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Thomas Jefferson Meets Hippies

18th Oct 2023 in

Thomas Jefferson Meets Hippies;
Thoughts on Agrarianism and Counter-Culture

by Kent Duryée
1670 Words

Individualism and communalism together form the basis for true democracy. In a truly democratic society, the strengths of each individual contribute to the benefit of the whole. In the Jeffersonian model of democracy especially, we see individuality entwined with the collective society. Each individual contributes his or her own skill to the community at large. In the "counter-culture" of the 1960's we see more of a democratic revival than a subversion of the democratic process. If there was something subverted, it was the entrenched status quo of the military-industrial-corporate machine that ran, and still runs, this country. Rather than being a capitulation to Marxism and/or Maoism, the counter-culture of the ’60s seemed to follow social reformer Jane Addams’ advice, "The best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy".

To begin with, Hippie counter-culture had four broad characteristics which coalesced to provide a foundation for the culture itself (Pringle, 1995):

  1. Demystification of technology and science
  2. Backlash against capitalism and materialism
  3. Search for meaning in terms other than capitalism or consumerism.
  4. Individual freedom stressed above all else.

First and foremost was a loss of faith in Rationalism. The idea that science and technology would solve society’s problems was brought into serious question. In the era of atomic bombs, bomb shelters, chemical poisoning of the environment, and a burgeoning military-techno-industrial state that threatened people around the globe, it became difficult to believe that science held the answers to all of humanity’s problems.

Second was a backlash against capitalism and materialism. It was through this backlash that communalism and anti-materialism arose as defining characteristics of the Hippie culture. Agrarian communes sprang up around the country, indeed, around the world, which functioned as small, for the most part self-sufficient, economies. While touted at the time as “Communism”, both by adherents and detractors, what we see through the lens of retrospect is an attempted return to the type of society which Jefferson foresaw; agriculturally-based communities and the “yeoman farmer.” This reach, probably not a conscious one on the part of the participants, toward more democratic independence was coupled of course with the trappings of the welfare state which provided much of the cash flow necessary for the day-to-day necessities of life in the form of cold, hard cash, or “bread”, through the auspices of the Federal Government.

Third, in the face of capitalism and mass-culture-oriented materialism, with planned obsolescence, advertising, and superficiality becoming the pillars of post-World War II American culture, Hippies began a search for a more meaningful life, one where individuality was valued above the collectivity of mass culture. This search can be seen in many facets of 60’s culture, from drug use to political involvement. Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, says of this search for meaning, “They mean it. Everything in everybody’s life is…significant. And everybody is alert, watching for the meanings” (Wolfe, 17). A little more bluntly, one of the Merry Pranksters, Ron Bevirt, known as “Hassler”, says, speaking of the young people of the 1960s in general, “ They’re off on their own freak…and it may not look like much, but they’re starting to transcend the bullshit. There’s this old trinity: Power, Position, Authority, and why should they worship these old gods and these old forms of authority?" (Wolfe, 20).

Finally, the Hippies strove for individual freedom at all costs. The “costume” of the ’60s, made up of long hair, ragged clothing, beads, or in fact no clothing at all, was an obvious attempt at expressing individuality and independence from the conventions and mores of popular culture, and to break away from the “conformist status quo of the fifties…” (Chapman, 2).

In the midst of all this individualism, though, how were the seemingly opposing poles of strict individuality and those of the collective lifestyle integrated? Jeffersonianism provides us with some clues to the dynamic behind this blending of ideologies. Jeffersonian thought is defined in the dictionary as:

Stressing minimum control by the central government, the inalienable rights of the individual, and the superiority of an agrarian economy and rural society.

So, Jeffersonianism can be seen as a societal model in which, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, we see not only a rationalistic model of society, (which the counter-culture would dismiss out-of-hand), but an organic, evolving society based on what Jefferson saw as the laws of nature, and how those laws acted upon the agrarian community of small farmers. Another definition may shed some light on the term "yeoman", which is often used when referring to Jeffersonian thought, and was his term for those land-holding farmers he saw around him in Virginia: “a farmer who cultivates his own land; one of a class of lesser freeholders, below the gentry, who cultivated their own land…”

The Hippies' distaste for bureaucracies and social institutions is mirrored in Jefferson’s thought regarding the decentralization of government. Benson says of Jefferson’s understanding of the natural and social worlds:

The species ‘man’ was to be understood in the context of nature, not in the context of social institutions, which were but imperfect human inventions. The objective of Jeffersonian social science was therefore not to work out a blueprint for society but to discover the plan implicit in nature, which…had been imbued with divinity. (Benson, 294)

Thus, with no blueprint per-se for Jeffersonianism, we are faced with a posthumous interpretation of Jefferson’s ideas, and so the stage is set for the interpretation of the Hippies in the 60’s. Nature’s implicit plan, a loving community that was usually simple and agrarian in nature, that believed in the divinity of nature, that made crafts and food products for re-sale, and had a fanatic desire to be rid of centralized social structure and power. These latter-day yeomen, then, were enfranchised to rebel in the face of the materialism of the post-World War II years, and they staged this revolution from the back woods and the city streets, be they in Haight-Ashbury, Nazgar’s Farm/Woodstock, or Central Europe.

Jeffersonianism was never thought of or suggested as the guiding light behind the entire counter-cultural movement of the 1960s, however, it is striking how many parallels exist between the two.

In considering the dissident point of view, which the counter-culture of the 60’s surely held, it is interesting to contrast Jefferson and James Madison on the question of democracy. Jefferson seemed to embrace the independence of the populace, which would encourage minority views, while Madison favored more rigid control by a powerful, central state. It is this Madisonian model that has become the dominant paradigm in the United States. Madison saw the Republic as a number of states aligned together which would then form a roadblock to any faction that was of a dissenting opinion. “The problem, he said, was how to control the factional struggles that came from inequalities in wealth. Minority factions could be controlled, he said, by the principle that decisions would be by vote of the majority” (Zinn, 96).

A good comparison of Madisonian and Jeffersonian ideals is found in Devall and Sessions' Deep Ecology, which is paraphrased here:

Madison, (Present Dominant Paradigm)

  • Centralized authority
  • Bureaucratized
  • Individualism
  • Competitive
  • More government regulation
  • Police

Jefferson, (Minority/Dissident Critique)

  • Decentralized, nonhierarchical
  • Democratic
  • Small-scale community
  • Local autonomy
  • Self-responsibility
  • Helping others; communalism
  • Self-regulation

Further reading of Devall and Sessions yields the following:

The essence of the [dissident] tradition is a self-regulating community…There are many examples of this persistent tradition in the United States. One is the revival of the household economy with groups of people (not always related by kinship or marriage) engaging in the process of raising some of their own food and practicing some spiritual tradition together…(Devall & Sessions, 20).

By using the majority as a tool to squelch the voice of the minority dissenters, self-responsibility and local autonomy were done away with by Madison and his adherents, and the stage was set for the eventual development of the corporate-controlled materialistic welfare state which the counter-culture would rebel against, beginning with the Beat Generation of the 1950s and early ’60s, and continuing on into the 60s with the Hippies, Woodstock, and the Summer of Love.

Not only does the counter-culture of the 1960’s harken back to Jefferson, the call of the Bohemian lifestyle and the dissenting view have their roots as far back in human history as can be reached. Diogenes, for example, pursued a life of “self-sufficiency, a life that was natural and not dependent upon the nonessential luxuries of civilization.” (Pringle) Diogenes was an adherent of the Cynic school of thought, which admired Socrates for his “… self-sufficiency and his indifference to unnecessary luxury and possessions. A good life, they taught, involves a return to nature, giving up the decadence of civilized urban life and living simply and strenuously” (Pringle)

Pringle goes on to state, “Ah, the synch, my friends. Doesn’t this sound like the values of Henry David Thoreau as well as some of the Beat Generation or the Hippies? Looks like Bohemians have been around for quite some time”.

Indeed, the dissenting voice has probably been a part of the human condition for as long as there has been a dominant voice. The dissenting voice of the 60’s, however, has always been represented best for me by the music of the Grateful Dead. In the following lyric from the Grateful Dead's tune The Other One, Bob Weir, (in one of only three Grateful Dead songs he wrote), describes their experiences with Neal Cassidy, Ken Kesey, and the Merry Pranksters on their bus named Further, a name indicative of where Kesey wanted to take the boundaries of human consciousness, a la Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception:

Skippin’ through the lily fields
I came across an empty space
It trembled and exploded; left a bus stop in its place
The bus came by and I got on, that’s when it all began
There was Cowboy Neal at the wheel
Of the bus to Never-Ever Land (Weir, 1971)


Works Cited

Benson, C. Randolph. Thomas Jefferson as Social Scientist.
     Cranbury, New Jersey; Associated University Presses, Inc., 1971.

Chapman, Gary. Electrifying the Acid Test; The Sixties Legacy in Today’s Cyber-culture. accessed 01-10-1996
     (The website is still accessible, but Chapman's title is no longer available as of 10-19-2023; I have requested information.)

Devall, Bill, and Sessions, George. Deep Ecology; Living as if Nature Mattered.
     Layton, UT; Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1985.

Weir, Bob. The Other One.
     San Rafael, CA; Ice Nine Publishing Co., Inc., 1971.

Pringle, Colin. Diogenes of Sinope and the Cynics. accessed 01-10-1996.
    (The site no longer responds, but there is no error given.
    This page has related material and was edited or written by
    Colin Pringle and is still accessible as of 10-19-2023:

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
     Orig. pub. in New York by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968; Bantam Ed. Pub. 1968, 39th Printing, 1989.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States; 1492 to Present.
     Harper-Collins, 1995.


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