I came into possession of Anthony Wallace’s book, Jefferson and the Indians: American Indian Policy in the Formative Years on November 1, 2010. Since then, I have thrice tried to read the book, but I could never get beyond the introduction, and that, for me, is unusual, even when it comes to books, especially books on Jefferson. In his introduction, Wallace—a Canadian-American anthropologist of some celebrity with a specialization in Native Americans—gives a depiction in a section titled “Jefferson’s Character” that is unrecognizable to anyone who has rigorously studied Jefferson. Though a renowned specialist on Native Americans, Wallace adopts a selective approach to Jefferson’s writings and he makes scant usage of secondary materials. Wallace’s Jefferson is “a stiff, bookish country lawyer, the literary connoisseur with a flair for writing elegant prose” and well-schooled on “putting a philosophical gloss on the violently [sic] partisan, but not necessarily original, opinions he held on practically every subject.”[1] One can readily recognize the uncritical uptake of the unflattering prose of Fawn Brodie’s, Harold Levy’s, Joe Ellis’, and Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson’s books, each of which he cites for his prefatory character assassination of Jefferson.

Wallace continues. Jefferson had a temperament that was “deeply controlling,” yet he failed to recognize that, though he quickly recognized it in others. As proof, Wallace offers something written by Margaret Bayard Smith, a female contemporary of Jefferson. According to Smith, Jefferson once said, “How I wish that I had the power of a despot!” Wallace adds that that is a lust for power, scholars have noted, which Jefferson exercised all too freely and all too gleefully. Wallace then goes on to elaborate on Jefferson titanolatry.

Yet when we go to Smith’s book, we find that the quote concerns Jefferson’s large dismay about people cutting down “the fine trees scattered around the city-grounds [of Washington].” Smith continues: “The company at table stared at a declaration so opposed to his disposition and principles. ‘Yes,’ continued he, in reply to their inquiring looks, ‘I wish I was a despot [note here that Wallace does not even get right the quote] that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling sacrifices to the cupidity of their owners, or the necessity of the poor.’”[2] Jefferson’s titanolatry, it seems, is reducible to being a tree-hugger. So much for Jefferson’s avowed lust for power!

In addition to his “desire to control” and “willingness to trample on civil liberty and use force to achieve national goals,” there was Jefferson’s “relentless moralism”—his amaranthine tendency to give his actions a moral slant. Yet his actions, says Wallace, were typically self-interested, not other-interested, though the self-interest Jefferson cunningly packaged habitually as benevolently intended virtuous actions.[3] If Jefferson could not be virtuous, he could at least look the part. And so, references to “the liberty of ‘the people’” were instead veiled references—more appositely, projections—concerning his own fears of being persecuted by others. He longed ever for personal freedom, but as a false prophet, he projected and marketed that as political liberalism. Lusting after control, he feared being controlled by others. Thus, Jefferson “projected his private drama onto a national, indeed a global, scene, demanding liberty for the downtrodden everywhere, to the point of being prepared to force freedom on the unwilling.”[4] Thus, his vision of a global “empire of liberty” was reducible to personal paranoia.

Jefferson “insisted that everyone he knew, and by extension everyone, be willing members of his happy family. He was both patriarch and queen bee, surrounded by workers and drones. It was he who decided what the happy family was and how its members should enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those who rejected his notion of happy family “had to be coerced.”[5] How Wallace gets from “everyone he knew” to “everyone” through means of “extension,” whatever that might mean, goes unexplained. Yet it is clear that that subtle coercion must have played a large part of Jefferson’s Indian policy, otherwise Wallace would not spend so much energy in his preface in denigrating Jefferson.

Jefferson had a roseate “ideal society” which entailed liberty, equality, and desert of rights, but all too frequently the Indians were spoilers. They got in the way, and they needed to be removed, even exterminated. Jefferson, sums Wallace, was guilty of insincerity, duplicity, and hypocrisy “in Indian affairs,” but those were illustrations of his shiftiness and ruthlessness in guaranteeing that the United States would be “a republic governed by Anglo-Saxon yeomen.” There was no place in Jefferson model for an empire for liberty, it seems, for those who first occupied the land.[6]

Wallace’s introduction makes it clear that his evaluation of Jefferson’s character, which informs his assessments throughout the book, has been shaped by those scholars from whom he draws—Brodie, Levy, Ellis, and Tucker and Hendrickson—none of whom can be said to have strong love for Jefferson and all of whom have written just one book on Jefferson. There are astonishingly no references to the two great Jeffersonian scholars, Malone and Peterson—each of whom wrote much on Jefferson and Native Americans—anywhere in his book. That is unpardonable. There are no references to statements in Jefferson’s own writings in support of Wallace’s vitriolic assessment of Jefferson’s character.

The nodi are these.

First, Wallace begins his analysis of Jefferson’s views on Native Americans with an assessment of Jefferson’s character, derived from four and only four, rather slanted, sources (five, if one counts his mistake on Smith’s recollection). His assessment of Jefferson’s character does not come after study of Jefferson’s views on and actions concerning Native Americans. His assessment of Jefferson’s character does not come after a sweeping study of the most significant Jeffersonian scholars on Jefferson’s character. That is the gist of Jefferson’s objection to hasty theorizing in a letter to Charles Thomson (20 Sept. 1787). “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.” Wallace begins his book with condemnation of Jefferson and that throughout colors the book.

Second, if Jefferson’s was such an irremediable paranoic and titanolatrist, one would expect to find ample examples of how Wallace’s version of Jefferson’s Indian policy, which I call the Subtle Muscularity Thesis on account of Wallace’s introduction, radically differed, to the detriment of Aboriginals, from those presidents before him and immediately after him. Jefferson’s gross psychological imbalance would have to have made some noteworthy difference in Jefferson’s policy, otherwise it is vacuous. Wallace proffers no such illustrations throughout his book. What is the point of articulating a thesis that drives a book if nowhere in the book is the thesis defended?

However—and here is the elephantine rub—the book, minus the introduction, is anything but character-assassination. The main body of the book is a relatively tempered critical assessment of Jefferson’s Indian policy and mostly without severe condemnation of the man behind the policy. I found myself, if only reluctantly because of my soured first impression, in agreement with the tenor of Wallace’s argument, which, stripped of its conceits, is cogent and backed by a sufficiently good grasp of Jefferson’s writings. It was as if the person who wrote the book was not the person who wrote the introduction.

In sum, the book, minus its introduction, is a valuable addition to the relatively scant literature on Jefferson’s Indian policy. I recommend only that those persons aiming to read Wallace’s book either skip the introduction or read it with my cautionary remarks in mind.


[1] Anthony F.C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans (Cambridge, MS: The Belknap Press, 1999), 14.

[2] Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 11.

[3] Anthony F.C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians, 15.

[4] Anthony F.C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians, 15–16.

[5] Anthony F.C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians, 14–16.

[6] Anthony F.C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians, 19–20.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]


  • Dr. Mark A. Holowchak says:

    PS: I do have a book coming out soon: Thomas Jefferson on American Indians: Perspectives, Philosophical & Political

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    “ ‘…violently [sic] partisan….’”
    I’m no pro, consequently probably misguided, but when I read such trite redundant shrieks I think of silly writers such as Bill O’Reilly, Brian Kilmeade, et al and usually am on the alert for more of the same throughout the piece. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s always a point for me.

  • Valerie Protopapas says:

    Washington has also been pilloried for his treatment of the Iroquois at the end of the Revolutionary War, but nobody bothers to tell what the Indians (fighting on the British side!) were doing to civilian colonists! Washington tried to get the Indians to fight with the Americans or stay neutral but he could not. Remember, this is the man who saw what the Indians did during the French and Indian war to innocent civilians and actually became so distraught he considered surrendering himself to the natives if they would kill him and leave the civilians alone. Of course, he knew that would not work, but imagine this young man’s angst when he could not prevent this slaughter because of insufficient (and unprofessional) troops! No, the Indians are not always “innocent victims” of the nasty “white man.”

    As for Jefferson, I have less respect for him after his treatment of Washington when he wanted the President to go to war with the French against the British. Washington thought any such endeavor would do much to hurt and possibly even destroy the new nation and as for France supporting the Americans during the Revolutionary war, the French government that had done so had been guillotined by those then in power and some of the responsibility for the revolution in France was the fault of the money given to America by that same King! Jefferson had every right to choose to side with the French, but he tried to use French agents to vilify Washington in the press as a means of forcing the President’s hand! I don’t think Washington ever forgave him.

    As an interesting aside, Jefferson claimed to hate cities and wanted America to have no cities or manufacturing but to live by agriculture alone (as if such a thing were possible!) but yet, he still loved Paris though it was drowned in the blood of the innocents!

  • Keith Redmon says:

    I love New York, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

    • William Quinton Platt III says:

      Never been…though NYC did support the Confederate cause until linc promised the trans-continental railroad (northern version) would bring money to NYC.

Leave a Reply