To Leave or to Take? How Thomas Jefferson’s and Alexander Hamilton’s Influences Still Resonate in the World Today.
By: Knox Robinson
As an Anthropology student I have had the recent opportunity of looking at the world’s problems that I am used to seeing from a Political Science, or Sociology lens. In my Cultural & Social Anthropology class we read the book Ishmael, by author Daniel Quinn. The book highlights differences in culture from an ecological aware standpoint. The author, Quinn, highlights what he calls “Taker” and “Leaver” culture.
In this paper, I hope to use these two terms to highlight different schools of ideology when it comes to problems that we face in the contemporary world. These problems include; environmental, economic, social injustice and human rights, consumption patterns, population growth, and warfare. I will examine the problems of the modern world through the lens of taker and leaver culture, while also examining the philosophical and ideological differences of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. I know what the differences between the two are, as I am sure that you, the reader do also, but I would like to highlight their differences to explain the founding of the United States of America, and the path that the United States has taken as a country. Building on that I hope to explain how the path America has taken has played a role in the problems our world faces.
I will be examining the United States from the looking glass of “American Exceptionalism”; a term I will explain to much greater and complete detail later on. It is an idea that I became very familiar with when taking an American Experience class at LaGrange College, where I was exposed to the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville. In layman’s terms the idea of American exception is our nation having a superiority complex, whether that feeling of superiority is deserved or whether it is sure arrogance. For instance the United States President is frequently referred to as the leader of the free world, and it is almost an American value to assume that the United States is far superior to any country on the face of the planet.
But the question is, is this a good thing? Is the world a better place because of the role that the United States plays? We are always taught that this is indeed the case. But then again enlightened people know that the winners write the history books. Which is why the first source I sought out was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn describes the founding of America as something different than what your basic Fifth Grade textbook describes it as. Zinn does not write from the point of view of the elites of the winning side, but rather from the viewpoint of the people, the masses, the sufferers, the people who fought to make our country, and our world a better place for everyone, not just the people at the top.
I believe that understanding the role of Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s differences as a starting point in the direction our world has taken is the key to making our world a better place. I believe that these two much esteemed men represented a new battle in taker vs. leaver culture, and that their respected differences continue to be a profound impact on our contemporary world.
Section One: Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael”
In 1992, Daniel Quinn wrote a very influential novel, which is titled Ishmael. In this novel, Quinn touches on the themes of cultural mythology, thoughtful ethics, and sustainability/ecological awareness.
The cultural mythology concept was a new one for me the first time I read Ishmael. Whenever I hear the word mythology the first thought that comes into my mind is Poseidon or Hades that is not what Quinn was describing. Quinn described mythology as the story that we are born into (Quinn, Ishmael, 35). Quinn’s novel utilizes a Socratic Dialogue between the main characters. In this dialogue Quinn strives to deconstruct the notion that humans are the end of the creation story; that we have a right to use and abuse the earth, and the animals in it to better our life. According to Quinn, we are in captivity to our own stories and mythology, and have been put there by the culture we are born into (Quinn, Ishmael, 37). I very much connected to this novel early on because I have always felt captive to something bigger than myself and have felt that I had been lied to in some capacity. I just did not think that the world around us was created to be destroyed for our own gain. I never thought that animals’ purpose was to be inhumanely slaughtered and mistreated for the use of mankind. I felt like I was being held captive to the ideology that I was superior, like I was being drug along by a powerful undertow.
The character of Ishmael, for whom the novel is named, defines some of the terms that are prevalent throughout the novel. The novel describes the struggle between “takers” and “leavers” since the Agricultural Revolution that took place in the Fertile Crescent area of ancient Mesopotamia. This “story” is a intertwining relationship between the earth, mankind, and the deity's or deity that people believe in. This story has a beginning, middle, and end. We “enact” this story when we try, and succeed in trying to make this story come to pass. The groups of people whom enact a story comprise “culture.”
The story enacted by the takers is this, that they are the peak of the evolution pyramid. That the Earth was made solely for mankind, and that mankind’s sole purpose is to conquer and rule the world. As if the Earth is mankind’s enemy. This system of belief is meant to bring about a heaven on earth type paradise, as mankind increases their mastery of the world (Quinn, Ishmael, 81). However mankind is always failing because people are flawed. This story asserts that the knowledge of how to truly live life is out of the reach of mankind, which is why, in the character of Ishmael’s perspective that organized religions arose, and explains why Taker culture has always been reliant on the teachings of prophets like Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad, just to name a few (Quinn, Ishmael, 85). So, however hard humans labor to save the world, they are just going to go on defiling and spoiling it. Which is to say, no matter how hard mankind labors to save the earth, it will never happen, because we will just go on destroying it.
But this way of thinking is invalid. It is invalid because the Takers gathered only the evidence of their own culture’s history, which is not near enough to base an assumption that mankind is helpless to stop environmental destruction and human rights abuse (Quinn, Ishmael, 83). Mankind is not helpless, nor are we unable to save the world, we just have not done it yet. Partly because of the cultural mythology that holds people captive into believing that mankind is flawed to the point where a paradise on this planet is unobtainable. The quote from the novel that best sums up this line of thinking is this...
"There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now."
(Quinn, Ishmael, 84)
The idea of being ground in religious practices, such as that of Judeo-Christian faiths seem to almost be under fire by the author, Quinn, because of the role that they play in holding human civilization captive in cultural mythology. As in the quote, “We don’t need prophets to tell us how to live; we can find out for ourselves by consulting what’s actually there.” (Quinn, Ishmael, 96). It seems from this that Quinn is of the opinion that us as humans should be more practical about our values, and beliefs, instead of allowing ourselves to be swept up in the story.
Contrary to the belief of Taker Culture, there are certain laws of life that life on earth is subject is to, and we can see these laws in the natural world around us (Quinn, Ishmael, 105). One of the key laws that Taker Culture ignores is what Quinn dubbed “The Law of Limited Competition” (Quinn, Ishmael, 129). The summary of this law is that living beings may compete for survival, but if they harm another being’s pursuit of food, shelter, or the way in which they live life, they are in violation of this law. Mankind may compete, but may not wage war. Species that wage war on others eventually go instinct, but as with all of the immutable laws, Taker Culture openly, and blatantly ignores, and flouts their ignorance at every chance (Quinn, Ishmael, 118).
It is apparent to me that whatever mankind does to the environment and the animals living on this planet, they will eventually do to other humans; whether it is slavery, murder, or just the belief that our life is above that of others. That being said, the root of all evil started with the Taker Culture belief that we, as human beings are superior life forms (Quinn, Ishmael, 120).
Quinn proposes that the Agricultural Revolution was actually a revolution against the story of the leavers. Leaver Culture takes only what they need to survive, “leaving” the rest alone, for others. Quinn refers to this way of life as “living in the hands of the gods”; because under this way of life, evolution can actually take place, with leavers dwindling in times of scarcity and thriving in times of abundance. Quinn asserts that the Agricultural Revolution was not just a change in agricultural techniques, but serves as a function of mythology. When we are able to build surpluses of food we can diminish the power of the gods in that we can survive when the gods decide it is time for us to do without and die off.
As I already stated leavers live in “the hands of the gods” (Quinn, Ishmael, 229). This means that they live under the conditions where evolution takes place. Since takers believe that man has ended evolution it became imperative for them to enact a story in which we end the process of evolution. Quinn has pointed out that tribal “uncivilized” societies live in the manner of leavers, but established “civilized” societies live in the manner of takers. Taker Culture has attempted and is succeeding in putting an end to creation. “The premise of the Taker story is the world belongs to man...The premise of the Leaver story is that man belongs to the world” (Quinn, Ishmael, 239), in the exact same manner that birds, fish, or anything else does. For millions of years mankind lived in this manner, belonging to the world, and because man lived in this manner, mankind grew and evolved, changed gradually over time and became ever more enlightened. Until the day man became so enlightened that they decided that they no longer live this way, and that mankind was the master of life.
Towards the end of the book, Quinn outlines what must be done to save the world. The first is that we must realize that leavers are the most valuable endangered species. Not just because they are humans, but because they have the knowledge to reverse the ills that plague human civilization, and have the ability to teach the takers that there is another way to live, one that does not involve destruction. The second is that mankind must consciously forfeit the knowledge that we have the right to decide who or what lives, and who or what dies.
If the world is indeed to be saved I believe something else must occur, and that is a change of motivation. People must not be made to feel guilty, or scolded, or be made to see a vision of the world being destroyed. Instead we must realize a vision in which we begin to make this world better, and truly believe that we have the capability of doing so. We must escape the bondage in which we believe that we are helpless in enacting positive change, and come to the realization that change starts with the person we see in the mirror, and all work towards that.
Section Two: The American Role
It is certainly easy to think about the United States of America and identify with this country being a paradigm in human history. A nation that was founded on a new land by outsiders; a dominant society largely comprised of those of Western European descent, and a working class of indigenous peoples from the Americas, and slave labor brought in from the continent of Africa. Revolutions occurred, power was wrestled away from the colonizing countries, and a new nation was formed. But how “new” was this new country?
According to famed historian Howard Zinn, not much of a Revolution occurred. In fact he names chapter five of his book, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present, “A Kind of Revolution” (Zinn, A People’s History, 77), which really sets the tone for the story he tells.
Zinn not only covers the American Revolution, but resistance to participating in said war. As the war, and transition of power that was a result of the war did not benefit a large number of people, Zinn even quotes John Adams, stating that only one third of people living in the colonies actually supported the war (Zinn, A People’s History, 77.) To connect Zinn’s thoughts of America’s founding with Quinn’s thoughts of Taker and Leaver culture I assert that the founding of the United States was just a transition power of one group of elites to another, one group of Takers to the next. I believe this opinion is summed up by Zinn’s quoting of Charles Beard; Mr. Beard warned that “...governments - including the government of the United States - are not neutral, that they represent the dominant economic interests, and that their constitutions are intended to serve these interests” (Zinn, A People’s History, 98).
Despite the legacy of the American Revolution, the way of life for majority of the people living in the continental United States did not change, and many inequalities that existed under European rule of the colonies continued to exist in the new nation. The plight of Native Americans only worsened, as the practice of inhumanely removing them from their land, and the violence and murder against those that resisted began after the United States was established (Zinn, A People’s History, 86). In the deep south, more African Americans were put into slavery, as the southern planter elite benefited from the Revolution (Zinn, A People’s History, 88).
So in all actuality, there was not a whole lot that was new in this new nation. Taker culture just moved from Western Europe, to North America. Leaver societies were steam rolled, and the ecology and biological life on this new continent would pay the price. One reason for this may be that the general idea echoed through the religious, and scientific principles of the United States around the time of its founding was that mankind, most notably dominant societies had the right and privilege to exercise their dominance over indigenous societies and the natural ecology.
The history of America is marred by the inhumane and unethical treatments of the disenfranchised, by those with wealth and power. Especially with the way the Indigenous Americans were treated by those of migrant descent. In a speech given by Chief Seattle (whom city of Seattle was named) in 1854 to a collection of tribes preparing to sign their land away to the United States government, the chief warned against the presence of Taker cultures into the land that has traditionally belonged to Native, Leaver cultures. Chief Seattle describes them as this; “...he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, it’s his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children...His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a dessert” (Maybury-Lewis, “On the Importance of Being Tribal”, 396). David Maybury-Lewis sums it up like this; “Whether human dominion was guaranteed by the Bible or by Science, the result was the same - the natural world was ours to exploit” (Maybury-Lewis, “On the Importance of Being Tribal”, 394). This is eerily similar to Quinn’s assertions that our cultural beliefs are favoring this trend of destruction from the hands of a dominant taker culture.
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If problems are the result of established, powerful, societies carelessly rolling over passive, less advanced ones, where does this come from? What can we pin point as a reason for this trend? I believe that in the case of America's role in the world's problems, we can point to the idea that America is exceptional, which is commonly referred to as American exceptionalism.
But what does this term actually mean? It does not actually mean superiority, but the uses of it by American Conservatives and Neo-Conservatives have caused that to be it's chief connotation (Lipset, American Exceptionalism, 197). They have caused the theory to move towards that of the United States as the proverbial mountain peak (Koh, "America's Jekyll-and-Hyde Exceptionalism”, 117); acting as if America is exempt from the things that have ruined societies in the past. The idea that the United States is of higher quality than other nations stems from America having its own unique ideology and from its revolutionary beginning. American values that contribute to the theory that America is exceptional are; individualism, populism, and egalitarianism, which were described by writer Alexis de Tocqueville, as he said "The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one" (Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 36).
There are several reasons as to why American exceptionalism rose to be a theory. One of the main reasons is that America provided a nation that was liberated from some of the corruption and problems that plagued European countries around the time of The American Revolution. The idea that power should reside with the people as opposed to a hierarchical ruling class provides a basis for the belief that America is exceptional.
This theory is expressed by Thomas Paine’s manifesto, Common Sense, which for the first time outlined the idea of American Exceptionalism, in that there should be pride in a new nation, because it was different than the scene that was Europe; that there should be a sense of pride about a nation that matured and grew apart from the Mother Country. That in this sense of something new, there lied unlimited potential for prosperity for the new nation (Paine, “Common Sense”). Through this came the ideas of Republicanism, which served as the chief source of pride in the revolutionary aspect of American exceptionalism, because the idea that power lied not with the ruling class, but with the citizens of that nation were very revolutionary, even if they did not quite execute their ideology.
To go back to the idea of a group of people seeking to enact a story, Christianity in the new country and American exceptionalism are closely related to one another. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson fought valiantly to make sure that there would be a wall of separation between the new republic and religion, which was different from the nations of Europe, which practiced forms of state religion; which further enhances the idea that America is an innovator in the idea of personal freedom. This is what led to the idea of Manifest Destiny, or the idea that God had a special purpose for this new nation, which of course would mean that the United States was destined for greatness (Kidd, God of Liberty, 9).
Thomas Jefferson expressed and added to the views of American exceptionalism, which were prevalent in this time. In the words of Jefferson, America would be the world’s “Empire of Liberty”. Most of today’s thoughts on American exceptionalism favor the side of the down-pressor, the established power, but the views of it from men like Jefferson, Paine, and Tocqueville were different. They saw it as an intellectual, spiritual, and philosophical break from the ills of European societies. So in America, I believe that men such as these saw a chance to start a new way of life in a new land, a chance to leave Taker culture on the other side of the Atlantic, and create a new path for the world. Jefferson saw the founding of America as a chance to make a revolutionary break from the traditions and beliefs that a ruling family could exercise power over a nation of people, he saw it as a chance to form an isolationist nation of pacifist farmers as opposed to a mercantilist nation that relies on foreign diplomacy. Jefferson saw the United States as a model and example of republicanism, a lighthouse that shines out for the lost people of the world. Jefferson envisioned America as a positive role model to the world to show that the European systems which promoted “reason of state”, that advocates a Machiavellian means justify the measures type philosophy was inferior to a virtuous republic. Jefferson had faith that America would become a great “empire of liberty” that would drive out governing systems that were geared towards the needs of a ruling family over the needs of the people (Hendrickson and Tucker, Empire of Liberty, ix). The quote from Jefferson that best sums this up was an excerpt from a letter written by him in 1809.
“Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depositary of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, whence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.”
(Jefferson, Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, 8691)
Whether or not a person views American exceptionalism as a positive thing, or a negative, one cannot discredit the idea that the United States is a unique paradigm in human history. With this sense of being unique comes power and responsibility. But how has our nation done with that? How has the path the Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton set us on influenced this nation, and the world we live in today?
Section Three: Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton
Progressing along our line of thought, we arrive to the idea of Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, and how their differing ideologies have influenced American life, and life around the world. These two men basically caused a chasm in American political philosophy. You could almost say that because of Jefferson’s views we have “blue”, and because of Hamilton’s views we have “red”; even though Jefferson’s quotes and beliefs have been used for advantage in Republican politics. But that is not what is being discussed, the reason that we have arrived at these two are that I believe the founding of the United States as a nation, and the role that this country has played in the world represent a struggle between Taker and Leaver cultures.
I am prone to say off the top that Thomas Jefferson represents the Leavers, and Hamilton, the Takers. But that would not be completely accurate. Both of them belong to Taker society, as they were descended from European immigrants on a new continent, practicing dominance over less technologically developed societies. However Jefferson’s views, philosophy, and lifestyle was geared towards that of Leaver culture, whilst that of Hamilton were significantly more in-tune with Taker culture.