Thomas Jefferson, Southern Man of Letters, Part II

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Several generations after his lifetime Jefferson became best known, as he still is, of course, for these words “All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Here is another important lesson in understanding history. The American Founders tend to be treated as demigods who handed down the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as universal, eternal, and sacred bequests to all mankind. This makes the words of the Founders both mystical and highly manipulatable. When Jefferson wrote this famous passage, he was not a guru who was passing out divine wisdom designed to revolutionise the world. And he was certainly not launching a crusade in favour of equality. Such a way of looking at the Declaration is mystification perpetrated by people with an agenda. Jefferson believed in reason and despised vague, reverential thinking, which he believed had most often been used throughout history to cover up oppression. As he himself said, the American Founders were good men who enjoyed a unique opportunity, but they were men, not gods or prophets, and their work was subject to examination by other men in the light of reason. John C. Calhoun, and the other spokesmen of the Old South, by the way, held the same view, contrary to the false description of their Constitutional thought which has become standard.

The Declaration was not Jefferson’s unique wisdom. He was only the draftsman of a document by which the Continental Congress explained to the people of the civilised world why the thirteen colonies were now independent States jointly fighting a defensive war against the British government. Neither he nor the Continental Congress which adopted his draft, after some revisions, had or presumed to have the authority or the intent to launch a campaign to spread the principles they cited to the rest of the universe.

“Rights” was already a familiar term of use in the English-speaking world, and it fit into a traditional constitutional framework, as the use of the legal term “unalienable” suggests. The “Pursuit of Happiness” undoubtedly embraced the sanctity of private property, however unequal. That the Creator is the source of rights brings in Christian natural law. The Declaration is mostly a statement of complaints that justify resistance to a bad king. It is obviously in the tradition of Magna Carta and the English Glorious Revolution of 1688. There is nothing about it really revolutionary, in the modern sense of the term.

The problem is that between the Declaration and us is the French Revolution in which “equality” became an armed doctrine. And “equality” as an armed doctrine, which always ends in dictatorship that kills liberty, has been read back into the Declaration. In the Gettysburg Address Lincoln claimed that the Declaration had brought forth a new nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He lied. The Declaration brought forth no new nation—it announced that the thirteen colonies were rightfully free and independent States. The primary proposition of the Declaration is not equality but that just governments must rest on the consent of the governed, who have a right to alter or abolish them when they become oppressive.

Lincoln at Gettysburg was, of course, in the very act of egregiously violating the Declaration and the central proposition of the American Founders, the consent of the governed. In the same year that Lincoln spoke, Karl Marx wrote a manifesto in support of Lincoln. According to Marx, Lincoln was suppressing an evil rebellion that had sprung up in the “one great democratic republic whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued.” Marx knew even less about the American founding than did Lincoln, but together they merged the American War of Independence and the French Revolution into one terrible armed doctrine justifying wars of domination. Thus Jefferson and the Founders have been routinely enlisted under a false banner and presented to the world as what they never were or wanted to be. .

We begin to understand what is meant by equality when we read Jefferson many times in slightly different words avowing that “no men are born to ride booted and spurred on the backs of others.” Americans were against the hereditary privilege that dominated old world societies. Americans were just as damn good as Englishmen, and younger sons just as damn good as the eldest.

The Declaration is put in context by Jefferson’s pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. This was written just two years before the Declaration, was his first significant public document, and was what gained him name recognition in the colonies. In his Summary View Jefferson chastises the king for not recognising that Americans were and always had been free men consenting to their government. Their Anglo-Saxon ancestors as free men had chosen to migrate from northern Europe and create Britain. Then they had migrated to the New World. Anglo-Saxons had not come to America as the employees, wards, or servants of government. They had established commonwealths on their own initiative and at the risk of their own lives, limbs, and capital. The British government had no standing in its present attempts to reduce Americans to subjects of a distant government. Although Jefferson was a better historian than John Adams or James Madison, we might quibble a bit about this history, which, for one thing, overlooks the Norman conquest. But my point is the context in which he viewed equality.

If we need further insight into the matter of “all men are created equal,” look at Jefferson’s post-presidential philosophical dialogue with John Adams on government. Jefferson writes:

“… there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents…. There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents….The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society….May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government.”

Jefferson’s plan for public education in Virginia was a product of this belief. The rich would always take care of the education of their offspring. The public system, where students were culled at every level according to ability, was designed to ensure that talent born into the lower levels of society was not lost to the service of the commonwealth. This is a far cry from the basis of the American public school system which now prevails. That began in Massachusetts when Horace Mann established Prussian style schools, the purpose of which was to make the surly poor and rowdy Catholic immigrants into docile workers.

As I suggested last night, Jefferson’s idea of equality also took in the generations. He abhorred government spending, borrowing, and debt, once suggesting a Constitutional amendment forbidding the U.S. government from borrowing. He writes:

. . . we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.” Government spending and debt will lead to taxation. If that happens we will “have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account. . . . private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by private extravagance. And this is the tendency of all human governments . . .” Public debt is the frightful forerunner. “Taxation follows that and in its train wretchedness and oppression.

Jefferson in his wildest nightmares could not have foreseen a debt which exceeds the national income, cannot be paid off for untold generations into the future, and much of which is owed to Asian governments.

Another Jeffersonian economic lesson which might have some relevance today. He lamented that paper banknotes had become as plentiful—and as worthless—as oak leaves. After the War of 1812 he writes:

Like a dropsical man calling out for water, water, our deluded citizens are clamouring for banks, more banks. The American mind is now in that state of fever which the world has so often seen….We are now taught to believe that legerdemain tricks upon paper can produce as solid wealth as hard labour in the earth. It is vain for common sense to urge that nothing can produce but nothing.

I am pretty sure that someone will raise the question of Jefferson’s religion. The Christian orthodoxy which has so strongly marked the South grew in power in the period after Jefferson passed from the scene and was less evident, though certainly not absent, in the colonial and Revolutionary years. Dr.[Samuel] Smith will give some account of that extremely important aspect of the Southern mind tomorrow. Jefferson, like many in his time, tended toward deism. One judges that he believed in a Creator, an Author of our Being, and in Christian ethical teachings, but tended to be skeptical about the supernatural aspects of Scripture. His attitude was quiet and private. He conducted his family affairs within the Virginia church. He made for himself an abbreviated New Testament that concentrated on the ethical rather than the divine, although, unlike Lincoln, he never wrote anything arrogantly ridiculing Christianity. He felt that the organised church historically had been responsible for much superstition that had obscured reason and been used to support oppression. Interesting, to me at any rate, is that John C. Calhoun’s religious attitude and behaviour was very similar to Jefferson’s. Unlike John Adams and many other of the New England intelligentsia, no Southern leader openly flouted orthodox belief and became a blatant Unitarian.

Jefferson considered one of his proudest achievement to be the disestablishment of the tax-supported Episcopal church in Virginia. This was not really very radical, since most of the population was already in other organised Protestant bodies and denominational pluralism and tolerance could hardly be avoided in the American reality. I think that much of the feeling behind his insistence on the separation of church and state came from his repulsion at the nasty and politically active Puritan clergy of New England. His famous letter in which he speaks of the “wall of separation” between church and state was written to a group of Connecticut Baptists in a State where the Puritan Church was still officially established. The church/state question is yet another example of the vagueness, deceit, and distortion that mark the common understanding of American history. Supreme Court justices, several Presidents, and other high muckety-mucks apparently think that Jefferson’s personal letter is part of the Constitution. The Constitution, of course, simply forbids the federal government from interfering with religion

We come to Jefferson and slavery. Thomas Jefferson was born into the upper ranks of and spent his lifetime in a society in which the holding of black slaves had been legal and customary for more than a century. The institution was a major element of the Virginia economy and of the production of tobacco, the mainstay of American exports. Forty per cent of the Virginia population were slaves. They were a majority in South Carolina and were legally present in all of the thirteen colonies, including ten per cent of the population of New York and nearly as many in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Nobody anywhere considered them to be citizens or deciding members of the body politic. Only Quakers made any organised effort against slave-holding before the 1830s, and they did so by individual appeals.

Jefferson on more than one occasion deplored the existence of slavery as an unhealthy element of society. In this he was in company with a strong segment of American and of Southern opinion. With this difference: while Jefferson and most Southerners thought slavery bad in principle, Northern opponents of slavery believed it was bad economics and hated the presence of black people in America.

The Declaration of Independence had cited as a grievance against the king that he had held open the importation of slaves in the interest of British companies after Virginia had several times petitioned that importations be closed. In fact, there was little need for more Africans to be brought in because the slave population was proliferating mightily by natural increase—a sign of relatively good conditions. Jefferson was a sponsor of the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 by which slavery was prohibited in that vast territory that Virginia had conquered and generously given to the people of all the colonies for settlement. At that time the foreign slave trade was still wide open and would remain so until 1808. The Constitution had not been adopted and there was no issue of the status of slavery in a sovereign state. In fact, in the 1820s, Illinois, which had been a part of the Northwest territory, seriously debated legalising slave-holding. The treaty acquiring the Louisiana Territory guaranteed the property of the French inhabitants.

Early on Jefferson proposed an emancipation plan for Virginia. It got nowhere. His proposal was that slaves born after a certain date would be freed at adulthood and trained to be self-supporting. Then the State would send them away, well-equipped, to “be colonised in such a place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper.” He recognised that such colonies would probably have to be supported and administered by Virginians for some time into the future.

In his well-known Query XIV of Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1787 though written earlier, Jefferson reiterated his belief that slavery had a baneful effect, particularly upon the white people of a free commonwealth. He discussed at length the question of whether the white and black races were equal, deciding that there was probably an unbridgeable inferiority in intelligence and difference in temperament which emancipation would not remove. He hoped that slavery could be eliminated. But a second step would be required “unknown to history,” because emancipation in the ancient world had not required absorption of an alien race. “When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.” This was essentially the same answer to slavery given by Abraham Lincoln, who had no idea what to do about slavery except use it as political propaganda to aid his career, proclaiming emancipation in the worst possible way and only when it became a useful support to his war of invasion and conquest.

Slavery extended naturally into the new states to which Southern families migrated, and such States joined the Union without any question until 1819. In that year a majority in the House of Representatives attempted to prevent the admission of Missouri, from the Louisiana Purchase and settled largely by people from Virginia and Kentucky, unless it changed the constitution adopted by the people to eliminate slave-holding. This issue, though temporarily compromised, embroiled Congress and the American people in a recurrent bitter controversy over what was called “the extension of slavery.” The ultimate result of the controversy was secession.

In 1860 Lincoln’s party called for prohibiting what it termed “the extension of slavery” into the territory acquired by the Mexican War. The party called itself Republican after Thomas Jefferson’s party on the grounds of Jefferson’s support of the Northwest Ordinance. This was a presumptuous act of deceit, especially since the new Republican party represented the polar opposite of Jeffersonian economic policies and its core consisted of the Yankee-derived elements of the American population which had viciously opposed him.

Let’s see what the retired elder statesman Thomas Jefferson had to say about the “extension of slavery.” To his old friend Lafayette he explained the Missouri controversy as “a trick of hypocricy” on the part of the monarchy men he had put down in 1800, explaining:

On the eclipse of federalism with us, although not its extinction, its leaders got up the Missouri question, under the false front of lessening the measure of slavery, but with the real view of producing a geographical division of parties, which might ensure them the next President. The people of the North went blindfold into the snare . . . .

James Madison and Charles Pinckney, among the last surviving members of the Constitutional Convention, agreed with Jefferson’s appraisal of the Missouri question. In 1820 Jefferson wrote his thanks to John Holmes, a Northerner who had supported the Southern position in Congress:

I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs. . . . But this momentous question, like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way.The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and, gradually, with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. Of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one State to another, would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier, and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation, by dividing the burden on a greater number of coadjutors. An abstinence too, from this act of power, would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress to regulate the different descriptions of men composing a State. This is certainly the exclusive right of every State, which nothing in the Constitution has taken from them and given to the General Government. . . . .

I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.

For Jefferson, the stand against the “extention of slavery,” which would later bring Lincoln into power, was insincere and counter-productive. It violated State sovereignty and the consent of the governed, would destroy the Union, and benefited only Northern politicians and rent-seekers with a disguised power-and-profit agenda. Note that it was not slavery that Jefferson identified as the death knell of the Union, as has sometimes been asserted, but the Northern campaign against slavery. And yet the standard nationalist account of United States history makes Abraham Lincoln the heir of Thomas Jefferson’s mission against slavery and Southerners wicked traitors to Jefferson’s legacy. Rather, Lincoln’s stand against slavery becomes, in the light of Jefferson’s true position, an irresponsible provocation and a default on the North’s share of the burden of emancipation.

Neither was Thomas Jefferson an advocate of an American nation to be preserved by the armed force of a supreme central government. The Union deserved respect, but it was neither sacred nor eternal. If you have imbibed standard American nationalist mythology, you will imagine Thomas Jefferson, having consummated the Louisiana Purchase, sitting in the president’s mansion celebrating the growing power and glory of the mighty new nation known as the United States of America. If so, you would be wrong. Jefferson was pleased that a large European influence had been removed from our borders and a vast new acreage of temperate zone lands had been opened up for future generations of Americans, who would thus never have to be crowded into evil and libertyless cities. The new States created in the Purchase (like Missouri) would be in every respect equal to the old. The Congress might govern a territory; it might admit a State to the Union, or not; but it could not create a State. According to the most fundamental Jeffersonian principle only a sovereign people could adopt a constitution and create a State. At the time of the Purchase Jefferson writes a close associate:

The future inhabitants of the Atlantic and Mississippi States will be our sons. We leave them in distinct but bordering establishments. We think we see their happiness in their Union, and we wish it. Events may prove it otherwise; and if they see their interest in separation, why should we take side with out Atlantic rather than our Mississippi descendants? It is the elder and the younger son differing. God bless them both, and keep them in union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better.

The important principle was not Union, it was the consent of the governed. If future generations wanted to go off on their own and form new confederacies, which he expected to happen in the new lands, that was not a problem—they would still be Americans. It was not the force of the federal government which held Americans together—it was their common blood and fellow feeling. Of course, Jefferson thought the succeeding generations would be the posterity of the founding Americans and their large families. Like Washington and most of the Founders he wanted only a few immigrants— those with needed special skills. People who had spent their early years in monarchical societies might bring with them wrong attitudes and not make good citizens of a free country. Neither Jefferson nor anyone else of his time could have imagined a future Lincoln who would import over 300,000 foreign mercenaries to beef up his armies to conquer the fiercely resisting Americans of the South. Much less could anyone have imagined the transfer of population from the Third World that is taking place today.

When Thomas Jefferson looked westward he saw succeeding generations of Americans creating new self-governing commonwealths. But when Lincoln’s lovers of “the Union” looked westward they saw something different. They saw natural resources to be exploited, new markets to be developed behind a tariff wall that diverted wealth to favoured interests; more political offices to be filled by their supporters; and more immigrants to be lured, which would keep down the wages of native labour and enhance the value of the lands to be given to the corporations by the government—all proclaimed in the name of the growing power and progress of the United States, which were now one “nation indivisible.”

Jefferson’s vision of the American future is so far from the reality of the imperial America of today that he may as well have been from another planet. The Southern political tradition, which he represented and largely defined, died as a functioning reality when General R.E. Lee proffered up his sword at Appomattox. America has and will continue to pay a high price for that loss.

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

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