Thomas Jefferson to John Adams (October 28, 1813)
"I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly, bodily powers gave place among the aristoi [aristocrats]. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness, and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground for distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendency.?I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi [pseudoaristocrats], of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the really good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them, but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society."
What we have in the United States at the present time is a situation in which there exists, for all practical purposes, an artificial aristocracy that is based upon wealth and social status. The members of this aristocracy are no better than the rest of the citizenry, but they were lucky enough to have been born into privilege.
Our founding fathers were naturally suspicious of such hierarchies among citizens based upon socio-economic class distinctions. But they were also well versed in classical moral and political theory, and believed that, in fact, there existed natural differences among human beings. Jefferson and Adams, for example, believed in what they referred to as "a natural aristocracy among men" that was based upon the possession of talent and virtue. Some have it, they believed, and some don't.
Furthermore, they believed that it was in the interest of society as a whole for these natural
aristoi to be given the opportunity to rule their less gifted and less moral fellow citizens.
Naturally, we Americans prefer not to believe that some of us are just plan better than others. But that doesn't mean that such a natural aristocracy doesn't exist among us. And if it does exist, wouldn't we all be better off acknowledging this and getting out of the way of those who might actually be better able to lead society?
My question, therefore, is: Do you think that there is a natural aristocracy among human beings that is based upon the possession of talent and virtue? And, if so, what might the implications of such an idea be for the way we ought to organize political society?