Jefferson's Flaws: Are They Beyond Redemption?
Synopsis of a Proposal for A response to Conor Cruise O'Brien's "Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist"
In 1889 Henry Adams, carrying on his family's sometime vendetta against Thomas Jefferson, wrote a history of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, trying, apparently, to put a stake through the then barely-beating heart of Jefferson's reputation. As an honest reporter, Adams told the truth about Jefferson's actions, evidently assuming Americans would find them objectionable. Instead, this book rehabilitated Jefferson by pointing out his great nation
A complete and accurate, examination of O'Brien's charges in the full context of Jefferson's life, the revolution, and the American experience might also lift Jefferson's currently flagging reputation. Jefferson played well a key role on a team of revolutionaries whose ideas and actions continue to hold the world's imagination and affect its actions. Americans need to come to terms with their Jeffersonian heritage, whether or not Jefferson held (as he probably did not) unacceptably radical, racist views.
American revolutionaries were of many minds. Some early patriots went to Canada when war broke out. Fervent kaleidoscopic activity typified politics during and after the war. Allies and enemies often, if not routinely, changed sides. Events confounded politics. As Gary Wills points out, it took Lincoln to establish 1776 and the Declaration of Independence, not 1789 and the Constitution, as the birth of the nation. The Gettysburg address, Wills says, transformed the United States into The United States.
Jefferson tended toward political liberty and economic independence. His foil, Hamilton, urged economic efficiency and political order. Their struggle defines America. In 1876, Henry Cabot Lodge -and a hundred years later Walter Lippman--called America a Hamiltonian nation governed by Jeffersonian forms. Americans tend, consciously or unconsciously, to see reality as a balance of efficiency, independence, liberty, and order. Viewed this way, America without Jefferson will not be America.
A discernible back-and-forth with Jefferson at its core characterized the American revolution laying the groundwork for America as we know it. First came the Declaration of Independence a Jeffersonian thrust. A Hamiltonian parry, the Constitution, preceded the Jeffersonian Bill of Rights riposte. The Hamiltonian Federalist government of Washington and Adams, succeeded by the Jefferson electoral sweep of 1800, carried on the duel.
The Hamiltonians struck back after Jefferson's massive November 1800 victory by appointing the infamous "midnight judges" (including Chief Justice John Marshall) between election night and Jefferson's March, 1801 inauguration. For the next thirty-five years, Jeffersonian Presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams and Jackson) battled Hamiltonian Marshall and the courts to shape the nation. At Jefferson's death on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the die was cast.
Marshall's decisions cut executive government power. The Jefferson "mob" controlling central government scared Federalists. One 1819 case, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, set corporate rights against federal power. The nation split. Government, ruled by Jeffersonian principle (affected people need a voice -- i.e., vote--in decision making) squared off against corporations (semi-governments) ruled by Hamiltonian principle (only property owners -- i.e., stockholders -- have decision-making rights).
For the next hundred years increasingly "democratic" government (more issues presented to more voters) battled increasingly powerful (more land, money, authority) corporations to allocate national resources. The nation prospered and suffered. Painful pre Civil War agrarian/industrial struggles, cast as free v. slave, led to bloody war and increased corporate power. Post war boom/bust collapses (from railroads in the 1870's to agriculture and industry in the 1920's) destroyed confidence in Hamiltonian corporate economic structures.
Enter Roosevelt's activist government, with which we are just now coming to terms. Roosevelt, like Lincoln and Jackson before and Kennedy after him, drew on Jefferson to help America through complex times. Expelling Jefferson, so entwined with America, from the pantheon for politically incorrect radicalism and racism (even if guilty) poses a greater challenge to America's core viability than O'Brien's thesis considers. Ripping Jefferson from America's heart, necessary or not, will be bloody work.
A broader, more textured appreciation of Jefferson and of history might alter the O'Brien-created impression of Jefferson's pantheon future. "Someone should write a thesis on "The Influence of Thomas Jefferson on Hendrik Verwoerd,"' O'Brien says. Jefferson, racism, South Africa. Point made, further comment not needed. A less obviously anti-Jefferson point could be made by suggesting a thesis on Jefferson and Frederick de Klerk. This might present a different Jefferson for any needed redemption.
For example, O'Brien connects Jefferson to violent radicalism (too slow to condemn French Revolution excesses, alleged Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh wore a tee shirt with a provocative Jefferson quote). He does not mention attacks by contemporaries (and Henry Adams) on Jefferson for being too pacifist-impose an embargo rather than fight the British, buy rather than conquer Louisiana, and move Virginia's capital from Williamsburg to Richmond to avoid armed conflict.
O'Brien says "...the orthodox multiracial version of the American civil religion must eventually prevail -- at whatever cost against the neo-Jeffersonian racist schism" (emphasis added). "At whatever cost" sounds like the kind of unrestrained exhortation O'Brien condemns in Jefferson. One cost (considered by O'Brien?) of dumping Jefferson from the pantheon because of his violent rhetoric might be to lose him as the primary American example of limiting the use of violence as a tool of foreign policy.
By adding resistance to the federal government to his Jefferson indictment, and making it the moral equivalent of racism, O'Brien further weakens his historical case. Northernstates like Wisconsin issued ringing states rights endorsements against federal government enforcement of fugitive slave laws Nothing makes federal government power intrinsically multiracial. Nor do contemporary Americans, individually or collectively, see the federal government as uniformly superior to state or local governments.
One reason so many Americans, including a lot who are not right-wing fanatics, find "liberal" irritating grows out of a perception that "liberals" tend to claim a special identification with "orthodox American civil religion." History suggests that the political Jefferson would shun association with such a concept. In fact it is likely that orthodox civil religion will find less room in the American pantheon than will Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's vitality resists classification. Americans tend to suspect orthodoxy.
Dumping Jefferson from the pantheon comes down on one side of a deep, wrenching, centuries long, social/political battle, predating America's revolution. This battle divides those who, like Jefferson, demand that governments keep hands off individuals' right to use their life and liberty to pursue happiness from those who, like Hamilton, say power concentrated in properlymotivated,competent, economically and socially elite hands best ensures the orderly society essential for individual
enjoyment of life.
Dumping Hamilton comes down on the other side making more French Revolution type excesses likely. Americans stand astride this divide, one foot firmly in each camp. Each person develops a pragmatic mix of liberty, order, independence and efficiency for personal expression and gain. The Combined Jefferson/Hamilton blood in American veins creates collective decisions pundits find odd-divided government 22 of 28 years; pro choice/pro life abortion consensus;anti-government/anti-corporate anger, etc.
The American dynamic rests on "the pursuit of happiness,' staked out by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, dumped from the Constitution by central government advocates, reintegrated by Lincoln. Dumping Jefferson risks losing "happiness" as a central social value. Cutting the ground from under the Jefferson foot risks toppling Americans into a morass of individual rebellion against government intrusion into privacy, family, and personal values. A bloody business at best. Americans
might prefer redemption for Jefferson.
O'Brien's self-described task, ensuring "at whatever cost" that "the orthodox multiracial version of the American civil religion" prevails "against the neo-Jefferson racist schism," has far greater risks and fewer benefits then O'Brien presents or appears to have considered. This fact, combined with O'Brien's brittle historical picture, makes a further, more faceted, reassessment necessary before individual Americans make a pro- or anti-Jefferson choice.
In summary, O'Brien chose to narrow and obscure the Jefferson legacy -- even if he had accurately reported the part of Jefferson's life that he addresses (which he did not). He leaves important aspects of Jefferson's life and actions that bear directly on his thesis, out of his argument. He leaves contradictory assertions unaddressed. And he makes poorly-thought out--rhetorical flourishes that, when examined, weaken his argument. O'Brien's topic is too important not to be addressed more completely.
James S. Turner