Jefferson New and Improved

I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.

A Review of In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson, by Noble E. Cunningham. Jr., Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. 414 pages.

With the exception of the driven and depressed Lincoln, no major figure in American history is in the final analysis, more enigmatic than Jefferson. Without any exception, none is more complex. There is more to the enigma and complexity than a multitude of facets—political leader, botanist, architect, linguist, ethnographer, musician, man of letters, and much else. (If he had never held a public office. Jefferson’s correspondence would still be one of the most valuable treasures of his era.) But behind these varied roles was a mind of a very high order. With deep and complicated reserves, yet covered by an impenetrable mask of everyday balance and harmony that was more than sufficient for the highest worldly success without beginning to exhaust its capacity or reveal its real nature. In many respects, the enigma of Jefferson, delightfully hinted at in Albert Jay Nock’s early-20th-century biography, is similar to that of his contemporary, Goethe, and likewise will remain forever inaccessible to those of us who do not enjoy the mental and moral gifts of nature in such abundance.

But we do not really need to understand the whole personality to grasp the significance of Jefferson’s career as a public man in the founding years of the American republic, and this new biography is concerned chiefly with the career of the public man. There was no mystery at all in what Jefferson stood for in the American political scene. This was clearly understood in his time and for a generation or two thereafter by both his friends and his enemies. But, while there is no mystery, there is a great deal of confusion, arising out of subsequent efforts to manipulate his image as an aegis for other causes of other days. Even had he not been so complex a puzzle as a man, his role in American history is so covered by ideological debris that reality can only be uncovered inch by inch. (Merrill D. Peterson’s tour de force, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, 1960, showed the many and contradictory uses to which he has been put.) In fact, the multivarious misunderstandings of Jefferson’s political career tell us little about him. They tell us a great deal about the fragmentation, shallowness, and image-mongering that characterized American political and intellectual life after his time, a degeneration which he observed in his last years.

Jefferson had a chivalric and optimistic faith that the intelligence and patriotism of his fellow American freeholders (outside of Massachusetts and Connecticut) were such that they could be trusted to rule themselves. It followed that a free republican government was the proper form of government for Americans and that this government should interfere in their private affairs and pick their pockets as little as was consistent with public order and national independence. Unlike persons in the 19th century and since who seized upon and universalized a few words in the Declaration of Independence, he did not insist that liberty and republicanism were appropriate to every people, condition, and time. The element of messianic democratic universalism that came to characterize the American approach to the world was a product of a later time and was a devolved expression of that New England Puritanism which Jefferson despised, and which hated him.

To Jefferson and his friends, his victory and theirs in 1800 meant simply that they had established his view (which was not something he invented and promulgated from on high as a divine lawgiver, but something that arose naturally out of American conditions) as predominant. Yet by the time he died, in John Quincy Adams’s would-be activist presidency, Jefferson well knew that his victory had been temporary.

The LSU Press has inaugurated a new series of Southern biographies, of which this is an early entry. The goal is a readable one-volume treatment, based upon accumulated scholarship and reflection, but aimed, apparently, at general readers. Given the alienation between historical scholarship and the reading public (if such a thing still exists), this is laudable. But it is hard to imagine a more difficult subject to take on in this way than Jefferson. There are many good specialized studies of particular aspects of Jefferson and room for many more, but it is no easy matter to boil him down to one smooth volume. The author sought to bypass all the accretions of confusion and to see Jefferson afresh, while admitting that he presents only his own view of a complicated subject. This is probably the proper strategy for the occasion, but perhaps unavoidably, it can succeed only at the cost of either distortion or blandness, in this case the latter. This is, in a way, a redundant book, though responsibly and gracefully written. Did I desire a readable and up-to-date one-volume life of Jefferson, I would hire the most skilled available editor to condense Dumas Malone’s six volumes, which are as close to definitive as history can ever be. The book in hand fills a formal requirement, without adding anything either factual or interpretive to the world’s body of knowledge.

Cunningham hoped to see Jefferson afresh and thus sought to reduce his life to a clear and manageable theme—his faith in reason in the affairs of man. Here I must part company with the author. While the observation is true, it is so general as to be nearly meaningless or, what is worse, lends itself to too many misrepresentations. Almost all the errors and confusions about Jefferson result from using his faith in man’s reasonableness to provide an endorsement for any later movement which appealed to reason, no matter how different in spirit, in tacit assumptions, in social context, in intellectual fabric from Jefferson’s own. Alexander Hamilton also believed in reason, but he drew rather different conclusions about its proper use. One would never gather from Cunningham’s mild consensus history that the gentlemen’s disagreement between the two reasoners was marked by violent sectional, ideological, and economic conflicts that reverberate to this day.

To put it another way, the theme of reason tells us little about the blood, sweat, and tears of Jefferson’s politics—or those of his enemies. This is not only a political biography but also, alas, a superficial one. It is a verbal icon, a printed and bound version of the New Deal-era monument in Washington which could make Jefferson palatable to 20th-century Americans only by doctoring his quotation about slavery. This is not Malone’s Jefferson, though it bears a resemblance to a fragment of that portrait. It is not Nock’s or Partington’s or Bowers’s or Peterson’s or that of many others that could be named. It is George Bancroft’s Jefferson. Bancroft was a clever New England scribbler of the 19th century who, unable to defeat Jefferson, took a narrow slice of him and created a putative whole that he found compatible. Exactly the same thing happened more recently when George Will and others converted Ronald Reagan, at one time a wild man from the West and potential threat to the Establishment, into just another Republican, tolerable if not beloved in Boston and Hartford.

After the violent twist of American society away from his dispensation in the later 19th century, Jefferson can be made to fit consensus history only by a good deal of selective emphasis. Cunningham thus follows the standard interpretation that Jefferson’s allegiance to states’ rights was merely a temporary expedient, adopted for the occasion, for the larger goal of the defense of civil liberties. But this is unhistorical. In his own time and several generations later, the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, affirming state sovereignty, were the core of his political position. (Here we run into the mystification heaped up by the cleverly vengeful industry of several generations of Adamses, who convinced most later observers that Jefferson’s presidency was a contradiction of his earlier position. It was not so seen by most at the time or for many decades following.)

The real Jefferson, by modern interpretation, put freedom ahead of states’ rights. This is to indulge in a too-easy make-over of Jefferson to please ourselves and to miss the main point, which is that for Jefferson—and his followers—the two were synonymous and inextricable. It is self-evident in the historical record for those who have eyes to see, obvious to anyone who will read Jefferson’s correspondence through from the 1790’s to the 1820″s or who will examine the context—the understanding of what his career meant to his supporters in his own time. And it is only thus that we can resolve what many 20th-century commentators have seen as a contradiction in Jefferson—the theoretical advocate of freedom who engaged on other occasions in what an ACLU devotee would regard as acts hostile to civil liberties. But there is no contradiction between the Jefferson who invoked state sovereignty against the federal sedition law and the Jefferson who approved Virginia’s summary execution of a Tory marauder. The contradiction is in the eye of the beholder who attributes to Jefferson a set of assumptions which were not his own. From the point of view of state sovereignty, the two positions are perfectly consistent and democratic. In his role as a public man he trusted Virginia, and her sister and daughter states, to exercise power responsibly when necessary without permanent danger to liberty. (He had his doubts about greedy and self-righteous New Englanders and certain other Americans who were too impressed by Old World arrangements of authority or who had too many plots and plans for the use of public power.) Late in life, when he was no longer an active politician, Jefferson explicitly recommended the use of state intetposition against unconstitutional internal improvements legislation—not a question of civil liberties and exactly what was forwarded a very few short years later by Calhoun against the tariff.

Nothing could be more wildly irrelevant to Jefferson’s position—that liberty was best preserved by protecting the free American social fabric from the federal government, with such exercises of power as were unavoidable left to the wisdom of the people of the states—than that of the modern civil libertarian that freedom is something granted by the federal Bill of Rights after being wrested away from an untrustworthy state majority. In fact, Jefferson’s view would still work: could we restore real federalism and limit the central government to war, diplomacy, and a few other necessary common functions, we could come as close as possible in an imperfect world to settling our major social problems. There is, in fact, no other possible solution for abortion, rampant crime, deteriorating education, and many other evils than a reassumption of power close to the people. It is true we would lose Massachusetts and a few other states of the Deep North, as Jefferson always did, but most of the states would govern themselves “reasonably,” could they decide without interference. But this will never happen, not because of any defect in the Constitution but because of defects in the national character. It would not in the least have surprised Jefferson that a people who are no longer a nation of independent and public-spirited freeholders but a mass of consumers leavened by an occasional busybody reformer would have difficulty in governing themselves “by reason.”

Here we must admit that Jefferson’s was a creative and speculative intellect, which bruited a great many ideas in a great many forms to a great many people. Polite and imaginative and fond of discussion, he often adapted himself to his correspondent in a speculative vein, leaving the literal-minded with the impression that he agreed with them. But Jefferson always perfectly understood the difference between theoretical speculation and the real world of American freeholders, and as a public man he was eminently practical and consensus-oriented, as Alexander Hamilton discerned when he refused to countenance the efforts of his fellow Federalists to steal the election of 1800 for the charming scoundrel Burr. Jefferson was, as we said, a complex man. The failure to distinguish between the philosopher and the political leader has led some to regard him as inconsistent or hypocritical and others to take his theoretical projections as literal policy prescriptions. But there is really no problem if one takes care to understand the context of a quotation. Contrary to later assumptions, it was not Jefferson the philosophe who was revered and followed by his contemporaries and a majority of several succeeding generations but Jefferson the sane and balanced public man, not the author of “All Men Are Created Equal” but the republican gentleman who had averted Federalist usurpation. Cunningham presents not this latter Jefferson but rather that partial one who was pleasing to international philosophes and to the more belated and lukewarm of his supporters.

Jefferson’s views on slavery, or rather the reaction to them by 20th-century intellectuals, or the 20th-century public for that matter, provide a fascinating case study in emotional avoidance of simple and obvious historical facts, in the great lengths that people will go to rationalize fantasies that they find comfortable. Cunningham’s approach is again the conventional one, to emphasize Jefferson’s antislavery sentiments, which, unfortunately, came to little. The whole story is less comforting to those who insist that figures of the past be like them. There is, indeed, a certain childish willfulness in the American mind that insists on chastising persons of other ages for not being like them, or else pretending that they were, which is a certain way not to learn anything from history.

As to slavery, Jefferson was born into the higher ranks of a social system that long had been, was, and would long continue to be committed to it. He believed, as did many others, and often said, that on balance the situation was deleterious to the commonwealth and it ought to be done away with, if this were possible without damage to other values and interests. His speculations on the nature and relations of the races were deeper, but not much different in conclusions than those of his neighbors and most other Americans of his time.

He was, like his neighbors, committed to keeping the issue in the control of those whose concern it was. His famous letter (to John Holmes) during the Missouri controversy (“We have a wolf by the ears”) has been repeatedly misrepresented by those who prefer ideological fantasy to accurate history. What is usually emphasized about the letter is that Jefferson was still committed to his antislavery sentiments, which is true but a misemphasis. In this letter, very clearly (and in many other statements at the same time), Jefferson was not pointing to the evils of slavery—he was pointing to the evils of antislavery, of free-soilism.

The letter is written to console a northerner in trouble with his constituents for favoring the compromise—that is, for favoring the admission of Missouri as a slave state. It is not slavery that Jefferson fears as “the death knell of the Union,” it is antislavery, the notion that has been raised for the first time that Congress could tamper with the institutions of new states as a condition for admission. Looked at over the whole career and not sugar-coated and spiffed up to meet 20th-century standards, that is to say, viewed historically, Jefferson’s views are easily understood and did not differ, except for being more detached in tone (as befitted an elder statesman), from those of most other Southerners of that time and later, including the leaders of the Confederacy. Those views were the exact opposite of, and hostile to, the Free-Soilers of the mid-19th century who claimed him as patron saint. Like all Southerners, Jefferson was unwilling to entertain outside interference.

That we have so nearly lost touch with Jefferson is nowhere better indicated than in his being claimed as the father of modem public education. Jefferson proposed for Virginia a system of public education, never fully implemented, designed not to supplant private education but to supplement it. His main concern beyond making rudimentary learning widely available was to rescue those gifted young men who appeared from time to time in the lower orders of society. He would provide them with the means and the opportunity, in a vigorously competitive and elitist setting, to progress into the aristocracy so that their talents would not be lost to themselves and to society. (The rich would, of course, see to their own success.) Nothing could be further from Jefferson’s plan than the programmatic use of the schools as an arm of the state to rearrange society (though he did favor a necessary orthodoxy of political teaching in support of republicanism which our civil libertarians, committed to leftist revolution, will not allow).

Our public school system was built upon a Massachusetts-Prussian model that proceeded from the beginning with nearly opposite goals. Its purpose was to provide not leaders but a docile work force and conformist citizenry. Possibly this goal was even a good one given the conditions of the later 19th century, but it was not Jefferson’s. Jefferson, defender of the aristocracy of talents against the aristocracy of privilege, would find anathema, I believe, a school system which expends vast resources in the hope of making marginal improvements in the minds of the dull-witted, while neglecting, demoralizing, and alienating the talented. (The main function of American public education is to make sure that the talented poor do not get a good education and are not able to rise and compete with the class that can afford private schooling, a class noted for its sterling verbal commitment to egalitarian public education.)

This brief sketch, I believe, captures something of the essential Jefferson. But, of course, history is many things and serves many purposes, and its fascination lies just in the fact that it is not and never can be definitive. Professor Cunningham has enjoyed a pleasant and prestigious appointment, by no means a sinecure, to provide a new account of Jefferson’s life in relatively short compass. If one wants a reliable, factual, well-written overview of the life of Jefferson the public man, in some but not too great detail, then this book will serve the purpose. It is a pleasant but not very invigorating diversion for those who like their American history as untroubled as possible. And I have no doubt that a great many more readers will prefer Cunningham’s filtertip cigarette to the pungent but authentic plug of old Virginia bright leaf that I have proffered above.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

You might also enjoy these articles...