Thomas Jefferson’s birthday went virtually unnoticed earlier this year (1993), the 250th anniversary of his birth. Nothing is more indicative of how badly we Americans have squandered our moral capital and betrayed the substance of our history. We did have, of course, President Clinton’s inaugural journey from Monticello, though it is hard to imagine anything further from the true spirit of Jeffersonian democracy than the motley crew of socialists, spoilsmen, image manipulators, and foreign agents who make up the present leadership of the Democratic Party (except perhaps the motley crew of stockjobbers, spoilsmen, image manipulators, and foreign agents who make up the leadership of the Republican Party).
Then there was the conference on “Jeffersonian Legacies,” held at Mr. Jefferson’s University and since issued as a book and a videotape for PBS, that was devoted to a motley lot of dubiously qualified northeastern and California intellectuals preening about how much wiser and more enlightened they are about racial matters than Mr. Jefferson. In fact, Jefferson’s discussion of the American racial dilemma in Query XIV of Notes on the State of Virginia says everything true that can be said about the subject, ethically and intellectually, as will be seen a hundred years from now, should there be any men and women left who are capable of Jefferson’s range, clarity, honesty, and detachment.
Jefferson had the most capacious mind and, until his later years, the most optimistic temperament of any of the Founders. Had he never held a public office, his vast corpus of letters and writings would still be one of our most important legacies from that era. He was, on one side of his personality, a true intellectual, fond of ideas and speculation. The dull-witted and literal-minded have continually taken his statements out of context as dogmatic proposals to be enforced or opposed, failing to distinguish, as he did himself, between Jefferson the American public man and President and Jefferson the international man of letters.
Conservatives, in particular the heirs of his enemies, the Federalists, have had a hard time with Jefferson, often finding in him the anticipation of all they hate. Which is just the reverse of the counterfeit coin peddled by the leftists of this century who once made him an unrecognizable idol (though they thankfully are no longer much inclined to do so). In other words, Jefferson has been erected again and again into a straw man to worship or to execrate. He is bigger than all of the trivial images that have been constructed. To rediscover him we must unravel layer after layer of misrepresentations piled up by successive generations of self-centered interpreters. (For instance, on the slavery question, liberal intellectuals made him one of them, and then attacked him for hypocrisy when they discovered that he wasn’t. But this is silly. Jefferson was himself, easily discernible all along to any honest observer, and under no obligation to conform himself to the categories of trivial thinkers of later generations.)
Conservatives, misled by some of the more unscrupulous opponents of his own time, have had problems with Jefferson’s religion. Undoubtedly he tended toward deism, as did most of the intelligent men of his time to some degree or other. But Jefferson was never an enemy of religion, despite the hysterical charges of New England preachers unhinged by the French Revolution and their personal loss of deference. Jefferson always conducted his family life within the Anglican communion, in contrast to John Adams, who is invariably described as an upholder of orthodoxy though he became a Unitarian (!) not out of youthful folly but of a mature decision.
Jefferson the public man was in fact the favorite candidate of the more tolerant Protestant denominations and religious minorities. What he opposed was what he called “priestcraft,” by which he meant the clergy of New England hell-bent on dominating the minds and actions of other men by force rather than free assent. The “priestcraft” has degenerated from Calvinist to transcendentalist and now to progressive-liberal, but the principle remains the same.
Likewise Jefferson’s educational system has been praised and condemned as the progenitor of our modern public school establishment. But the debased system we have comes from Prussia by way of the New England reformers Horace Mann and John Dewey. Its rationale is egalitarian and regimented “progress.” The goal of Jefferson’s proposed educational system was excellence and the rescue of talent from obscurity for the good of the commonwealth. A resemblance is apparent only to the terminally shallow who mistake words for things.
The process of Jeffersonian obscurantism began early in the 19th century, when the village atheists of New England, from Emerson on down, who execrated Jefferson the public man, began to appropriate selective words of Jefferson the philosophe (like “all men are created equal”) as ammunition in their own will to power (“priestcraft”). This was their common way of proceeding. For instance, at the same time they managed to turn the fox-hunting cavalier George Washington into a puritan prig congenial to themselves.
The process reached culmination in the 1850’s, when a new party stole the name of Jefferson’s party, “Republican,” to cover a platform of business subsidy, abolitionist agitation, and Puritanism – all things that Jefferson abhorred. It would never have occurred to him that his own personal philosophical position could be employed by very different men as an ideological juggernaut to coerce his fellow citizens by federal force. Jefferson the public man led and reflected a public consensus, not an ideological program. It was very clear to his own generation, and the subsequent generation or two in those parts of the country that followed him, what that consensus was.
Jefferson and his friends came to power (the “Revolution of 1800”) in opposition to the economic and moral imperialism of Hamilton and his friends – a program of taxes, manipulation of the economy for the inevitable benefit of the few and the burden of the many, moral dragooning of the population, and involvement in foreign power politics. It was this threat that Jefferson and his friends put down, and kept down, for half a century – the happiest era of the Union.
Jefferson the philosophe is of great intellectual interest but of little political relevance to our very different, chastened age. It is Jefferson the public man we need to recover, as well as his program and his party: adherence to the limits of federal power in the Constitution: preservation of the rights of the states as the chief bulwark of our liberties (the “Principles of 1798,” toasted by Jeffersonians for generations); low taxes; a simple and economical government that interferes as little as possible in the activities of the citizens; avoidance of “entangling alliances.”
This was the platform of Jefferson the leader who postponed Hamiltonian calamities to the Republic and who was loved by the preponderance of the American people in his own time and long after. It is that Jefferson we need and who is our greatest asset against high-handed elites who oppress the people in the name of equality and popular rule. It is that Jefferson who said: “There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent.” “I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom. And to preserve their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.”
Once Jeffersonian democrats were the most numerous of all American political types. During the second half of the 20th century they have scarcely been heard from. Yet, in my opinion, there are, out there in the hinterlands, millions of us waiting for a reassertion of the “Principles of 1798” and for another “Revolution of 1800.” But alas, we wait in vain for another Jefferson to lead.
This essay appears in Clyde Wilson’s From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition