Thomas Jefferson in perspective
How can friends of liberty defend him after all the attacks?
Although Thomas Jefferson might still be the most beloved Founder among the general public, historians have been hammering him.
The modern critique began with Leonard Levy’s Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (1963). Referring to Jefferson’s terms as Virginia governor and U.S. president, Levy wrote: “he was a party to many abridgments of personal and public liberty…He was capable of ruthlessness in the exercise of power… he was not adverse to the most devious and harsh tactics to achieve his ends.”
Forrest McDonald, author of The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1976), called the Virginian “a wild-eyed political quack.”
In Jefferson (1776), Page Smith described his subject as “impulsive, intuitive, secretive, moody, irrational, devious in the way artists are often devious…He was the master illusionist.”
Harvard’s Bernard Bailyn, in his Faces of Revolution (1990), called Jefferson “an eighteenth century stereotype – a boldly liberal, high-minded, enlightenment stereotype, but a stereotype nevertheless – a configuration of liberal attitudes and ideas which he accepted uncritically, embellishing them with his beautifully wrought prose but questioning little and adding little.”
Brown University historian Gordon Wood, in 1993, wrote that “Not only did Jefferson not have an original or skeptical mind, he could in fact be downright doctrinaire, an early version of a ‘knee-jerk liberal.”
Journalist Conor Cruise O’Brien, in The Long Affair, Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 (1996), attacked Jefferson’s “almost manic enthusiasm” for the French Revolution
In American Scripture (1997), historian Pauline Maier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology belittled the importance of the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s role in drafting it. She claimed that the most important thing was the act of independence, not the Declaration explaining it to the world. Yet since World War II, dozens of colonies gained their independence, became brutal dictatorships and saw their living standards plunge. Millions of people in Africa, for instance, are worse off now than they were four decades ago. So plainly it is crucial what people plan on doing when they cut loose, a major subject of the Declaration of Independence.
Maier went on to belittle Jefferson's role in drafting it The suggestion that Jefferson was a bit player in this drama would be more believable if his eloquent writings didn’t fill dozens of volumes. Paul Leicester Ford edited one collection, the first volume of which appeared in 1892, and it ran to 10 volumes. Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh edited the Memorial Collection which began appearing in 1903; there were 20 volumes. The most mammoth undertaking was begun by Julian P. Boyd. His first volume was published in 1950, and thusfar 28 of a projected 60 volumes have come out.
Of course, most of the commentary about Jefferson has involved the affair with his slave Sally Hemings. Some people were shocked at the idea of romance between a white man and black woman. And since Hemings was a slave, one would presume that any romantic relationship involved coercion – possibly rape. Yet Annette Gordon-Reed, a black woman who wrote Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (1997), suggested no such thing. She defended the view that a white man and black woman could fall in love. She maintained that the evidence suggests there was genuine romance. Gordon-Reed noted that Hemings joined Jefferson in Paris, and she could have claimed her liberty under French law, but she didn’t. She returned with Jefferson to America, and their relationship lasted for 38 years. Jefferson provided her with baby-sitters, and Gordon-Reed reported, “her offspring fared better than any other group of siblings at Monticello.” He liberated her four children after they turned 21, and he didn’t free any other slave children. Following his death, Sally Hemings quietly left Monticello as a free woman and went to live with two of her sons, and apparently nobody bothered her.
With all the charges that have been leveled against Thomas Jefferson, how can a friend of liberty still defend him?
Early in his career, he did take a number of significant actions against slavery. As William H. Pease and Jane H. Pease reminded us in The Antislavery Argument (1965), "Thomas Jefferson in America urged that the importation of slaves be listed as a grievance in the Declaration of Independence. Spurred on by the excitement of the American Revolution, opposition to slavery grew rapidly in the northern and southern states alike. In his Notes on Virginia Jefferson spoke of the "great political and moral evil" of slavery. The universal appeal of the pronouncement was reflected in the formation of early antislavery societies chiefly in the South; in the founding of the first national antislavery society in 1794; in the adoption of at least gradual abolition of slavery in every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line by 1804; and in the ordinance which declared that the entire Northwest Territory was to be forever free from slavery."
John R. Alden's History of the American Revolution (1969) noted that "Jefferson sought the inclusion by Congress in its Land Ordinance of that year of a clause which would have prohibited slavery after 1800 in all the federally owned territories beyond the Appalachians. That bar against the extension of slavery was not, alas, erected. Jefferson could not secure quite enough support for the clause among delegates from the South to enshrine it in law."
As President, Jefferson stopped the Federalists whose worst excesses included the Alien and Sedition Acts. These suppressed freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Jefferson wasn’t wholly successful, since his predecessor John Adams appointed many judges who served for years.
More important, Jefferson wrote eloquently on the most fundamental issues of a free society: how to limit government power and protect liberty. Jefferson drafted more reports, resolutions, legislation and related official documents than any other founding father. In these and in some 18,000 surviving letters, he expressed many important insights about liberty.
While Jefferson defended liberty, fashionable 20th century intellectuals defended political power responsible for the murder of more than 170 million people. Hideous mass murderers like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong had zealous American apologists. Cuba’s murderous dictator Fidel Castro has apologists in high places now. From the standpoint of liberty, Jefferson towers over most intellectuals of our day.
Jefferson articulated the key natural rights principle, that laws aren’t legitimate just because a government says they are. Nor are laws legitimate because they are the result of a democratic process. At various times, it has been perfectly legal for governments to steal property, to suppress free speech, to censor newspapers and to murder people. The worst tyrants could usually point to some legal basis for their actions. To be legitimate, laws must conform to moral principles. They must support each individual’s equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
"Under the law of nature,” Jefferson wrote in 1770, “all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance."
He warned against egalitarian policies based on envy: "To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father's has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association--'the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.'"
Jefferson understood that liberty is impossible without secure private property. For example, he reflected, "A right to property is founded in our natural wants, in the means with which we are endowed to satisfy these wants, and the right to what we acquire by those means without violating the similar rights of other sensible beings."
Jefferson recognized a fatal flaw of socialism long before the word was coined: "That, on the principle of a communion of property, small societies may exist in habits of virtue, order, industry, and peace, and consequently in a state of as much happiness as Heaven has been pleased to deal out to imperfect humanity, I can readily conceive, and indeed, have seen its proofs in various small societies which have been constituted on that principle. But I do not feel authorized to conclude from these that an extended society, like that of the United States or of an individual State, could be governed happily on the same principle."
Most 20th century intellectuals imagined things would be wonderful if bureaucrats had more power over our lives, but Jefferson knew better: "Having always observed that public works are much less advantageously managed than the same are by private hands, I have thought it better for the public to go to market for whatever it wants which is to be found there; for there competition brings it down to the minimum of value. I have no doubt we can buy brass cannon at market cheaper than we could make iron ones."
He championed a rule of law. "An equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental," he wrote in 1807. Jefferson, in 1816, hailed "The most sacred of the duties of a government to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens."
Jefferson supported the U.S. Constitution as a means of limiting government power, “to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust.” To further protect individual rights, Jefferson believed there should be a bill of rights. He was concerned that a written constitution, limiting the powers delegated to a federal government, was enough to protect liberty. He helped persuade his friend James Madison to get a bill of rights added to the U.S. Constitution through the amendment process. "A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular; and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences," he wrote Madison.
Jefferson affirmed that individuals have a right to rebel against tyranny. His motto was "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." From the Declaration of Independence: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience [has] shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security." Later in 1776 he declared: "The oppressed should rebel, and they will continue to rebel and raise disturbance until their civil rights are fully restored to them and all partial distinctions, exclusions and incapacitations are removed."
Jefferson urged Americans to avoid getting entangled in foreign wars: "Peace... has been our principle, peace is our interest, and peace has saved to the world this only plant of free and rational government now existing in it... However, therefore, we may have been reproached for pursuing our Quaker system, time will affix the stamp of wisdom on it, and the happiness and prosperity of our citizens will attest its merit. And this, I believe, is the only legitimate object of government and the first duty of governors, and not the slaughter of men and devastation of the countries placed under their care in pursuit of a fantastic honor unallied to virtue or happiness; or in gratification of the angry passions or the pride of administrators excited by personal incidents in which their citizens have no concern."
Many of Jefferson’s critics have focused on his views about lesser issues, such as his fondness for rural life and his suspicion of commerce. As far as friends of liberty are concerned, though, Jefferson achieved immortality with his insights about liberty and power. We take the sour with the sweet.
Then there are the contradictions between his personal life and his views. While it is mystifying how a man devoted to liberty could have slaves, Jefferson’s personal failings don’t invalidate his ideas. By the same token, Karl Marx was a wretched person, a cranky sponger and deadbeat, but these failings didn’t invalidate his ideas. Marx’s ideas collapsed because they were wretched in their own right. Put into practice, they brought starvation and slavery.
It’s true that Jefferson didn’t originate many of the ideas he expressed. Actually, most intellectuals don’t originate ideas; to borrow F.A. Hayek’s phrase, they tend to be second-hand peddlers of ideas. The number of genuine innovators is always very small. Jefferson gathered ideas from an enormous range of sources, he reflected on these ideas, and he made them sing.
To his everlasting credit, Jefferson almost always chose the right ideas. His natural rights principles inspired the movement to emancipate American slaves and the movement to secure equal rights for women. Jefferson issued prophetic warnings about the dangers of political power which became a monstrous plague in the 20th century. He embraced optimism over pessimism and liberty over power as he expressed the of people yearning to breathe free.
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