Thomas Jefferson, Southern Man of Letters, Part I

Jefferson peale

There was a popular ragtime song in the 1940s and ‘50s, derived from an old minstrel tune, that went like this:

Is it true what they say about Dixie?
Does the sun really shine there all the time?
Do sweet magnolias blossom ’round every door?
Do the folks eat possum till they can’t eat no more?

If you really want to know if it’s true what they say about Dixie, you have come to the right place. Most of what is said these days about the South is less accurate and a great deal more malicious than this song.

The Abbeville Institute does something unheard of. We view Southerners sympathetically and even allow them to speak for themselves. Most young people have been taught to see the South through third-hand theorising. When I was still a professor I learned that students, both graduate and undergraduate, who were exposed to real Southern history had a startling, almost soul-shaking experience as they realised the counterfeit knowledge they had been taught. I hope your experience this week will be similar.

What is now taught, of course, violates all the basic canons of scholarship, failing to base generalisations upon primary sources and failing to consider questions from more than one perspective. Two true stories: At a Southern university a student I know wrote a master’s thesis on the advocacy of State rights by Jefferson and Madison. A tenured full professor of American history and department chairman told the student he had made it up—it couldn’t be true. Second, a chaired professor of American literature at another Southern university told me that Edgar Allan Poe was not a Southern writer—the Old South was a backward, oppressive society and could not have produced any great writers. Poe, who grew up in the South and emphatically considered himself a Southerner, spent his infancy in Boston and presumably must have derived his genius from that atmosphere.

When we were planning this program, it was obvious to me that we had to present Thomas Jefferson. He is basic to every aspect of Southern thought and identity except perhaps religion. The legacy of Jeffersonian democracy looms large in history and has been misinterpreted and misused so long and so pervasively, that it is immensely important to get Jefferson right. He provides a near perfect test case of the distortion of Southern and thereby of American history. Jefferson was extraordinary, but he is also representative of many things that have been broadly shared by his fellow Southerners before, during, and after his own time.

The mind of Thomas Jefferson is a big subject to which we could devote the whole week, or for that matter, a whole semester. I have tossed away reams of potential material and concentrated here on a few main themes and a few Jeffersonian aspects that are relatively unknown these days.

Here is a simple fact that might be laid beside the current party line that the South is the evil dark corner of American history. Nine of the first twelve Presidents in the U.S. government were Southern plantation owners. For only 12 years in the first 64 years of the U.S. government were there Northern presidents. Jefferson and his close friends and associates occupied the President’s office for 24 years, twice as long as all the Northerners put together

The fact that he was the third President of the United States is not the most important thing, nor, I think, the most interesting thing about Thomas Jefferson, a judgment with which he himself agreed. His writings and lifetime corpus of private letters would be one of the richest cultural legacies of his time even if he had never held public office. They cover well over a half century of an active, multi-faceted, and poised genius participating in great events and pursuing an understanding of the world.

Today people are considered important if they run for President. Our environment is full of presidential wannabes who have no claim to attention except their own ambitions and publicity. In Jefferson’s time, the noble early days of the Union, the assumption was different. Jefferson was not important because he was a President; he was President because he was an important man, because at a critical time he represented the views of and was trusted by a majority of citizens of a majority of the several States. He continued for several subsequent generations to be the chief guide and inspiration for large numbers of Americans. And even after his legacy was destroyed in the War to Prevent Southern Independence, and despite the fact that this legacy has been endlessly misrepresented, it has retained a latent force in the minds of many Americans.

It behooves us to know exactly what people of his time and after understood Jefferson’s legacy to be. It is relevant here to note that Jefferson himself, unlike later commentators, knew that there was a distinction between Thomas Jefferson the renowned philosopher who discussed ideas in an international correspondence with other great thinkers, and Mr. Jefferson, the public man who led a consensus of Americans as to their government. The public man knew that he was a spokesman for an existing society, not a designer of utopian schemes to be imposed upon it.

When Jefferson left the White House in 1809 he had to ford seven rivers and creeks to get home. He lived another 17 years and never left Virginia. His public activities during that time were entirely concerned with Virginia, though he commented privately on national matters when asked to do so and to people he trusted. It was unbecoming and unrepublican for someone who was now a private citizen to try to dictate to those who had responsibility.

For most of his mature life Jefferson read Greek every morning. He also learned the ancient Anglo-Saxon language, as an aid to understanding the origins of British liberty. He studied American Indian languages and customs and what was then called natural science because he wanted to understand the brave New World that was the seat of the American experiment in freedom. The only book Jefferson wrote was NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA, which was prompted by a wish to counter erroneous European notions about his homeland. Two years before his death and long after he left the presidency he wrote this to an Englishman:

Virginia, of which I am myself a native and resident, was not only the first of the States but, I believe I may say, the first of the nations of the earth, which assembled its wise men peaceably together to form a fundamental constitution, to commit it to writing, and place it among the archives, where everyone should be free to appeal to its text.

Jefferson was competent in law like many of his class, but like other Southern lawyers, for instance Calhoun, and unlike the major leaders of the North, he never let legalistic thinking or the opinions of judges dominate his view of the Constitution or political society. He was a self-taught architect, designing the Virginia (later the Confederate) capitol and the University of Virginia. But he was first and foremost a planter who believed, for many reasons, that farmers, producing the only true wealth from the land, should remain the dominant American class if self-government was to be preserved. His primary social identity was as a product and member of the Virginia gentry. When Jefferson returned from his diplomatic service in France, the ship in which he sailed contained carefully packed and preserved samples of every useful or potentially useful plant he had encountered in Europe.

In the first years under the Constitution the New England clergy were thrown into hysteria by the French Revolution. They told their congregations that Jefferson’s opposition to the Yankee agenda to loot the South through the new federal government was explained by the fact that he was an atheist French Jacobin. He planned to set up the guillotine in New England villages and make the women common property. Albert Jay Nock puts these oft repeated lies about the Jacobin Jefferson to rest with a scene in his biography. Mobs are fighting in the streets of Paris. When the American minister’s carriage approaches, the mobs part quietly and allow him through. Jefferson goes on his way without involvement in any side of the French Revolution, as befitted the man who often said that the ocean between the Old World and the New was a mighty blessing.

In the 1790s Vice-President John Adams fortified his house in fear that the American rabble might imitate the French and attack him, while Jefferson lived at ease among his 200 slaves. As President Adams rode about in a carriage with four white horses and insisted on being addressed as “Your Excellency.” When Jefferson became President he walked to his inauguration in plain dress. Further, he sent his annual message to the houses of Congress in writing, setting an example of simple unostentatious republican virtue in place of the President delivering his message to deferential legislators like a monarch. Jefferson’s custom continued until the 20th century, when the United States, now the United State of the American empire, returned to the royal ritual. And when Jefferson entertained at the White House he ignored all the European nonsense about precedence and hierarchy and conducted himself like the gentlemanly host of any Virginia country supper, offering his arm to the nearest lady and encouraging all to follow suit and be seated as they would.

Jefferson’s informality reveals an important thing about the South and the conflict between North and South that runs through American history. The South was led by genuine aristocrats with a pre-political identity and the North by people whose identity depended on money and. office. Is it not relevant that during the War to Prevent Southern Independence, Northern generals, even minor ones, wore glorious uniforms, rode around with large staffs and an entire cavalry squadron as escort, and always commandeered the best available accommodations? General Lee fought the war with one tent, two horses, two aides, a cook, and some messengers, and wore an old colonel’s jacket. A British observer who dined at the headquarters mess of Confederate army commander Joe Johnston, which was usually held around a campfire, found that there was only one fork, which the officers took turns in using. This contrast is worth remembering when you hear historians blabber on about a South dominated by a few wealthy slave-holders in contrast to an ideally democratic North.

This suggests a lesson that is worth learning in the study of American history or any history. Superficial and dishonest historians introduce artificial divides and destroy continuity. The primary American mythology tells us that the Founding Fathers made an eternal Union, and, as one of the idiotic Republican presidential hopefuls recently claimed, “worked tirelessly” to eliminate slavery. Later, Southerners, led by Calhoun, invented state rights in their desire to perpetuate slavery forever, repudiated true American principles, and wickedly rebelled against the sacred Union of the Founding Fathers. Note that Confederate generals Lee and Johnston, who I mentioned, were the sons of actual soldiers in the American Revolution, as was President Jefferson Davis. General Lee, as well, had two uncles who signed the Declaration of Independence. Calhoun’s father voted on the original ratification of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson’s grandson served in the Confederate army and government. I could cite hundreds of such facts. Perhaps the most telling is the grandson of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” who was imprisoned as a Southern sympathiser in the same fort where his grandfather had written the national anthem. He described is jailer Lincoln as a brutal tyrant. One friend of mine describes the Civil War as the war between the Yankees and the Americans.

My point here is to recognise the continuity in Southern history. To ignore this continuity is one of the major ways in which our understanding is deceived, and it has been applied pervasively throughout the whole four-century span of Southern history and culture. Which side is closer to the Founding Fathers in that great war of 1861-1865? Which side repudiated the Founding to institute a new regime?

Jeffersonianism, properly understood, was formed in the political conflicts of the 1790s. Indeed, the political ideas of the South, though having deep roots, were made explicit by Jefferson and his friends in their opposition to the agenda of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Through American history— right up to today—one must, I suggest, be for Hamilton or for Jefferson. Hamilton has ruled for a long time now, but unless we properly know Jefferson we will never understand Southern or, for that matter, American history.

In 1798, two years before he was elected President of the United States, Jefferson wrote his ally John Taylor that it was not unusual now to estimate the separate mass of Virginia and North Carolina, with a view to their separate existence. It is true that we are completely under the saddle of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and that they ride us very hard, cruelly insulting our feelings, as well as exhausting our strength and subsistence.

He continued with a description of New Englanders: “They are circumscribed within such narrow limits…and they are marked…with such a perversity of character, as to constitute, from that circumstance, the natural division of our parties.” He had said the same thing to President Washington a few years before when he had resigned from the first Cabinet there was a faction hiding behind Washington that was perverting the Constitution that had been ratified to create a central state controlled by a Northern minority out for plunder and power.

Thomas Jefferson has left us an account of a supper-table conversation in the very earliest days of the U.S. government. Vice-President John Adams declaimed at length about the virtues of the British government, which, he said, if purged of its corruption, would be perfection. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton quickly and fervently contradicted. It was its corruption, he avowed, that gave the British government its great stability and power. Hamilton believed that if you wanted the wealth and power of society behind a strong government, and he thought a strong government necessary, you had to make it worth their while. You had to have a British-style public debt—in which wealth and power had an interest-bearing claim on government revenue. When Jefferson heard Hamilton declare that “a public debt is a public blessing” he knew he had spotted the serpent in Eden.

Adams and Hamilton believed that in America the people could not be denied a role in government, however unwise that might be. The people could become dangerous. They might discover that they could vote themselves the wealth of their betters. So things had to be properly arranged. The people could have their say in a Commons, but they needed an executive, a senate, and untouchable judges above them to give government initiative and force and to protect the well-to-do. (With some justice Jeffersonians referred to the Federalists as “monarchy men”).

Jefferson is our foremost symbol for majority rule. You read it in his first inaugural. On a later occasion he writes: “I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom.” If, as the elitists say, man is flawed and cannot be trusted to govern himself, then where do those angels come from who are specially endowed to govern others? This seems to me the definitive response to elitism.

As John Taylor, about whom we will hear tomorrow, expounded more systematically, Jefferson had a different view of history and of the danger to freedom than the Hamiltonians. Usually, the masses do not prey on the elite, but rather go quietly about their business unless severely provoked. Much more commonly, the elite preys upon the masses, depriving them of liberty and property by some device of force or fraud—a public debt being a conspicuous example of such fraud. Liberty is not preserved by imaginary checks and balances among the rulers but by limiting government power. Jefferson’s entire view of politics is based on the belief that a limited government is an important a safeguard of liberty as majority rule

Let’s be clear what Jefferson means by majority rule. He does not regard the opinion of the majority as sacred, but only suggests that a majority is more likely to make a just decision than an interested minority, including any elite of the self-appointed wise and good. Interestingly, C.S. Lewis and Winston Churchill said the same thing in the twentieth century: that democracy is not perfect, just better than any other choice. And Jefferson’s majority does not include every dependent, bribe-taker, wino, and foreigner who can be dragged to the polls. His majority is made up of citizens who have a stake in the commonwealth for themselves and their posterity—men who head families, pay taxes, and serve in the militia. Further, let’s note that the majority rules in a quite limited sphere, most of social and private life remaining outside its jurisdiction.

But Jefferson goes further than this. In 1787 he writes of what is known as Shay’s Rebellion:

God forbid that we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” A lack of rebelliousness among the people reflects “a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty . . . . what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” The same year he tells Madison, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and is as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.

What a radical! What a dangerous upsetter of society! Until we understand what Jefferson means by this. He does not call for an overturn of society and its reconstruction according to some abstract plan as preached by later radicals. Think of the root meaning of revolution. He means that a regime, with the passage of time and the accretion of abuses and bad precedents, becomes corrupted. It needs to be REVOLVED back to the original principles. I would argue that this is not a radical program but a deeply reactionary one. What he fundamentally wants to tell us is this: the people should never fear the government, but the government should always fear the people. This is not the opinion of a man preaching revolution. Jefferson was in favour of certain reforms in government that would improve liberty in Virginia, but he was fundamentally at one with his people.

A very basic idea with Jefferson, stated many times in various forms, is that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” Or as he put it another time: “Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living….” Here he makes a seeming departure from a conservative respect for tradition and continuity. A living generation need not be bound by the dead hand of the past. Each generation should have just as much freedom to act as did any previous generation. Else freedom becomes a dead thing. The present generation may enjoy the produce of the earth in their time, but they have no right to use up the bounty of the earth that belongs to succeeding generations. If the current generation incurs and passes on heavy debts, then it has committed a deeply immoral act of spending the wealth of future generations for its own benefit. Again, I would say this is a deeply conservative insight.

The aggressive actions of the Hamiltonians almost as soon as the new government was inaugurated was a cluster of those corruptions that needed paring away, just like the cumulative abuses that had led the thirteen colonies to fight for independence. The centralists had been defeated in the Constitutional Convention and in the ratification by the States, but they set to at once to reinterpret the Constitution to suit their purposes. Instead of just paying off the war debt they turned it into a permanent necessity for taxation so that the wealthy and well-placed could enjoy risk-free interest-bearing bonds. Although the Philadelphia Convention had refused to give the new government a right to charter corporations, the Hamiltonians soon had a national bank which they justified under the “necessary and proper” phrase in the Constitution. It was not a government bank but a private cartel which enjoyed the immense power and profit of Congress’s responsibility to regulate the currency, like the present Federal Reserve. They imposed needless direct taxes to make their power felt by the people and a treaty which sacrificed the interests of Southern and western farmers to the commercial greed of New England. As Jefferson said, the livelihood of the South was threatened by abuses and its feelings were constantly insulted.

Worst of all perhaps was the Sedition Act, under which newspaper editors were fined and jailed for criticism of President Adams. How could this happen under a Constitution that specifically prevented the government from interfering with freedom of the press? The centralists simply assumed, preposterously, that the Constitution should be interpreted through the English Common Law, and that law justified the punishment of sedition.

This was the last straw. Here is Jefferson’s opinion in 1798, the same year in which he complained of the Yankee attack on Southern wealth and feelings. In the language of resolutions drafted by Jefferson for the Kentucky legislature while Madison drew up a similar paper for Virginia:

Resolved, that the several States composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their General Government; but that, by a compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a General Government for special purposes—delegated to that government certain specific powers, reserving, each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force…..

Jefferson and his friends won the next election and began to correct abuses, so it was not necessary to pursue state nullification of federal law further, but the stand had been made, and “the principles of 1798” remained a touchstone of American politics for several generations after.

In the next generation it was denied that Jefferson could have put forth such an idea. His son-in-law produced the draft in Jefferson’s hand. Historians since have engaged in acrobatic rationalisations and tortuous deceits to declare that Jefferson did not really meant what he wrote. How could he have written such anti-Lincolnian words?

But we find Jefferson declaring to a French scholar, three years after he left the White House:

But the true barriers of our liberty in this country are our State governments; and the wisest conservative power ever contrived by man, is that of which our Revolution and present government found us possessed. Seventeen distinct States, amalgamated into one as to their foreign concerns, but single and independent as to their internal administration.

But here is the conclusive evidence that has been studiously avoided by nearly all writers on Jefferson. In the days around Christmas 1825, in the last few months of his life, during the administration of John Quincy Adams, Jefferson suggested to several prominent men that Virginia should once more assert sovereignty and nullify federal internal improvements legislation. This was just two years before Calhoun and South Carolina asserted the same right of State interposition against unconstitutional federal law. To the governor of Virginia Jefferson wrote: that the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution had been abused to justify exorbitant spending and thus debt for the profit of the Northern beneficiaries of such legislation. “And what is our resource,” he asked, “for preservation of the Constitution? Reason and argument? You might as well reason and argue with the marble columns encircling them.” At almost the same moment John C. Calhoun was saying the same thing about the Northern interests whose pockets were being lined by the protective tariff.

On Christmas Eve 1825 Jefferson passed along to one of Virginia’s current leaders a draft document which he entitled: “The Solemn Declaration and Protest of the Commonwealth of Virginia on the Principles of the Constitution of the United States of America and the Violation of Them.” And he plainly broached the alternative of secession. We should, Jefferson wrote, “separate from our companions only when the sole alternatives left, are the dissolution of our union with them, or submission to a government without limits to its power. Between these two evils, when we must make a choice, there can be no hesitation.” The Jeffersonian response to oppressive government is not revolution but secession.

My intention here has been to understand what Jefferson sees as the good regime. It is a regime where the majority rules while maintaining a healthy suspicion of those who hold power and a willingness to put them in their place. And in the particular American situation this means that the people can and should curtail the central government by acting through the seat of their sovereignty, the states. That, I submit, is the real Jeffersonian democracy. And that understanding characterises Southern thought from Bacon’s Rebellion in the 17th century until quite recent times.

SOURCE: A Lecture from the Abbeville Institute 2011 Summer School.

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 www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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