Jefferson the Man

Thomas Jefferson, Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America. Kevin R. C. Gutzman (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 2017).

The challenge a historian faces when writing about Thomas Jefferson is which Jefferson does one choose?  The choices of “Jeffersons” include: Jefferson the radical, Jefferson the democrat, Jefferson the philosophe, Jefferson the scientist, Jefferson the statesman, and Jefferson the planter, just to name a few.  Kevin Gutzman has chosen Jefferson the radical statesman as his subject, with perhaps a slight emphasis upon the statesman more so than the radical.  Gutzman begins his volume with a powerful claim regarding Jefferson as a statesman, “Thomas Jefferson’s influence on American political history outstrips that of any other figure.”  In support of this bold thesis, Gutzman explores Jefferson’s influence in five realms of his life: federalism, freedom of conscience, education, and Jefferson’s views on Africa-Americans and Native Americans.   Gutzman believes that one may find in these areas a Jeffersonian vision which is both coherent and consistent, and one that he pursues throughout his public career.  In doing so, Jefferson became the most important and influential of American political figures.

On the crucial subject of federalism, Gutzman is right to emphasize Jefferson’s deep commitment to the need for strict limitations on the powers and scope of the federal government.  Jefferson pursued this line in the “Summary View of the Rights of British America.”  Gutzman uncovers the important meanings in this curious document, a document which is part Country Tory with its appeal to the King George III to rein in Parliament’s excesses, and part radical, a monarchist would say impudent, in calling the King to account for his failures to curb Parliament’s excesses. Fundamental to Jefferson’s view of federalism is his assertion that the colonies are already autonomous states on par with the United Kingdom, Spain and France, and thus incorporated into the United Kingdom by a shared executive, and not by any authority Parliament possessed.   This viewpoint provides a crucial context for the Declaration of Independence.  In that document, Jefferson continued the argument against King George’s negligence in curbing Parliament, and hence the need to declare the independence of the thirteen “states.”  Gutzman’s point here is well taken; the heart of the declaration is not the phrase “. . . all men are created equal,” but the indictment hurled at George III, for it is this indictment that justifies the status of the new colonies as free and independent states.

Gutzman’s argument suggests that the reading of the first several lines of the Declaration of Independence is best understood as the assertion of thirteen “states” that they share an equal right to independence with the United Kingdom, France, Spain et al.  This interpretation was the original one of the framers and thus the correct one. Further evidence may be found in the debates over the admission of Missouri in to the federal union.  When opponents of Missouri’s admission as a “slave state” invoked the “all men are created equal” clause to buttress their case for denying Missouri admission to the union as a slave state, it was Senator Richard Mentor Johnson who reminded the Congress that the meaning of the phrase was “that all communities stand upon an equality; that Americans are equal with Englishmen and have the right to organize such government for themselves as they shall choose, whenever it is their pleasure to dissolve the bands which unite them to another people.”  Johnson received no rebuttals from the innovators in the Senate who wished to change the plain meaning of Jefferson’s words.  Time would, however, erode the original intent and meaning of Jefferson’s words and give to the phrase a more abstract, teleocratic, and even at times a Jacobin quality.

Gutzman’s proper understanding of Jeffersonian federalism makes intelligible many of Jefferson’s subsequent actions and appeals to limit to the scope and authority of the federal government. These include: Jefferson’s sympathy for Shay’s Rebellion, Jefferson’s reservations concerning the constitution that came out of the Philadelphia Convention, the Kentucky Resolutions, many of Jefferson’s policies as President, particularly in his first term, and his later anxieties concerning the Union in the wake of the Marshall Court’s decisions in McCulloch v. Maryland and Cohen v. Virginia, and yes, the Missouri controversy.

In addition to being the country’s foremost statesman, Jefferson could also lay a claim to being the father of American education, and certainly Jefferson has an even more powerful claim to founding the first truly American university, the University of Virginia.  Jefferson’s views on education were deeply influenced by his beliefs regarding the liberty of conscience.  In brief, this later principle may be best summed up by Jefferson’s quote, “Inquiry, yes, but inculcation, no.”  This quote, however, is best applicable to Jefferson’s views regarding religious beliefs and principles.  For example, Jefferson supported developing a library of religious works of all kinds at the University of Virginia, but religion was viewed by Jefferson as a field of study, not a set of dogmas to be transmitted to the students.  When it came to inculcating some of the values and prejudices of the Enlightenment, well that was a different matter altogether.  Some of the values espoused by Enlightenment thinkers were to a large extent his values; their prejudices, his prejudices.  Most crucial for Jefferson as a goal of education was the creation of an aristocracy of merit rather than a monied aristocracy, and the formation of a people capable of self-government, which is to say, a republican citizenry.  This citizenry, however, was to be secular one: committed to freedom of conscience, absorbing the many of the values of the Enlightenment as these passed through the filter of American pragmatism. Religion was to be moved to the sphere of private life where it may shape ethics and behavior, but not much else.  Not only are these views still with us in America, but they retain considerable power in shaping the conversations Americans have with each other about the role of education and religion in society.

Gutzman’s last two topics deal with the racial views of Jefferson, specifically his views concerning blacks and Indians.  With respect to the former, Jefferson’s views were conventional for his time.  He opposed slavery, favored the policy of colonization as a way to bring about slavery’s demise, and believed that whites and blacks could not co-exist on equal terms without violence resulting.  The chief reason Jefferson’s iconic status was diminished during the culture war of the last three decades was due in large part to Jefferson’s racial attitudes and his conviction in the inherent intellectual and moral inferiority of most black Americans.  Unlike so many academics on the Left, Gutzman is not ready to dismiss Jefferson as one more racist and hypocritical dead-white-male from days past.  Gutzman points out that Jefferson’s efforts to end slavery were sincere and he is unafraid to see Jefferson for who he was; he is not reliant upon either the drawers of icons or the iconoclasts for his views of Jefferson.  Most importantly, Gutzman illustrates that in Jefferson’s Virginia there was a range of views on slavery as well as the inherent capacities of black people; there was no monolithic view on this subject in Virginia or the South.  Conventional too was Jefferson’s views on Indians.  Jefferson was much more optimistic concerning the inherent abilities and endowments of the Indians, and like many Virginians he favored assimilation.  Gutzman is right to point out that in terms of policy Jefferson laid the ground for the dispossession of the Indians, but was this not always the case with many Virginians?  When it came to the “sons of the forest” were not Virginians always ambivalent?  Many First Families of Virginia were and are proud of their descent from Pocahontas; in Jefferson’s day such descent conferred a kind of blood title to Virginia. There was also the common view that the Indian must give way to the march of white civilization, hence Jefferson’s support for extinguishing Indian title to lands as a tool to encourage assimilation and feed agrarian cupidity.

If there is a glaring omission in Gutzman’s otherwise excellent book it is the absence of a discussion of Jefferson’s views on political economy.  Granted, political economy is not the most exciting topic, but any cursory glance at the Annals of Congress or the Register of Debates reveals that political economy and public finance dominate the conversation.  As Edmund Burke once put it, “The revenue is the state.”  I would go so far as to say that Jefferson’s views on political economy were at the heart of his vision for America, and for a time these views had triumphed over those of the Hamiltonians and later the Whigs.  This leads to another mild criticism, could not any acolyte of Alexander Hamilton’s make the justifiable claim that we now live in Alexander Hamilton’s world rather than Mr. Jefferson’s?  Let us make a brief case for this view.  By 1848, the Bank of the United States was dead, the Treasury was issuing its notes for currency, westward expansion was in full swing, federally funded internal improvements were accepted, grudgingly in some quarters, as unconstitutional, and tariff rates were beginning to come down—Jeffersonian policies all.  Soon the Whig Party would fall, the Republicans rise (and as a sectional party at that), the Late Unpleasantness would conclude, and one by one the planks of Jeffersonian political economy would be dismantled.  Once Jeffersonian federalism was defeated at Appomattox Courthouse the way for the triumph of the Hamiltonian vision of America was paved.

The above quibbles aside, Gutzman has provided us with an outstanding case for the importance of Jefferson in clear, coherent, and well-supported prose.   In some places this might lead to a revocation of tenure; we surely hope that no such fate awaits this most talented and articulate historian of the Jeffersonians.

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