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The Aristocracy of Wealth and Thomas Jefferson

Updated on October 22, 2011
The Palace at Versailles
The Palace at Versailles

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the aristocracy of wealth is harmful and dangerous to society as a whole; one can't but agree with him:

" annul this privilege, and instead of the aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger, than benefit, to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, and scattered with equal hand through all it's conditions, is essential to a well-ordered republic."

Thomas Jefferson wrote those words in a letter to John Adams, in 1813. One of the things that was most abhorrent to our founding fathers was the European aristocracy, and the lack of opportunities for people to rise above the station in life to which they were born. Our founding fathers had a very radical vision of our new Republic: first, it was self-governed by the people; second, the both government and law were no respecters of persons; everyone was equal under the law and to the eyes of the government.

Thomas Jefferson perceived the European aristocracy as hopelessly corrupt; what Jefferson wanted to see was a government formed by the people and those elected to government to be the most meritous citizens; not the most powerful or richest; and especially not simply the people who owned all the land, as in bygone times in Europe and England.

Thomas Jefferson , in his letter to John Adams, sneers scornfully at the "artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without a shadow of talent nor virtue." He goes on to say that he perceives some people to belong to the "natural aristocracy" and lists these natural advantages of those people:

  • virtue
  • talents
  • strength
  • politeness
  • wisdom
  • learning
  • good humour
  • beauty

Jefferson goes on to say that it would be unlikely of our Creator to "have formed man for the social state, and not provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society". Jefferson believed that we should look for our leaders amongst that "natural aristocracy".

Jefferson was no snob, as some historians claim. He outlined a proviso for giving everyone enough educational opportunities, so that, no matter what the circumstances of a person's birth, the "natural aristocrats" would have the opportunity to rise to the fore in society, business and government.

The signing of the Constitution of the United States of America
The signing of the Constitution of the United States of America

What has happened to the quite simple and very idealistic dream of our founding fathers? It seems, in America, rather than an artificial aristocracy of birth, such as persisted for so many centuries in Europe, what has been substituted is an aristocracy of wealth. All the time, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This has been the national trend for decades past.

There seems to be fewer and fewer opportunities for a person with natural talents, virtue and wisdom, to rise to the peaks of society, government or business. Even though there are some amazing success stories, they belong (mostly) to America's past. And I wonder, even then, what that person actually did to make their first million. Did they behave with "virtue"? Or were they canny and ruthless opportunists? How did they succeed, initially? The legendary Getty fortune, the Vanderbilt fortune, the Rockefeller fortune...the did those people get their start?

It seems to me, in our government today, the wealthy special interests or corporate interests are much more than adequately represented, at the expense of the common man or woman. Somehow, this idealistic dream of Thomas Jefferson's has been corrupted. We now have that most dreaded thing, a ruling aristocracy of wealth.

Though I highly respect President Obama's efforts on behalf of the people of the United States of America, in these troubled times, I also wonder if he is in touch with the real problems the common man/woman is experiencing now...President Obama's last tax return listed his taxable income as a little over 1 million dollars. In one year. That, alone, puts President Obama right in with the aristocracy of wealth, though I believe, at least initially, President Obama's heart was in the right place.

Maybe there really is some impulse in society to separate itself into a pyramid shape, with the privileged few at the top, resting on the backs of the lower orders. Maybe there is some undeniable natural event, over time, in any human society, for it to shape itself into these seemingly unfair layers.

I do know that however repulsive the aristocracy of wealth, or of birth, is, in theory--the actuality of it is fascinating to someone who isn't so privileged. I followed "Lives of the Rich and Famous" when it was on TV, I blushingly admit! I loved the Royals in England and that glamorous wedding! I thought the whole thing simply thrilling! I've read about so many Victorian and Edwardian giants of the aristocracy, and their peculiar and lavish lifestyles, with awe and some species of greed. I fantasize on what I would do if I won the Lotto.

Underneath it all, I know I should know better. There is a better way. That pyramid shape, with the aristocracy of wealth at the top, is no good model for society as a whole.


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    • profile image

      Sky Masterson 

      4 years ago

      You're raising an interesting point, but it's worth reading the entire debate that Adams raised with Jefferson on this point. The core difference in their political philosophies was Adams believed that birth, wealth , and beauty were ultimately the more important pillars of aristocracy. Jefferson - being ever the idealist - believed that the United States could be a country where talent and virtue were rewarded.

      Adams was the smarter man. Birth wealth and beauty are the more powerful determinants of our natural aristocracy no matter how much we wish otherwise. Look at the celebrity power that the beautiful and the rich have versus our scientists and the virtuous? It is simply human nature, it always has been, and it always will be. To quote Adams - "what philosopher would not marry his children off to a rich family"

      The more logical solution would have been to listen to Adams and create a system where the beautiful, wealthy, and well-born were taught to be virtuous and talented. Unfortunately that is not what the country is today. You don't get into Harvard by being good-looking, even though it would be extremely logical for this to be the case, according to Adams.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Excellent comment, JamaGenee! (I'm sorry, I think I got your avatar name wrong on a previous acknowledgement! Please forgive me.) I couldn't agree more, or have said it better myself. That was exactly my point. You appear to be my "perfect reader"!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Glad you mentioned the pyramid. What those at the top level don't grasp is that lofty perch is *totally* dependent on the strength and stability of all the levels below it. Wealth derives from below, it percolates UP from the bottom, not down from the top. By undermining the middle class and working poor by sending jobs overseas (or eliminating them altogether) the uber-rich are destroying the structural integrity of the very economic system that keeps them "above" the unwashed masses.

      Refusing to acknowledge this simple fact will be their undoing. That same "let them eat cake" attitude is what brought about the French revolution.

    • SweetiePie profile image


      7 years ago from Southern California, USA

      It is unfortunate that even the most idealistic among us often are bought into the gentlemen's club. At first people are idealistic and want to have opportunities for the common people, but later they decide "Hey I do not want to tax the most wealthy among us, especially since I am now part of that club."

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks so much, epi.

      I was just thinking--maybe the twist at the end could be the victim LIVES!!! (Just to keep your readers guessing! Plus, I can't help it, I feel sorry for the person in the trunk.)

    • epigramman profile image


      7 years ago

      ...thank you for all of your history lessons and how you put them together in such a world class way for your readers to enjoy ......

      lake erie time 4:25 pm

      and epi's crime spree days may be over - lol, and now back to the funny stuff or the lovey dovey stuff ......

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Oh, that is so true, Gypsy

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 

      7 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      A lot of times the man on the lower rung has a heart of pure gold and the man on the top rung has one that is black as coal. Very interesting piece.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      An interesting take on things, here, American Romance. We agree on some things but not all. I don't want to start a big argument, or anything, but I do know for a fact that your average wage earner pays a MUCH higher percentage of his/her income in income taxes than those with unearned income from accrued wealth. That's how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer--those legislating the tax laws and other laws have the special interests of the wealthy in mind.

    • American Romance profile image

      American Romance 

      7 years ago from America

      rich get richer and the poor get poorer? You have serioius flaws in your interpretation of Jefferson and facts in general! Owner of Facebook? and multi thousands more continue to get rich or wealthy in this country! There are more regulations and obstacles now than ever before but opportunity abounds! Many rich lose it all almost on a daily basis! If one had a million in the stock market over 2 weeks ago, simply add up what they have today!.................very little! Jefferson wanted EQUAL OPPORTUNITY! under the law! not read anything else into this! ..............and by the way, Jefferson was rich by all accounts!..........I have been in his home, not to mention he was a pervert and many of his younger slaves were red headed himself!

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Phil, the MAN! Thanks for the comment. I loved your piece on the 103 million dollars! I hate to say it, but isn't it our dream? Wouldn't everybody like to be the guy (or woman) at the top of the pyramid? That might just be what's really wrong--human nature. We can't deny it. Or, not for long!

      I still love, deep in my heart, those words of Thomas Jefferson, and that vision that started our country. How pure it was! We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and women!) are created equal...

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 

      7 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      I didn't know about Thomas Jefferson's socialist slant, thanks for sharing that. I've already told you what I would do with my 103 million dollars, but would I actually do that if I had it? Or would I succumb to the behaviours of the aristocratic wealthy? I'd love to be able to find out. Voted up and interesting.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      That really is true, Druid Dude. You can't get elected dogcatcher without some bucks in the bank. I think we've somehow lost sight of what is important, over time. Our founders seem to know more than we do now about an equitable society.

    • Druid Dude profile image

      Druid Dude 

      7 years ago from West Coast

      It is very telling that things have come in this country to a point which those with the bucks have the only real chance of being elected to higher office. Just to get the message out is a very costly undertaking. American voters are subjected to a capitalistic Shock and Awe, which only a very healthy bankroll can fuel. The days of paupers actually standing a chance are gone. The list of Yale and Harvard grads who have attained the office of POTUS is also telling. Governors of individual states running second, even they are tainted with the special interest money. T.J. is by far my fav founding father, and reports of his secular nature have been greatly exaggerated. Good hub...timely and well written. You tend to not disappoint! Peace

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you for the comment, prasetio. With a little practice, you may yet find your political voice. Your opinions and ideas are worth just as much as mine. I like a variety of opinions on topics like these; everyone's world view is different.

    • prasetio30 profile image


      7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      I love reading this hub and you open my eyes about this. I am not good enough in commenting political topic. Well done, my friend. Vote up and useful.


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