend to last. Think of a Hollywood marriage and you pretty much get the picture. Variety is not just an ideal for a cat, but a way of life.

“Of course, the arts are heavy with cats, just as the field of accounting is not. You don’t last long at H.&R. Block if you believe arithmetic is a matter of opinion.

“At bottom, we need both animals in the world. You need the dogs to make life possible; you need cats to make it worth living.”

Stuart brought out a flan and a well-used bottle of amontillado and asked if anyone wanted a cigar. Genevieve was the only taker, but then declined. She said she was giving up smoking again. Ninth time. One more and she got a free sandwich at Subway.



Monticello reflected

There are few homes in the world that more exactly describe the minds and personalities of their owners than Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The most contradictory personality of America’s early years created for himself a building of contradictions. It is a tiny mansion; it is Spartanly Baroque; and it is a slave-run plantation that verily sings of the dignity of the free man. Jefferson, himself, recognized much of the tumult of his mind.

He was an uncomfortable cross between the 18th-century man of the enlightenment and the emerging 19th-century man of sentiment. So he built a measured, proportioned Palladian home and filled it with moose antlers.

There was in Jefferson both the love of order and reason and the love of wild nature. It is perhaps these warring sentiments that give his home such a special place in the American imagination.

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His home, of course, is Monticello, a 5,000-acre estate near Charlottesville, Va. You probably have a picture of it in your pocket right now — on the back of a nickel. Take a look at it: a classic Greek portico, complete with Doric columns, under a Roman dome and extended on both sides by Renaissance windows. It has a refined symmetry as you see it from the front, or rather from its more familiar west front, for Jefferson gave it two fronts, one in the west, facing his lawn and flower garden, and a second in the east facing its carriage road. It was the east front that visitors first saw on arriving.

Either front is perfectly ordered.

But seen from either of its intervening sides, Monticello loses that symmetry and becomes oddly unbalanced. The famous dome is no longer in the center of the building but lopped over to the one side.

And it becomes apparent that the house, divided into thirds, has its middle third slipped like a rock fault, to the West. Like its owner, you look at it one way and you see one thing, but look at it another way and a second aspect, less easily understood, appears.

monticello side viewJefferson built his home on a mountaintop so he could see the Blue Ridge in the distance. He designed it combining his love of geometry and gadgetry with the French details he had seen as an emissary to France in the 1780s. In its combination of influences and the idiosyncratic overlay of Jefferson’s mind, Monticello may lay claim to being the first truly American house of any importance built in the newly created nation. It is part classical, part crackpot.

The classical side can be found in the columns and friezes; the crackpot in the way he used each of the classical orders in different rooms, here a Corinthian column, here an Ionic, so that you get an uplifting art-history education as you take the house tour.

There are other oddities. There are only two closets in the whole house: one in the guest bedroom and a second hidden in a second-story loft above his bedroom, where he stored his out-of-season clothes. That closet is open to three oblong ”portholes” that hang in the air above Jefferson’s bed. The bed, too, is odd. It is built into the wall between his bedroom and study, or ”cabinet,” as he called it.

Monticello Entrance HallHe loved gadgetry and built dumbwaiters into the molding of one of his fireplaces. He has a revolving-door Lazy Susan for delivering food to the dining room quietly and efficiently. There is a weather vane with an arrow that rotates on the ceiling of his porch and a seven-day clock that doesn’t quite fit into the space he wanted, so he had to cut holes in the floor to make room for the clock weights.

There are no windows in the third floor; all its illumination comes through skylights. And Jefferson hated to waste space with stairs, so he had them shunted off to the recesses of the house, and further saved space by making the stairways barely wide enough for one person to climb at a time. One has to wonder how he ever managed to get the mattresses up to the second-floor bedrooms. The narrow treads and high risers mean that modern-day visitors cannot visit the upstairs; they don’t meet code.

On the third floor, there are a few unheated bedrooms and the great octagonal Dome Room, which was a favorite inspiration to Jefferson but which proved so inconvenient it was relegated to storage.

One shouldn’t make too much of the bedrooms being unheated. Jefferson, in the Franklinesque practical half of his personality, rarely heated any room until the temperature was officially below the freezing point. ”Waste not, want not” — you can hear the line from Poor Richard’s Almanac.

But neither should one make too much of the oddity of the building. As with its creator, the building’s overwhelming impression is one of nobility, of something made with a higher purpose in mind. It is as if the house is the embodiment of the Spartan virtues necessary to create a new nation, a new political system, a new national sensibility out of whole cloth.

Jefferson wrote intensely if ambiguously of his own bifurcated personality in a famous love letter that he penned as a widower to the married Maria Cosway. It is a fierce debate, written in dialogue between his head and heart in 4,000 words and in which neither side can achieve victory.

But in that letter, written in France to the Italian wife of an English painter, he finds time to talk of his beloved American home. It is not head but heart that speaks:

”Dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye? Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we ride above the storms. How sublime snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet. And the glorious sun, when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of the mountains and giving life to all nature.”

jefferson and hamilton

I lament the loss of the republic. Like the Roman senators under the emperors, who longed for the halcyon time before Julius Caesar, I long for the good old days when we had a republic in these United States.

For all the prating about democracy, and our current boilerplate pieties about the “will of the people,” it should be remembered that our Founding Fathers never intended that we should be a democracy. They feared democracy.

That is why they carefully crafted a republic.

The Romans and I lament the loss of the republic from opposite ends of the governance spectrum, but we lament nonetheless. Yes, just as Rome under the Claudians and Antonines maintained a certain hypocritical observance of the forms of the republic while the realpolitik was despotism, the United States maintains the observance of certain republican relics — like the Electoral College — while in reality giving over ourselves to mob rule.

“We are now forming a republican government,” wrote Alexander Hamilton during the debates of the Federal Convention in 1787. “Real liberty is neither found in despotism or in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

And we wrote republicanism into our Constitution, giving the people the right to choose their leaders. The expectation was that these elected leaders would govern us. Instead, over the past 200 years, there has been an erosion of that idea into one where the people have come to micromanage. We vote or voice out about every single issue that comes up with the odd self-assurance that any regular Joe can know and understand complex issues as well as the thoughtful and educated people who have studied them for years.

It’s as if we elbowed Steve Jobs out of his position at Apple and let the assembly-line workers make the corporate and financial decisions. Jobs was a leader for a reason. We expect talent at the head of our businesses, we expect them to know more than we can possible know about the particularities of their fields. They are hired to know what we cannot: Specialists, not generalists.

So, leaders no longer lead. We complain about it all the time, yet in fact, when it comes to politics, we don’t want our leaders to lead. We want them to follow. To follow public opinion. If this week we want English as an “official language,” then, bigod, we’ll have it. If next week we want something else, then we’ll change once more. American history is fraught with the warnings of this.

There was a time, if constitutional republicanism hadn’t won out, that American voters would have outlawed Roman Catholicism. We would have prevented the Irish from immigrating. The majority has scant respect for minority rights. And how many times in the past decade has some group discovered that if given the chance, most Americans would revoke the First Amendment? And if Lyndon Johnson hadn’t actually led, but had instead followed the vox populi, we still might not have a voting rights act.

John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1815, “The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor.”

It is instead with thoughtful, careful, prudent people that we should hope to entrust our governance. Admittedly, educated people are quite capable of stupidity. It was the “best and the brightest,” after all, who got us into Vietnam in the first place. But stupid half the time is an improvement on stupid all the time. If we leave government to momentary passion and popular prejudice, we will always be stupid as a people. At least the “aristocracy of merit” that Thomas Jefferson foresaw has the chance to lower the percentage of egregiousness in our governance.

“There is a natural aristocracy among men,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “The grounds of this are virtue and talents.” That idea has faded into a lumpen and ignorant interpretation of his “all men are created equal,” as though you or I could play point guard for the Chicago Bulls, or build a moon rocket in our garage or write good law.

In a republic, we hire the best people to spend their time understanding just such things. In a democracy, such as we pretend to have now, our leaders need know nothing, as long as they do what we tell them in this week’s Gallup Poll, and change it all over again next week.