Robert A. Heinlein and Thomas Jefferson; A Divergence of Views

a discussion

Thomas Jefferson

"Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day . . . . I believe it [human condition] susceptible of much improvement, and most of all, in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is effected."

T. Jefferson to Dupont de Nemours, 24 April 1816

Date: Mon, 2 Mar 1998 06:03:35 GMT
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Name="Robert M."
comments="I am distressed by your comments on Robert Heinlein's "Starship Trropers." I fear that due to your pre-occupation with his spartan style you missed several key points the author made. First and foremost, you seem to believe that the society is a military one. This is not the case. Heinlein made it clear that the military does not run the society; in fact, in a clear departure from the United States of today, soldiers are prohibited from voting. Only veterans, those who have proven thier civic virtue, are permitted the privilege of enfranchisement. This stems from Heinleins belief that Only those with a clear devotion to the society at large be given the ability to alter it politically. This in turn springs from his notion that civic virtue has, in the twentieth century, all but disappeared. His case is not that freedom is wrong, but that it _must_ be checked with responsibility and civic virtue, a fact that citizens in most liberal democracies increasingly seem to ignore. Gone, in Heinlein's mind, are the days of Jefferson and Madison, when men served for the good of the people, not the state or themselves. In an attempt to recapture those days, he has given the reigns of government over to individuals who have already shown the full measure of their devotion through military service. He could have easily chosen public service, but where then could the book's conflict have arisen? In a battle against floods? Disease? Heroic to be sure but hardly as compelling as battle against malevolent alien forces bent on the destruction of all life unlike their own. Remeber, this work was written in the shadow of a war unlike any other in human history, fought on a scale unprecedented against two enemies whose racism and xenophobia caused them to commit genocide on mass scales. Under such circumstances, it can be understood that Heinlein's villians are so one-dimensionally oppressive. They are not merely inhumane, they are not remotely human. They exhibit no qualities worthy of remorse. The "bugs" do not even exhibit sentience, merely a machine-like precision with which they destroy all life unlike themselves. They are the army ants of the galaxy, and it would be surprising for a sane human to feel remorse over their inescapable death. Even the lack of remorse over the death of Heinlein's "skinnies" can be explained. The portrayal of a military figure as remorseful over death and destruction was virtually taboo until after the Korean War. PTSD was routinely dismissed as "cowardice". The fact that this is a narrative prevents the full measure of the protagonist's suffering from emerging. Most veterans I have talked with are loathe to openly discuss the horros they have witnessed or the trials they have experienced in combat, preferring insted to exhibit either quiet stoicism or boisterous machismo. Thirdly, the book is a story about personal achievment and self-actualization, tempered with a notion of service toward the common good. Juan Rico, and eventually his father, feel something lacking in their lives even though both are are quite well-to-do. That they fill this void through defense of the state is Heinlein's way of encouraging public service. Heinlein makes it clear that public service is a worthwhile goal, and that while other endeavours, while important, may not truly serve the state, and as such should not qualify the recipient for enfranchisement. A doctor may heal individuals, and an artist or teacher may enlighten them, but do any of those professions show true concern for the people as a whole?

It can be seen from my above musings that I am biased towards Heinlein, perhaps even a bit zealous in his defense. That is because I indepentantly arrived at many of the same conclusions as he. I did not read "Starship Troopers" until after I had already decided to display my civic virtue by enlisting in my nation's armed forces; much of what Heinlein writes strikes particularly close to home. Any discussion on this subject is quite welcome.


P.S. A pet peeve of mine was invoked in reading a consistent mistake in your writings: Heinlein wrote about the "Mobile Infantry" not the "Mobil Infantry". One is an infantry force capable of swiftly moving to engage the enemy, the other is the corporate army of an oil company. I'm sure you can tell the difference."
How is life treating you?="Harshly at times, but gently more often than not."
City?="Fort Hood"

      Dear Robert,

      Thomas Jefferson, a man who loathed war and armies with his whole being, wanted only the following to be inscribed on his tomb stone: "Author of the Declaration of American Independence, Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." That he would have approved of a society in which only those who had served the State in some function could vote or participate in the civic process is absurd. Such an opinion is closer to Jefferson's great rival Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists.

      Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment and believed in the efficacy of education to render a people worthy of self-government; he was bitterly opposed to monarchy and aristocracy. In "Starship Troopers," Heinlein has an attitude that the majority of people - and certainly the "common man" - cannot be trusted with the power of the vote, hence the restriction on citizenship and voting to a select few. Implicit in his portrayal of the story's teacher and school is the pessimistic belief that most people are relatively uneducable in civic duty and therefore unworthy of the "privilege of enfranchisement." Jefferson, the creature of a more optimistic age, saw it differently: "Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day." You might remark that Heinlein's aristocracy would be one of merit and proven commitment through service to the state. Yet it is still an aristocracy. If anything, Jefferson - even in all his self-contradiction, a democratic slave-owner - was a hater of aristocracy and believer in the dignity and worth of the common man. Jefferson believed in political equality and the superiority of the demos, not in a ruling caste of separate governmental elite. I find Heinlein's vision of society in "Starship Troopers" and Jeffersonian democracy to be strongly at odds, to put it mildly.

      I have heard it said more than once that the most dangerous threat to the United States during the last fifty years has been the possibility that in fighting fascism or communism we might lose our way of life and system of government - give up our freedoms in the name of "combating the enemy." Now that the Cold War is over that fear seems overstated; but in reading "Starship Troopers" and absorbing its author's philosophy we can see that the fear was not unfounded. Written in 1959 as anti-Communist paranoia was reaching fever-pitch in the United States, this book seems very much a product of its time.

      The spirit of Jefferson and the evolving American civic religion live on today in 1998. The United States Constitution prepares for its 209th birthday. And the world of Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" remains for me a bad dream of a world turned upside down in some inhospitable future.

      I hope this message finds you well down at Fort Hood.

      Very Truly Yours,

      Richard Geib

P.S. You ask if artists, teachers, or doctors show true concern for the people as a whole? I would counter that of course they do. (As a teacher, I consider my often tedious and thankless job to instruct the next generation to read, write, and think as important to the res publica as any efforts made by the average military man or woman.) But it are the elected politicians - for better or for worse - who direct the affairs of state and not the soldiers; that is why President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur and re-affirmed civilian control over the armed forces when that soldier became grossly insubordinate. I honor and respect the job military personnel - such as yourself - perform for our country. But the day a majority of admirals and generals assume the philosophy of Heinlein in "Starship Troopers" is precisely when the American experiment - as we know it - ends.

Date: Tue, 03 Mar 1998 08:41:48 -0600
From: Robert M. (
To: Richard Geib (

I wonder if Jefferson, or any of the founding fathers, would recognize the United States government after the many changes it has undergone in the last two centuries. We are no longer a backwater nation sheltered from world events by the great Atlantic ocean; we are a beacon to the world, culturally, economically, politicaly and militarily as well. Many of the horrors which several of of founding fathers so abhorred have been embraced by our government and they have worked reasonably well. Not only do we have a standing army, but one of the most powerful in the world. Centralized taxation based upon income, not trade, is such a fixture of both the federal and many state governments that most average citizens hardly complain on priniciple. The federal governments has absorbed (some would say usurped) many of the powers once held by the various states, and it has helped to unify the country. In most cases the people's representatives are elected directly by the people; the Electoral College has become an anachronistic artifact and Senators are no longer appointed by the state's legislatures. How is it possible that we have survived so long? All of these were pointed to by political throerists of the Eighteenth century as the sure and sudden road to destruction. That these men, so learned, could be so wrong is quite sobering. How then, is Heinlein so different? History is full of pessimism, full of new ideas of competing political systems. That democracy, in its various forms has not only urvived but flourished should be taken as a great encouragement. However, all is not well in our modern world. Rising crime, declining educational standards and other ills plague our society. Although the events foreshadowed in his book have not (as of yet) come to pass, who is to say that they might not? Let us consider his rationale...

Technology has done more to give the average citizen the power to make informed, timely decisions about world events. And yet, voter turnout is at an all time low. Our last president was not elected by a majority but by a mere plurality.

Crime, especially violent crime, is at a level unheard of since the founding of ouf Republic.

The United States is less homogeneous than ever before. We are no longer merely the inheritors of the Enlgish tradition of Common Law, but also the inheritors of Talmudic and Koranic law, the Napoleonic code, the teachings of Buddha and Confucious, and a host of other beliefs carried to this country by succesive waves of immigrants. In the face of so many competing value systems, the traditional values and beliefs of the founding fathers have been lost. In the name of "diversity," ethics and what once was a common view of morality has been lost.

Finally, and most importantly, the Duty of government service has been exchanged for the Right to government services.

Heinlein wrote, "And _that_ [vital] was the soft spot which destroyed what was in many ways an admirable culture. The junior hoodlums which roamed thier streets were symptoms of a greater sickness; their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of 'rights'...and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure." [third-to-last para. Chapter 8]

Although I do not have access to my library (it is in boxes several states away) I seem to recall Madison saying something very similar. Hopefully I can dig up a reference in the post library.

Jefferson was a student of Locke, and was full of hope in the goodness of mankind. Heinlein, like some of the founding fathers, is a student of Hobbes. He stresses that man has no innate moral instinct, only an instinct for self-preservation; only men capable of demonstrably transcending such instincts, serving society at possible peril to their own lives, be given the franchise.

I did not say that some do not show true concern for the people as a whole. The world is filled with countless professionals devoting themselves to the service of mankind. Most notable humanitarians are not in the military (though many have been veterans): public defenders and other lawyers who serve pro bono; doctors who offer treatment at free clinics or travel to impoverished countries to give the poulace medical care; members of relief agencies providing care to victims of fire, famine and flood. And yet, these are more often than not individual struggles. They show concern for humans, not humanity. Heinlein would argue that soldiers show such universal concern. To protect their way of life, they would risk losing their lives altogether. That is why they, not Joe Average, should be given the franchise. However, Heinlein is careful to explain that it is not the military that runs the show. Though all citizens were soldiers once, they are soldiers no longer. They do not receive the franshice until after they have left the military. While this might create a government sypathetic to the military, I have met far too many soldiers suspicious of (or even downright antagonistic towards) the military to believe thta it would lead to a militocracy.

Personally, I see a world filled with many serving humanity. Fire fighters and police officers risk their lives far more often than I do, and their motivations are purer. They often fight to preserve life itself, not the abstraction known as "The United States of America." Medical researchers work to cure "incurable" afflictions, many at great risk to themselves. I see a country that has endured all manner of trial and tribulation and emerged stronger every time. I see an exciting future, filled with danger but also with promise. But that is my view, not Heinlein's.




"I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they'd never expect it."---Jack Handey

"I do not resent criticism, even when, for the sake of emphasis, it parts for the time with reality."--Sir Winston Churchill


      Dear Robert,

      There can be little doubt that the Founding Fathers would find themselves bewildered in observing the Republic they founded more than two centuries after its creation. Yet I do not see this as necessarily a bad or unexpected thing after so much rapid technological and social change in the last two hundred years. Neither do I think they would be as aghast at modern America as you claim. It is the nature of things to evolve and adapt with time; one of the reasons, in my opinion, the Constitution still survives today is because it allows for flexibility and its own reformation. It is part and parcel of the amazing sagacity of that document that it - despite incessant social stresses and the emerging needs of an ever-changing world - has helped provide an economic prosperity and political stability which has degenerated into serious bloodshed only once. I see the soul of the United States today as essentially no different than it was two hundred years ago, and even believe in many ways today we have taken the ideas of Jefferson and Hamilton to a higher level (re: Did no eligible voter fail in his civic duty during the Administration of John Adams? What about universal suffrage?) . Perhaps this is evidenced nowhere more powerfully than in the fact that you and I are exchanging ideas about government over this dynamic new global computer network in a manner not unlike two farmers in colonial Massachusetts philosophizing about prospective self-government and the nature of mankind. James Madison would be smiling in his grave.

      I grant you the United States is beset by intractable problems, for which Heinlein has a keen eye, that defy resolution: high levels of violent crime, fraying of the family and social structure, ethnic Balkanization at the expense of national unity, degeneration of liberty and "rights" into rank license, and even antagonism towards the Enlightenment idea of constitutional government itself! Yet let us also look on the other side. The United States is no longer a "backwater" country buffeted by the winds of arrogant European potentates; our nation today is central to keeping a peace which in the last fifty years has greatly enriched many parts of the earth. A lonely beacon of self-government in a world of hostile monarchies at the end of the 18th century, the United States is at the end of the 20th the leader of a "free" family of democratic nations which encompass the largest and most prosperous regions of the globe and serves as a symbol of hope and idealism to many. Countless millions in search of a better life have emigrated to the United States and been assimilated into the larger culture and this is a phenomenon which shows no sign of letting up. The country has made great strides in resolving the stain of racism which has besmirched it from the very beginning. And the Constitution survives as the highest law of the land in amended form despite a bloody civil war, and the essential spirit of the document is greatly strengthened by the power of time and tradition. The Aliens and Sedition Act of 1798 would be unthinkable today.

      I still cannot see the value of Heinlein's enfranchising one segment of the population over another. You argue that in allowing only those who have served to direct the affairs of state we will benefit from greater wisdom and commitment. There is the grain of truth here; but I for the life of me cannot believe but that sooner or later this narrow and unaccountable elite of society will end by governing mainly in their own interests. You argue that this might create a government "sympathetic to the military." I fear it would create a government that ignores or at least under-appreciating the "non-citizen" rest of the population. You argue that soldiers, politicians, and other civil servants inherently serve out of "universal concern" towards humanity. History - especially Roman history where Heinlein's appears to find so much inspiration - is replete with examples of soldier/statesmen divorced from the concerns of the larger population using their offices for personal aggrandizement. Even the most well-intentioned person is fallible, and I cannot see any alternative to keeping those in power accountable to the people through popular elections open to anyone who would take the time to vote. At least then if the government is to falter or prove mistaken, it will be the fault of everyone (or at least anyone who took the time to vote). As someone once said, "In a democracy the people get the government they deserve."

      Would you be sympathetic to calls for a return to a system of government where members of society are taxed and then allowed no say in government? Isn't that against the "natural rights" for which angry farmers at Lexington and Concord finally stood against English soldiers? Give up voluntarily that which cost this nation blood to gain? I cannot but see Heinlein's fictionalized society of righteous veterans as full of slippery half-truths, and think the adoption of its precepts would be a regression and not progression of the American civic religion. I think you edge towards this view at the end of your last e-mail, and debate Heinlein's society more out of loyalty than conviction. In every society - even the egalitarian American one - there exists hierarchy. James Madison said of his friend and mentor Jefferson: "He believes all men are equal not because he feels it in his heart, but because he reasons it must be so." I also do not believe that all persons are, or should be, exactly equal in power, intelligence, ambition, achievement, etc. Such is not reality. However, I cannot see any rational alternative to respecting the essential dignity of every individual human being, of the fundamental equality of all men, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and fair opportunity under the law.

      It is true the United States adopted many of the Republican civic ideals of Rome in defining a system of government. The "senate," the use of the Latin pseudonym "Publius" by Madison, Hamilton and Jay in authoring the Federalist Papers, the austere Washingtonian Cincinatus-ethic of the gentleman farmer brought reluctantly from bucolic bliss to the defense of the Republic, etc. Yet the American and Roman ideas of government and society are hardly synonymous; and we have chosen to pursue a vision of government much more closely allied to that of Locke than of Hobbes (in the dichotomy you present). The Spartan and then Roman states were more brutal fact than idea - rapacious birds of prey where the military and the state served as the absolute focus of society. The Spartans produced no art or literature, and much of what Roman culture remains with us today is adopted from the Greeks. The Spartans and Romans apotheosized the severe military traits of austere toughness, iron discipline, collective ferocity, fighting spirit; but these military virtues and not necessarily the ones most important for a democracy. (It is the fundamental difference in outlook between a society where one exists to serve the state and one founded on the proposition of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.) This does not mean that a pluralistic democracy cannot not fight well - Athens fought Sparta to a standstill, until she betrayed herself. But a humanistic culture like Athens has deeper currents and dimensions which make it a society - in contrast to Sparta or Rome - that you and your descendents might actually like to live in.

      Heinlein, in his novella "Starship Troopers", explains his core values in some detail through the character of high school civics teacher Mr. Dubois. I would remind Mr. Dubois (and Heinlein) that Walt Whitman, the poet of American democracy, is as key a figure to the national soul as Ulysses S. Grant. I would suggest that Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher of America individualism, is as archetypal a figure in the collective psyche as Theodore Roosevelt. And I posit that Martin Luther King, Jr. will eventually be judged as important as Dwight Eisenhower in American history. Dubois would probably tell me I am a sentimentalist, and all such sentiments are eventually ground to dust under the unsentimental boot of military conquest and uncompromising warfare. That is yet to be seen. The society Heinlein served as a naval officer has as its official seal an eagle holding in one talon a shield with arrows, an olive branch in the other. The eagle looks to the olive branch and peace, but is armed and ready for war should it come. I never claimed that Grant was any less important than Whitman, after all.

      Robert, you see our country "emerging stronger" which while threatened also holds "promise." So do I, but I see such a possible future as beholden to a past illumined by the deep humanity of thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin rather than humorless moralists-cum-jeremiahs like Federal Service retired-Lt. Colonel Dubois of the Mobile Infantry playing the part for Heinlein of Cato the Censor ("O tempora! O mores!").

      Very Truly Yours,

      Richard Geib


"Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy." -- Benjamin Franklin