Peter Onuf’s Jefferson

A review of Jefferson and the Virginians: Democracy, Constitutions, and Empire (LSU Press, 2018) by Peter Onuf

Historian Peter S. Onuf first saw the light as a Connecticut Yankee. Powerful of intellect even in his teens, he met the American Revolution as the subject of serious study in a Johns Hopkins graduate seminar (in which he was the sole undergraduate) taught by the greatest scholar of colonial America, Jack P. Greene.

Onuf’s earliest work focused on the kinds of legal/constitutional topics Greene has explored best. Students interested in “independent” Vermont, the Northwest Ordinance, or any of the several other subjects on which Onuf published his early books and articles find themselves starting, and most often finishing, with what he said about them.

For the last three decades, however, Onuf focused, with important exceptions, on one general topic: Thomas Jefferson. Successor to the two preeminent Jefferson scholars, Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson, in a chair at the University of Virginia named for their subject, Onuf took to it a sensibility notably different from theirs. Where his august predecessors in writing the very best books on the third President had been at once scholarly and celebratory, at times even defensive, of Jefferson, Onuf approached his topic from what he always called a “conflicted” perspective.

To borrow a phrase, a “mighty wave of public opinion . . .  has rolled over” the reputation of Thomas Jefferson since the days of Malone and Peterson, and where they forlornly had played the role of the Dutch boy at the dike, Onuf likely was the best person who could have been Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at Mr. Jefferson’s University as the wave crested. Rather than try to deny or defend the indefensible, Onuf consistently called people back to the historian’s proper approach to the past. Such a scholar’s function was to explore and explain the important features of the historical record, to try to understand them in their contexts, and to endeavor to derive whatever practical or philosophical lessons he could.

Make no mistake: Onuf played a leading role in the ongoing controversy about Jefferson and slavery. It was in his edited volume Jeffersonian Legacies (1993) that historian Paul Finkelman launched what remains the most fervent and influential J’accuse! ever levelled by a scholar at the draftsman of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson should have done more about slavery, according to Finkelman, and his not doing so constituted (he too borrowed from Jefferson) “treason against the hopes of the world.”

It did not end there. Rather, Onuf played a pivotal role in the University Press of Virginia’s publication of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (1997). Whether that work will prove to have had more effect even than Malone’s six-volume life-and-times account of the Master of Monticello remains to be determined. The immediate verdict on its impact is that virtually every academic historian working on Thomas Jefferson now believes—as scant few did before—that yes, he did. Deservedly, author Annette Gordon-Reed now teaches at Harvard.

Thus far, the headlines. Onuf wrote extensively on subjects related to Jefferson and slavery, and he typically found him wanting. The Jefferson biography he and Gordon-Reed published a couple of years ago makes Jefferson foreign in a way nearly unimaginable before Onuf set to work in Charlottesville. Yet, that is not the entire story.

It is not even the main story. For Onuf has continued to produce works of exquisite scholarship on matters Jeffersonian and to guide dozens of scholars from all over the world in their journeys along overlapping paths. Among his specifically Jeffersonian subjects have been Jefferson and the Classics, Jefferson and the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson and foreign policy, Jefferson and religion, Jefferson and women, Jefferson and slavery, Jefferson and Thomas Paine, Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, and here, at last, Jefferson and the Virginians. Surely I am not the only scholar who will smile on reading, in the preface to his new book, that “I do not pretend or aspire to be an expert on all matters Jeffersonian.” Who, pray tell, would be if not he? (Follow his endnotes and see what I mean.)

Man of the Old Dominion

Thomas Jefferson came into the world a Virginian. Though in time he became a citizen of the Republic of Letters and of the United States of America, he was each of those in a peculiarly Virginian way. Not only the oldest, most extensive, and most populous of the English colonies, the Old Dominion also proved to be pivotal to the American Revolution and the rest of American political history for 50 years after Lexington and Concord.

Remarkable indeed, that cohort of Virginia politicians who came of age just when their careers could intersect with Jefferson’s. George Mason, Edmund Pendleton, Edmund Randolph, John Taylor of Caroline, John Randolph of Roanoke . . . In a work on Jefferson and the Virginians, how could one choose which specific Virginians to consider?

One might say, well, the most important of them. A debate would surely follow. Was Patrick Henry more significant than, for example, John Marshall? Than James Monroe? If he was (and I tend to agree with Onuf that he was), why not more?

The answer is that Jefferson and the Virginians: Democracy, Constitutions, and Empire had its immediate origins in the 2016 Fleming Lectures at Louisiana State University. Alas, that means we have four chapters, and the first serves essentially as a prologue. Then follow chapters on “Democracy: Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry” (a topic too little studied), “Constitutions: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison,” and “Empire: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington” (also, and rather surprisingly, too little studied).

Onuf explains in his introduction that, “Historians of the Revolution tend to overlook the war itself, focusing instead on the power of ideas and the unfolding ‘logic of rebellion.’ This is the nation-making story Americans prefer to hear, for these ideas, we like to think, were destined to triumph in America and transform the world. Nailing down ‘first principles’ supposedly clarifies everything: these are and were ideas worth dying for.” Things proved far less simple, he goes on, as “the people” was a term Patriots could not agree how to define, and making a republican constitutional system was perhaps inevitably divisive. “This is why I portray Jefferson and his fellow Virginians as ‘thinking Revolutionaries,’ to borrow Ralph Lerner’s felicitous phrase.”

Those unfamiliar with the Virginia of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Henry will have a good appreciation of the social, constitutional, and political setting by the time they have read the first chapter, “’Strongest Government on Earth’: The Rise and Fall of Jefferson’s Empire.” What, exactly, did Jefferson mean in referring to the federal government using that term in his First Inaugural Address? Onuf says that in Jefferson’s understanding, the American federal union was a reformed version of the British Empire. As he originally explained elsewhere, Onuf understands “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” as a federalism document. Burgess Jefferson warned that George III could be replaced if he did not live up to the terms on which his family had come into the imperial purple. In 1775 and 1776, that happened; in this sense, 1787 was immaterial.

For Jefferson, “Federalism constituted a dynamic hierarchy of jurisdictions that secured citizens’ rights and sustained their patriotic attachments.” “The union was not simply or primarily an ad hoc, instrumental arrangement, calculated to secure and promote self-interest; it was, much more importantly, the ultimate end and justification of republican self-government.” How? “Good citizens, secure in their rights, recognized and loved one another as fellow Americans.” Or, as another vice president famously put it: “The union, next to our liberty most dear.” That was Jefferson’s Empire. Jefferson’s insistence that rights underlay the union made him a Panglossian optimist at the turn of the 19th century and had him wishing for his own demise two decades later, as we shall see.

Jefferson versus Henry

The chapter on Patrick Henry may be the most interesting for Law & Liberty readers—interesting, because unfamiliar. Anyone who has devoted time to the study of Patrick Henry will know that the great acrimony from Jefferson’s side seems not to have been requited by Henry. A sad tale, this.

His first impression of Patrick Henry, Jefferson recalled, was when he happened to be standing in the back of the House of Burgesses chamber when Burgess Henry levelled his verbal cannons at the Stamp Act in an immortal speech. The effect was overwhelming. Yet, the story of their relationship does not end with ability on one side and admiration on the other. The short of it is that while Jefferson lived to age 83, famously passing away on July 4, 1826, Henry, nearly seven years Jefferson’s senior, departed this mortal plain 27 years earlier. When the sons of the Fathers turned to writing the history of the Revolution, then, Jefferson could shred Henry’s reputation without fear of reply.

That is precisely what Jefferson did. He wrote a lengthy memorandum for the notable politician William Wirt, who was then at work on a Henry biography, describing Henry as lazy, selfish, uncouth, uneducated, venal, and essentially unworthy of the great acclaim he had received from the time of his first famous forensic feat (in the Parsons’ Cause, a couple of years prior to the Stamp Act of 1765). Wirt confessed that his book fell short of being a satisfactory life of Henry, given that his subject had preserved little documentation of his political career. This meant that, since the biographer relayed Jefferson’s smear job uncritically, the purpose the book did serve was Jefferson’s.

The source of Jefferson’s venom lay in a Virginia House of Delegates motion to investigate the Executive Branch’s war performance during Jefferson’s two-year governorship. Jefferson held that motion had been intended as a preliminary to naming a dictator after the Roman model. Jon Kukla notes in his definitive 2017 account of Henry’s life that, although the motion was not directed solely at Jefferson, but at him and the Council of State (a cabinet selected by the General Assembly), Jefferson took it as a crushing aspersion. He would loathe Henry ever after.

Jay Fliegelman speculated to good effect in Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance (1993) about the intensity of Jefferson’s feeling, noting that the tongue-tied penman likely envied Henry’s oratorical gift. Onuf says what needs saying: that Jefferson did Henry a great historical injustice, and that he knew better. Onuf notes that for Jefferson, whose impecunious habits left his daughter to witness the sale of all his possessions to satisfy his creditors, to tar Henry with an allegation that he retired from politics to feed his greed comes with exceedingly ill grace. Henry retired from politics and declined President Washington’s offers of all the top appointed offices in the federal government in order to prepare fit financial inheritances for his many children. Henry acted responsibly in this connection, unlike Jefferson.

The dissimilarity did not end there. Onuf classifies Henry’s political project of defending Virginians’ inherited rights as “profoundly conservative.” He might have told the story of Henry’s confrontation with Jefferson’s cousin, Governor Edmund Randolph, in the Virginia Ratification Convention. Randolph unthinkingly referred to Virginia voters as “the common herd,” and Henry took vehement exception. A duel was narrowly averted. One has the impression that Henry’s pose as protector of Virginians’ rights reflected his honest sentiments. Thus, in response to Jefferson’s decades-long campaign to replace George Mason’s 1776 Virginia Constitution with a new one more in consonance with Jefferson’s philosophical reasoning, Henry said no. Virginians were a real people with a real constitution which suited their needs, not a philosophical construct whose constitution should be changed in answer to theoretical objections. “Change,” as another of Jefferson’s famous politician-cousins put it, “is not reform.” Frustrated, Jefferson wrote to James Madison on December 8, 1784 that, since no new Virginia constitution was apt to be won while Henry lived, “We must pray for his death.”

Publius warned the readers of The Federalist that opponents of ratification could not be trusted. Supposedly Anti-Federalists, bereft of good arguments, were worried officeholders in it for themselves. Henry has been held up by contemporary students of The Federalist as Example Number One. How else could we explain why he, long the foremost defender of Virginia’s rights, came out of retirement to seek election to the Virginia House of Delegates—and with the aim of thwarting Jeffersonian opposition to the Adams administration, no less?

Onuf has no problem with this supposed puzzle. While Republicans feared the vector of Federalist policy and the repressiveness of the Sedition Acts, Henry agreed with George Washington that the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which came in the context of various warlike developments in Richmond and public invocation of the idea of secession by prominent Virginia Republican William Branch Giles, amounted to a threat to the federal union. Kukla argues persuasively that Henry did not gerrymander Madison into a hostile congressional district in 1789, but actually did follow his own counsel to former fellow Anti-Federalists on the evening of his failed attempt in the Virginia Ratification Convention. He acted, that is, under the belief that good republicans (with a small “r”) must now accept that the Constitution would be implemented and help to ensure that it was faithfully supported by all good Americans. In 1799, then, Henry responded to George Washington’s call for him to seek election to the House of Delegates.

Henry died in 1799 before he could assume the office to which he had been elected once more. I wonder what effect his prodigious influence over that body might have had on subsequent events. For example, since the Virginia Constitution of 1776 empowered the General Assembly to elect the state’s Governor, it would have been superlatively difficult for Delegate James Madison to secure the gubernatorial election, that year, of his and Jefferson’s ally James Monroe with Henry in the way. Then, too, choosing Virginian presidential electors pledged to both Jefferson and Aaron Burr—which was essential to Jefferson’s presidential prospects after Virginia Republicans’ betrayal of the New Yorker in 1796—would have been extremely complicated with Henry back in charge of the General Assembly.

Henry and Jefferson both understood the U.S. government’s strength as resting, in Onuf’s words, “on the people’s patriotism, not on blind submission to superior authority.” Onuf wants to push that point a bit too far, however: He says that Henry the Anti-Federalist chieftain made insistence on Virginia’s rights a kind of shorthand for insistence on Americans’. He overlooks that Henry insisted in 1788 that Virginia might hold out alone of all 13 states, and then the rest of the country would have no choice but to adopt amendments addressing Virginia Anti-Federalists’ objections to the Constitution. Here he meant chiefly substantive amendments of the type that the first 10 amendments ultimately adopted certainly were not. Henry in 1788 concerned himself with the future of Virginians’ liberty and the dangers he thought the proposed constitution posed to that.

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