thomas jefferson

From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition by Clyde N. Wilson

“To check power, to return the American empire to republicanism we do not need to resort to the drastic right of revolution nor to the destructive goal of anarchic individualism. We have in the states ready-made instruments. All that is lacking is the will, our goal should be the restoration of the real American Union of sovereign states in place of the upstart empire under which we live.” So concludes Clyde Wilson in the title essay of this very fine book, From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition.

In addition to serving as the editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun he has written for Modern Age, Chronicles, Intercollegiate Review and Southern Partisan. The collection is broken into seven chapters: Agrarian Conservatism; Jeffersonians; The Lost Constitution; Empire; Imperial Irritations; Cons and Neocons; History and Historians; and Restoring the Republic.

Among the over sixty excellent essays to be found in From Union to Empire I wish to point to three that I would recommend for your particular attention. In the essential opening essay, entitled The Jeffersonian Conservative Tradition, Dr. Wilson attempts to answer the question “what should American conservatism seek to conserve.” In brief his answer is “the federal and constitutional republic bequeathed to us by that unique event, the American Revolution, a “revolution” which was prudential rather than revolutionary…a revolution for life, liberty, and property…a war of national independence waged without mass romantic nationalism.” He describes the essential elements of the conservative American polity as “republicanism, constitutionalism and federalism.” He goes on to propose that “historically, the conservator…of these elements” has been found in the Jeffersonian conservative tradition.

In Thomas Jefferson, Conservative, Dr. Wilson reviews Dumas Malone’s The Sage of Monticello, the sixth volume of Malone’s magisterial biography of Thomas Jefferson. While praising Malone’s work as “an increasingly rare phenomenon, genuine scholarship” Dr. Wilson’s review focuses the reader on what he sees as indisputable, Thomas Jefferson was a conservative. This essay is a wonderful review of an incredible biographical work. “Dumas Malone has completed a great work–a work that is, like its subject, truthful, harmonious, balanced, fair, decorous, gentlemanly. What a rare thing for an American book in the 20th century, a book by a gentleman about a gentleman.” I last read Jefferson and His Time twenty five years ago. It has been too long. I desire to once again share a fireside with Jefferson and his faithful biographer.

Truly Dr. Wilson’s review of The Sage of Monticello made me want to weep, a world lost, southern gentlemen of manners and intellect, an extinct breed for which we mourn and lament, as they are our great loss and never to be replaced. I hear the tide lapping on the shore and I sigh, never more such men to walk the earth. I am destroyed…for life holds dear what cannot be bought and cheapness coarsens the soul. Books, wine, a house on top of a hill with a view of the river. Monticello, yes. Soul speaks to soul. Across the centuries. You are not lost Mr. Jefferson. I still seek your friendship. And find you waiting with a full glass to enjoy and a leather volume to admire. Let us gentle men continue the conversation begun so long ago. Or was it yesterday…

In the final essay, Restoring the Republic, Dr. Wilson once again points us to Jefferson for the principles necessary to restoring the Republic. Dr. Wilson reminds us that “Jefferson’s little revolution now and then is not, then, revolution but reaction. Not a new utopia, but something radically conservative–a radical returning to the roots, to old virtues and old principles…” What is the beginning point for this restorative work according to Dr. Wilson? It is to be found in a principle which is much debated currently: “[I]n the American system this can only happen by the revival of states’ rights, the only true force for limiting power.” Dr. Wilson addresses the reasons for the decay of our Republic and suggests specific policy prescriptions which may bring about a cure. He particularly recommends term limits, a balanced budget amendment and a line item veto and notes that “responsible republican government would do two things in this situationreduce taxes and retire debt.” Timely advice indeed.

I recommend for your consideration this very worthy collection of compelling essays by a distinguished historian in the Jeffersonian tradition. For as Dr. Wilson makes clear “it may be that this sense of self-determination of free men enjoyed by our Fathers is an impractical goal, not fully realizable in the modern world, but unless we recover it at least as an ideal and a point of reference toward which we direct our collective selves, the American experiment has failed.”

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15 replies to this post
  1. I greatly admire Clyde Wilson, but I have a hard time accepting Jefferson as a conservative. This was the man who praised the French Revolution even as the Reign of Terror was well underway, who hoped for the reduction of the European population to a single Adam and a single Eve, so as to begin the world answer. This is the man who took scissors to Scripture so as to excise those silly, superstitious miracles from the story of Christ. This is the states’ righter who purchased Louisiana, though he deemed the act unconstitutional. Aside from his philosophical views, Jefferson was also a pretty unsavory character. He thought blacks innately inferior and did not seriously contemplate freeing his slaves (though he was, of course, not unique among his peers in these regards, these are still black marks against him in my view). He likely forced himself upon at least one of his female slaves. He cowardly fled the British invasion as Governor of Virginia during the Revolution. He was two-faced, conniving not only against his enemies but also his friends, even stabbing the great Washington in the back in a letter to an Italian correspondent.

    I think Rick Matthews has its right: Jefferson was a radical and proto-Marxist.

  2. Steve,

    Clyde Wilson addresses a number of the issues you raise in essays in this book. While I share some of your concerns about Mr. Jefferson, on the whole, I believe Dr. Wilson to be correct in calling Jefferson a conservative.

    I suggest to you that there is no evidence that Mr. Jefferson "forced" himself upon one of his slaves. There is some evidence that he did have a relationship with one of them but nothing which is beyond dispute. The charge that he made a cowardly retreat when faced with oncoming British troops when he was Governor of Virginia has always perplexed me. He was a political leader with no troops under his command, was he supposed to face the British with a sword in one and pistol in the other? Discretion is often the better part of valor, and it would seem he chose the prudent path in this situation. His views of blacks were common for whites of the north and south in his time. I don't believe these views disqualify him as a conservative thinker.

    As to his favorable views of the French Revolution and the Louisiana Purchase, they do trouble and disappoint me. The first because I find it difficult to understand how he could be so blind to the evil of the Terror. The second I believe was a major step toward empire and away from a sustainable small republic (let alone the issue of constitutionality). The rest of your charges I leave for a later date.

    I suggest you read the book and let's talk again about the Sage of Monticello. I am confident you will enjoy it.


  3. I may be uniquely unqualified to comment here, but since Mr Jefferson can be assumed to have read 'Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France' (1790) it becomes impossible to say that he did not see the arguments against true revolution, and it becomes harder to say that his attitude toward the Jacobins was just politicking or showing gratitude to an old ally.

    The question may be how many (or how big) blind-spots one may have before he ceases to be a conservative. The Reign of Terror does seem to have been rather a big one.

    Stephen Masty

  4. "Among the agrarian and democratic Republicans looms the angular figure of Jefferson, whose doctrines always were more radical than his practice and far less extreme than French notions of liberty…as his talents were immensely varied, so did his character display odd and sometimes inconsistent facets…Yet for all this, and for all his acquaintance with the philosophes and his affection for France, Jefferson had Coke, Locke, and Kames for his real political mentors; and, like them, he had half a mind to be a conservative–and sometimes more than half a mind for it."

    -Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, p. 73

  5. As a point of personal privilege, please allow me to correct two typos in my initial comment above (this is what happens when one types in haste while surrounded by one's four rambunctious, small children):

    –the phrase should be "so as to begin the world anew" (not sure how "answer" got there)

    –it should be "Rick Matthews has it right" (not "its")

    Thank you for your indulgence.

  6. "Temperate, sound in morals, sound in taste, learned in more than one discipline, open-handed, ready to fill great offices at personal sacrifice and then to retire modestly to Monticello–this was the genuine Jefferson, no doctrinaire egalitarian, no abstract intellectual."

    And Kirk writes "…Jefferson indeed was a Whig through and through, with the virtues and the defects of the breed. Joined with this Whiggery was another facet of his character…a bitter partisanship, not overly scrupulous…Jefferson could be ferociously emotional in politics."

    Russell Kirk (pg. xvii, introduction to "Mr. Jefferson" by Albert J. Nock.)

  7. Steve,

    These Jefferson quotes are for you (Mr. J. a proto-Marxist, ha):

    A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned – this is the sum of good government.

    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.

    When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we have separated.

    And he brewed his own beer.

  8. Winston,

    I will take a look at Clyde's book if you promise to look at Rick Matthews' book, "The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson." Matthews also co-authored a piece in "History, on Proper Principles" that argues that Rousseau was Jefferson's real intellectual soulmate.

  9. Readers of this site are better judges of this issue than I, but having just finished McCullough's biography of John Adams, I think that I have a better understanding of why Dr. Kirk in The Conservative Mind dedicated a chapter to Mr. Adams and briefly passed over Mr. Jefferson. (Or maybe it's simply my innate New England prejudices getting the better of me.) If the conservative advocates a politics of prudence, if we are to temper ideological fanaticism with sagacity and caution, then our model should be Mr. Adams, whom Dr. Kirk called "the founder of true conservatism in America" (TCM, p. 62).

    There is much to admire in Mr. Jefferson, especially in this time of empire-building and mass centralization of power. His advocacy of an agrarian republic, of great learning, and economic liberty is sure to appeal to all schools of conservative thought. Yet, his brilliance was at times rash, his private life troubling, and his public inconsistencies distancing. It might be unfair to compare Adams and Jefferson, but this summation from McCullough struck me:

    "Jefferson, the Virginia aristocrat and slave master who lived in a style fit for a prince, as removed from his fellow citizens and their lives as it was possible to be, was hailed as the apostle of liberty, the 'Man of the People.' Adams, the farmer's son who despised slavery and practiced the kind of personal economy and plain living commonly upheld as the American way, was scorned as an aristocrat who, if he could, would enslave the common people" (p. 545).

    As McCullough rightly points out, Mr. Jefferson is the much more appealing figure (and I write this while drinking my morning tea out of a Monticello mug!). In the American imagination, he is mannered, youthful, quick-witted; Adams, on the other hand, is aged, corpulent, plodding, and publicly disagreeable. Jefferson reminds us of our possibilities, Adams of our limitations; Jefferson – our dreams, Adams – our nature. Dr. Kirk, I believe, had it right: Jefferson had "half a mind" to be a conservative, but Adams was the complete article.

  10. "Jefferson, despite the show of French ideas which he made from time to time, founded his idea of liberty and justice upon the writings of Coke and Kames and the other English juridical writers, and upon the tradition of English freedom from the Anglo-Saxons down to the 18th century."–Russell Kirk, Program for Conservatives

  11. I realise this thread is reasonably old at this point, but I found the discussion quite interesting and hope you don't mind if I add some thoughts. Whilst Jefferson's concept of liberty and justice may have been founded upon the English tradition, I believe he still must be counted a liberal – his support of the French Revolution clearly puts him on the side of those like Fox, who failed to realize the vital importance of that English tradition and its historical context to their notions of liberty – believing them to be universally applicable. His support for the Terror has been mentioned – I'd also like to point out his belief that each generation should be free to dissolve the traditions of its parent generation and create a new society, not to mention his slavish devotion to reason. Then there is his belief that institutions corrupt man, that excesses in democracy are not the result of man's fallen nature, but that the system just isn't quite right yet. I think Madison was far more conservative than Jefferson. Randolph was probably the most conservative Democratic-Republican, and I think a comparison of his and Jefferson's views is a good way of highlighting Jefferson's philosophical shortcomings.

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