jefferson scholarsThe Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800, by Conor Cruise O’Brien

The Long Affair both succeeds and fails. By attacking the American iconic hero of liberty, Conor Cruise O’Brien succeeds in producing a stir, particularly among Jefferson scholars. The Irish scholar-politician selected passages for inclusion in The Atlantic Monthly (October 1996), entitled “Thomas Jefferson, Radical and Racist,” and the cover pictures his bust falling off a pedestal. By contrast, the attack fails to supply evidence or reason that Jefferson was either radical or racist Jefferson remains just where he had been and should remain, our ideal of moderation.

There are several reasons why we could expect a good book on Jefferson from O’Brien. Like Jefferson, O’Brien has served as an elected representative in the legislative bodies of his country, has written about his country Ireland, as did Jefferson of his country Virginia, and above all has in his political career represented his country abroad (at the United Nations). His center of attention is on Jefferson as American Ambassador to France (1784-89). O’Brien as a literary scholar has also written about Edmund Burke, who was deeply concerned with the same difficult problem that perplexed Jefferson: could France make the transition from Kingdom to Republic?

The story part of the book begins with a delightful “Preface” about four Americans in Paris: our first American Ambassador, Benjamin Franklin, Abigail and John Adams, and Franklin’s newly appointed successor, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, even more deeply than Franklin, was, according to the story, a convert to the true god, Liberty, as conceived by French intellectuals, and this became his “fixed star” of hope for universal revolution. Jefferson became intoxicated with “the wild gas” as Burke called it, “liberty, absolute, untrammeled, universal.” In this Jacobin fanaticism, Jefferson differed from other founders of our country, George Washington, John Adams, and especially Alexander Hamilton.

Why does O’Brien begin his story with these “Americans in Paris circa 1785”? In his Preface the author announces a polemical thesis. It is that Jefferson scholars have falsified the real politician, making him over into an “almost morbidly sensitive person, shrinking from the hurly-burly of politics and especially from controversy.” This has become a “fixed perspective” of American liberalism, and O’Brien is finally going to expose suppressed aspects of Jefferson’s career. He is going to use Jefferson’s own words, directly quoted, to destroy such paraphrases as those of Dumas Malone’s six-volume biography. The real Jefferson praised the French Revolutionaries’ aim to “set fire to the four corners of the kingdom and to perish with it themselves rather than to relinquish one iota from their plan.” Thus Jefferson wrote on July 11, 1790, in praise of the French Assembly’s plan of the triumph of the Revolution. This quotation, coupled with two others, which we must later consider, are the basis for the book’s claim that Jefferson set no limits to the liberty peoples were to achieve, and therefore justified limitless violence in achieving this goal.

It is of great importance to have our attention called to the concept of liberty and its limits in both Jefferson and Burke. When I read the two, I find Burke writing of Britain as “the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith.” Burke included British-Americans (such as Jefferson) in devotion to liberty conceived in the same way. [1]

I believe we have the answer as to why O’Brien begins his story in 1785. Had he included the two systematic treatments of what Jefferson stated as the colonists’ ideal of liberty in 1774 and Burke’s statement of what the colonists deserved as British citizens in 1775, we would find very little difference between the two. O’Brien wants us to think of the two as diametrical opposites: Burke as wise, and Jefferson as foolish. O’Brien accuses Jefferson scholars of a “fixed perspective.” I fear that in attacking them as dogmatic, forcing a theory on the facts, this opponent’s counter-thesis is no less dogmatic.

My reply must consider Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774 [2] and Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies, 1775. Since Jefferson’s tract was published in London, as well as in Williamsburg and Philadelphia for the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress, Burke may well have studied it, and I believe, with such substantial agreement that had the difficulties between the colonies and the mother country been in the hands of Burke and Jefferson, there would have been no American Revolution. My thesis is that British Americans became Americans because negotiations were in the hands of men less reasonable and open to compromise than these two. In frustration, Jefferson and the other colonists turned to Britain’s enemy, France. There he was closest to Lafayette and his noble friends who as republicans planned a limited monarchy as Britain’s. O’Brien quotes Jefferson’s own hope of a “good constitution” bringing “tranquility”: “a middle term between that of England and the United States.” The difficulties with a moderation of absolutism were so grave that we can comprehend Jefferson’s echoing of the bloody rhetoric of French revolutionaries.

Jefferson’s 1774 appeal is to British history and tradition, just as is Burke’s conciliation. Had it succeeded there would not have been the occasion for Lord Acton to write of 1776: “The saddest day in English history. Abstract rights as there are duties, rights not dependent upon positive law.” [3]

Between Burke and Jefferson are the strongest ties. Burke, for instance, praised the American “spirit of liberty” because he found it essentially English. By this Burke means that liberty should be within the context of order. Jefferson also appealed to divinely ordained duty, which, if faithfully obeyed by King and Parliament, would secure reconciliation and peace. Burke recognized the various grounds of the colonists’ love of liberty, and among them was religious dissent, which Jefferson himself cultivated and respected in others. Jefferson writes as an insider within the British system and within legal bounds. According to Burke there is “self-rule without bustle of revolution.”

There is in Jefferson of 1774 no appeal whatsoever to abstract rights, “rights of man” in the French sense, only to the rights of British Americans. This English liberty is an aspect of the rule of law, another aspect Jefferson grants, “obligation to obedience,” as Burke called it. Burke granted that the distance between Parliament in London and the colonial capitals necessitated some degree of independence. All Jefferson asked for was recognition of a “separate, but not independent legislature.” And does that not allow that the colonial assemblies would have accepted what Burke asked, “superintendence” of the British Parliament? The mistake Burke pointed out to his opponents was to hope that by force they could change American “republican religion.”

Burke sought reconciliation through recognition of common interests shared by Britain and her colonies. Would this not have sufficed to persuade the colonists to contribute to the government some share in common defense? I grant there is here only a hypothesis, but it is one that O’Brien should have considered, and as a Burkean expert, his analysis of alternative outcomes of the crisis would have been most valuable.

Do the few isolated quotations in praise of limitless liberty prove that Jeffersonian liberty justifies limitless violence? O’Brien’s dogmatic thesis has value because it forces us to recognize the total context from which they have been torn. Especially if a moderate man finds himself in what O’Brien calls the “hurly-burly” of politics, why should we not expect his impatience to burst out in a few intemperate remarks? The wonder is that in times that tried men’s souls there were so few. One of Jefferson’s own commandments was “when angry, count ten, when very angry, count a hundred.” None of us can be perfectly obedient to our best selves and their commands, and it is unfair of O’Brien to choose those exceptional moments when Jefferson wrote out of character.

The quotation justifying terror is “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The two prime suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing both claim Jeffersonian inspiration. Does their use of a metaphor of 1787 in 1996 reveal Jefferson’s true meaning and his own responsibility for terror? O’Brien would have us believe this is the true vision of Thomas Jefferson, and he carries this a step forward, to calling Pol Pot a Jeffersonian in our own day. If O’Brien had been as diligent in finding what subsequent generations had made of the metaphor “tree of liberty” and how it is nourished, he would have found many, if not most, have nothing to do with violent revolution and terror. For example, the corporate chieftain of Coca-Cola, speaking at Monticello, welcoming 67 new Americans to citizenship spoke of the necessary pairing of democratic opportunities with personal obligations. Whereas Jefferson said of blood “it is its natural manure,” the late Roberto C. Goizueta thinks of what really irrigates the tree. It is the

…sweat of the brows of enterprising men and women…working hard to demonstrate the lasting stability of a democratic capitalistic system…working hard to pre- serve the sanctity of private property… working hard to show the world that people can be trusted with government themselves.

Goizueta is stating his own political and economic creed, a rather Hamiltonian way of defending freedom, and contrasts it to what Jefferson said, but both visions recognize that obligations correlate with rights. [4] Goizueta is not confused and confusing as O’Brien, for the author seems to accept Timothy McVeigh’s twisted acting on Jefferson’s words.

O’Brien would have us believe that Jefferson, compared with others, was “particularly aggressive and vindictive,” that

…rather than [the French Revolution] should have failed,[he]would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country and left free, it would be better than it now is (Letter to William Short, American Charge‘ D’Affuiresin Paris during the Reign of Terror).

This hyperbole is more than “wild gas”. It is a desperate effort to sustain a young protégé’s waning faith in the French Revolution, and perhaps a desperate effort to suppress Jefferson’s own waning faith. It was embarrassing for Jefferson to admit that his political opponents had been right all along in siding with Burke rather than with Tom Paine. It is understandable that the account of what is dramatically called a “long affair” is deficient in telling how the love of correcting an old tyranny turned into hatred of the new tyranny of Napoleon. If O’Brien were a true Burkean he should rejoice that the intoxication was brief and ended in sobriety.

Jefferson shows himself a man of moderation, not at all a provoker of violence. There are other areas that O’Brien ignores. Among these is religion, with which Jefferson had a lifelong affair, and education, as he did also with the arts and sciences. Reading one short text in the latter area dispels all of O’Brien’s falsification. Congress turned to the recently returned ambassador for a “Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States.” Had Jefferson been a Jacobin, he would have given the date L’an 2, as did friends of the Revolution in other countries. Jefferson did not depart from the conventional dating 1790.Jefferson can find no basis in nature for a system of measures and weights, and therefore accepts what is customary among us, the English system, as it had been standardized under Kings and Queens.

We Americans are Jeffersonian and Burkean in still using ounces and pounds; pints, quarts, and gallons; inches, feet, yards, and miles. Jefferson found internal correspondences within the tradition, such as a cubic foot of water equals one thousand ounces. There may someday, he opines, be a thorough reform, to make weights and measures uniformly decimal, but for practical reasons, his aim, in which he speaks for carpenters, plumbers, cooks, tailors and seamstresses of his fellow countrymen, is to render “uniform and stable the system we already possess.”[5] Jefferson was empirical and pragmatic, and not at all an ideologue.

Rather than give us an account of Jefferson’s disillusionment with the violence of revolution that produced an empire built on conquest, O’Brien switches to a different issue. This is also one in which he thinks he can destroy the admiration Americans have for Jefferson. If Jefferson were a racist, then he could not be a fit model for a multiracial and pluralist nation. Again, O’Brien shows that he is no true Burkean. Burke himself knew Jefferson’s problem with slavery. Can an economy be quickly changed, along with the polity of people? Not easily, and not immediately. And can slaves be quickly changed into free- men? O’Brien unfortunately quotes the words of the early Jefferson on Negro faults and deficiencies. Just as with revolution, so also with black slavery, Jefferson learned and transcended his shortsighted first impressions. His own letter of February 25, 1809,to his friend, Father (and Bishop) Henri Grégoire, tells the story ignored by Jefferson’s critics:

Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than 1 do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are also on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinion of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their reestablishment on equal footing with the other colors of the human family…. [6]

Jefferson wrote the charter of equal rights extended to all races and peoples of different cultures, and he should not be disowned as a national hero of a pluralist nation.

O’Brien has failed to such an extent that I find The Long Affair a bad book. If there were a prize for the worst book on Jefferson, I should be happy to second the nomination for that distinction. And yet The Long Affair has the merit of turning us back to Jefferson himself, and also recalls for us the fine tribute to his moderation found in the conclusion of A. J. Nock‘s book on Jefferson:

A dominant sense of form and order, a commanding instinct for measure, harmony and balance, unfailingly maintained for fourscore years towards the primary facts of human life-towards discipline and training, towards love, parenthood, domesticity, art, science, religion, find its final triumph and vindication when con- fronting the great fact of death…. [7]

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in Modern Age (Summer, 1998) and is republished here by permission.


1.Speech on Making His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, March 22,1775,in Peter J. Stanlis, The Best of Burke (Washington, D.C., 1963),220.
2.Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York, ad.), 10>22.
3. J. R. Freer, ed., Selected Essays of Lord Acton (Indianapolis, 1985), Vol.111, 588.
4.“Opportunity Always Comes Accompanied by Obligations,” July4, 1995, in Atlanta Journal and Constitution,“Perspective,” October 19, 1997, 1.
5. Thomas Jefferson, Writings, 393415.
6. Ibid., 1202.
7. Jefferson (New York, 1926), 329.

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