Jefferson the President

Of all the presidents of the United States, none save Washington and Lincoln have inspired half so much historical writing as Thomas Jefferson. Books and articles by the score have dealt with the Sage of Monticello in one or another of his myriad aspects— Virginian, statesman, philosopher, scientist, farmer, architect, rationalist, theologian, slaveholder, apostle of liberty, author of the Declaration of Independence. His most intimate letters have been published and analysed and published again; pedants have used his offhand utterances as the basis for ponderous tomes; there have been treatises on his health, his psyche, his sex life, and the history of his reputation. One could, in fact, spend years reading the literature on Jefferson and never come close to exhausting the supply.

But there is a curious thing about this huge volume of writing: precious little of it is concerned with Jefferson as president, though that was the most important (as well as the most dramatic) phase of his long public career. It is almost as if there were a conspiracy of silence on the matter. Only two historians, Henry Adams and Dumas Malone, have essayed major works on Jefferson’s presidency, and both those works are veritable lawyers’ briefs, one for the prosecution and the other for the defense. Indeed, any literate person with access to a good library could read virtually every line even tangentially related to the subject in a month or so.

There are, I believe, two main reasons why historians have steered clear of Jefferson’s presidency. The first is the towering figure of Henry Adams. Adams had independent means and a genteel background, and he lived and worked in a slower-paced world than our own; and all that, as well as his superlative mind, contributed to making possible his monumental, nine-volume History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Moreover, Adams’s skill as a literary craftsman has rarely been excelled by anyone writing in the English language, and certainly by no American historian. Any historian who ventures into territory where Henry Adams trod does so with either trepidation or foolhardy courage—-lest one offend not only Clio, the muse of History, but also Calliope, the muse of Epic Poetry.

The other reason derives from Jefferson’s peculiar niche in the hagiology of America’s Founding Fathers. To all but the handful who still idolize Alexander Hamilton or John Adams, Jefferson is holier than holy, and the Hamiltonians and Adamsites have long since abandoned the effort to point out what they regard as weaknesses, inconsistencies, and blunders in Jefferson’s presidency. To everyone else, though Jefferson is sacrosanct, his canonization derives from his being the patron saint of one or another of a bewildering variety of ideological positions. Statists and libertarians, nationalists and states’ righters, conservatives and radicals—all claim his blessing; but if and when they look into the eight years during which Jefferson wore the splendid lonely mantle of presidential power, such “Jeffersonians” learn quickly that their hero was himself not what they could properly regard as a Jeffersonian. Accordingly, they shun the presidency and return to rummaging through Jefferson’s voluminous and eclectic correspondence, where they can find comforting support for the ideology of their choice.

My own approach to Jefferson has been along rather different lines. Though the man fascinates me as he has fascinated others, I, unlike most historians, am more interested in what he did than in what, as a matter of abstract intellectuality, he said and thought-except insofar as his words and ideas reflect the broad social matrix on which he and his followers erected all their ideological thinking. And there is another thing. Throughout most of my adult life I have lived and taught in northern urban centers, have been concerned with subjects relating to economics and fiscal policy, and have directed the larger part of my researches toward the 1780s and 1790s. My orientation, in other words, has been what might loosely be styled Hamiltonian. For the past few years, however, I have been increasingly interested in ethnicity and other aspects of the cultural anthropology of early, rural, and especially southern American life. As a part of that interest, I have been attracted to the Jeffersonians, and among other things I conducted, for ten or twelve academic quarters, a seminar on that subject at Wayne State University. Then, eighteen months ago, I moved away from northern urban climes to a small farm in the deep South. Here, in Jefferson’s phrase, I have been laboring in the earth, and I have been observing at close range the kind of rural folk who were the original backbone of the Jeffersonian party—in all their meanness and grandness, their bigotry and openness, their clannishness and hospitality.

One other element went into my decision to have a go at Jefferson’s presidency, and that was a gradual realization that the eighteenth-century tradition of agrarian oppositionism, far from being the tangential phenomenon that historians have generally treated it as having been, was absolutely central to the ideology of Jeffersonian Republicanism. Years ago Professor Thomas P. Govan, in that uncanny way he has of making an offhand remark that penetrates to the very heart of a complex matter, said to me that very nearly everything in Jeffersonian Republicanism was to be found in Bolingbroke. He referred to Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke, the English Tory who in the 1720s and 1730s led the Opposition to Sir Robert Walpole and the English Financial Revolution —the British predecessor of the Hamiltonian fiscal revolution in America. At that time I had no ready way of looking into the suggestion, for virtually no one (but Govan) knew much of anything about Bolingbroke except that he was involved in various treasonable plots to overthrow the Hanoverians. Then, in 1968, Isaac Kramnick published a brilliant pioneering work called Bolingbroke and His Circle, which elucidated Bolingbroke’s thinking and made Professor Govan’s remark comprehensible. Meanwhile Bernard Bailyn and his students have shed light upon the influence in America of some of Bolingbroke’s predecessors, notably John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon; Trevor Colbourn has rediscovered the Anglo-Saxon myth and its influence upon both Bolingbroke and Jefferson; and one of my own students, Rodger D. Parker, has recently completed an exhaustive dissertation on Bolingbroke and the whole range of Oppositionists who preceded and followed him and carried his ideas to America. To anyone steeped in the propaganda, the political tracts, and the rhetoric of the Jeffersonian Republicans in the 1790s and afterward—as I have been for a long time—the connections are overwhelmingly clear.

Thus fortified with a different (and I believe sound) perspective, I have become emboldened to venture this work on Jefferson’s presidency. As to trespassing upon Henry Adams’s turf, I can only pay my sincere homage to the man and his work, and be on with the task.

This essay is part of Forrest McDonald’s Preface to his The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (University Press of Kansas, 1976).

You might also enjoy these articles...