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Patriotic attachments

Guest commentary

Jefferson's letter to Cabell is one of the fullest elaborations of his federal theory (the other is another 1816 letter, to Samuel Kercheval). Advocates of "strong" or "participatory" democracy invoke these letters, usually acknowledging that they refer to local self-government in what Jefferson calls "ward republics," but without grasping the fuller implications of Jeffersonian federalism. I'd like to emphasize an apparent paradox. On one hand, the participation he envisions is strongest where its objects are most limited, ending up with "the administration of every man's farm by himself."

Yet the patriotic attachments that participation fosters transcend the farmer's farm (or the planter's plantation), moving upward through Jefferson's federal republic, from ward to county, state, and the union as a whole. The localist becomes a nationalist: "he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte." To put the paradox in familiar contemporary terms, "acting locally" enables citizen-patriots to think and feel globally -- or at least "nationally." This is what makes the United States the "strongest Government on earth," as Jefferson claims in his first inaugural address.

But there may be a sleight of hand here: as we move downward, toward the farm or plantation, participation becomes stronger and more active; moving the other way, the citizen is less and less an agent, more and more a subject. The nation is strong precisely because the patriot willingly sacrifices himself in its behalf: self-government demands self-obliteration.

The question we might consider today is: do the "new media" that appear to have been so important in mobilizing support for Obama significantly affect the dynamic I'm describing? Can there be meaningful citizen participation at higher levels of governance?

PETER ONUF is Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the 2008-09 Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History at the University of Oxford.

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