A cynical but true saying that sometimes passes around among historians is “He who controls the present controls the past.” Man is a symbolizing creature, and political struggles can be as much over symbols as over tangible things. Those who hold power and those who seek power want to associate themselves with favourable symbols from their society’s past. It gives them an air of tradition and legitimacy. Those who hold political, cultural, educational, and media power obviously have an advantage in this game. Or sometimes the game is associating rivals with negative symbols. Who does not want to be likened to Lincoln and to stick his opponents with Hitler?
Needless to say, none of this has much to do with historical accuracy, which even at its best is an elusive and to some degree an unavoidably subjective thing. Thomas Jefferson was for a long time one of the most potent references in American discourse. I can think of nobody else who has had this role so powerfully as both a negative and a positive symbol. Jefferson’s name is still significant, as witness the relentless efforts of the present regime, which fears the real Jefferson, to destroy him as a favourable image. But, regrettably, Mr. Jefferson is no longer as important as he once was, nor does his name mean what it once did for most Americans. We live in an age of reverence for Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King and in a time in which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America is as remote to most citizens as ancient Persia or China.
Despite the fact that he is one of the most heavily documented figures of his time, we have a hard task locating the real Jefferson because he has been used and manipulated and distorted as a symbol by successive generations of power seekers. One thing we ought to make clear from the start: Thomas Jefferson was not a guru giving the holy word to his disciples, though he has been made to play that role. He certainly never considered himself to be such, indeed the very concept was alien to American discourse in his time and well after. He did not get the Declaration of Independence from Heaven and single-handedly promulgate it to initiate a world revolution of liberty and equality. He was the draftsmen who was charged with making a statement that would justify the rightfulness of the thirteen colonies having become thirteen free and independent states. As a public man Mr. Jefferson was always a representative of the people, not a prophet.
We should remember that Jefferson’s idea of his public role was an illustration of republican ethics. A good republican who held office returned to the people to live quietly under the laws he had made. He did not hector those who succeeded him in the responsibilities of office. Mr. Jefferson departed Washington and never thereafter left the soil of Virginia. For the rest of his life he did not make speeches, give interviews for publication, or hold press conferences. He did, however, privately answer queries on public affairs from people that he trusted.
Mr. Jefferson lived so long and wrote so much to so many people that it is easy to cherry-pick words to support almost any agenda. Jefferson was a cosmopolitan intellectual with a worldwide reputation, recognized in the Old World and the New as a wise and good man. But as an American public man he was the Virginian statesmen who saved the Constitution from the centralizing and rent-seeking agenda of the Federalists and preserved it as had been intended in its ratification. His was the name most often revered and invoked as the symbol of the values of the agrarian majority of Americans outside the sphere of New England influence. It is worthwhile to distinguish the intellectual speculations of a great mind from the solid positions of the public man.
He did not become a guru until well into the nineteenth century, when “All Men are Created Equal” became a mystical and emotional invocation in a time that was more romantic and less clear-minded than that of the American Founders. The phrase was used to great effect by Abraham Lincoln and by Karl Marx, who in support of Lincoln’s war, proclaimed the American Declaration to be blood kin to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Anyone who reads Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America, written just two years before the Declaration, will see that he wrote more in the spirit of the Magna Carta than that of the French Revolution. The Democratic party of Jefferson’s time and several generations thereafter did not deck out its conventions and newspapers with banners reading “All Men are Created Equal.” The banners read: “The Principles of ’98!”—the Kentucky Resolutions affirming that sovereign authority rested in the people acting through their States.
Mr. Jefferson had ideals and until his later years was an optimist, but he was never an ideologue or an abstractionist. He believed that, with enlightenment, humanity could make progress. I do not think he believed in Progress as some inevitable law of history, as reformers and revolutionaries have postulated. He thought that Americans had a unique opportunity to preserve free institutions if they were wise and virtuous. He did not believe that Americans were a chosen people with a divine mission to spread freedom to all mankind. That idea was invented by the New Englanders who hated him and whom he despised.
During the hectic revolutionary 1790s, Jefferson lived peacefully among his many slaves, while John Adams was fortifying his house in fear that the American mob would imitate their French peers. President Adams insisted on being addressed as “Your Excellency” and riding in a fancy carriage. Jefferson walked to his inauguration, introduced relaxed manners into White House social occasions, and sent his annual message in writing to Congress rather than delivering it to the assembled congressmen like the monarch from the throne. Their behaviours marked the difference between a real aristocrat and a wannabe aristocrat.
We can never understand Mr. Jefferson’s role in American history without recognizing the hatred he aroused in the New England intelligentsia and the distaste with which he regarded them. We know that the New England clergy denounced him from the pulpit from 1800 on as a Jacobin infidel who would set up the guillotine and share out the women. Listen to the young Connecticut poet William Cullen Bryant, addressing Jefferson in response to the Louisiana Purchase:
Go wretch, resign thy presidential chair,
Disclose thy secret measures, foul or fair.
Go, search with curious eyes for horned frogs
‘Mid the wild wastes of Louisiana bogs;
Or, where the Ohio rolls his turgid stream
Dig for huge bones, thy glory and thy theme.
The good young Yankee evidently regarded Jefferson’s interest in science as a sign of atheism and could only see Jefferson’s provision of vast lands for future generations of Americans as an evil invitation to the disorder that was bound to come when people escaped from New England dominance to the freedom of the wilderness.
Jefferson returned the compliment. He writes to John Taylor in 1798:
It is true that we are completely under the saddle of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and that they ride us very hard, cruelly insulting our feelings, as well as exhausting our strength and substance.
He further remarked that the Yankees were marked with such a “perversity of character” that they would always be divided from other Americans. In his letter to Washington justifying his departure from the administration, he writes that every act of the new government had been designed to profit the North at the expense of the South. His stand could have been made by any Confederate of 1861. His comments on “perversity of character” might apply equally well to today’s celebrity intelligentsia who are busy blackening his name.
On one occasion during his retirement, Mr. Jefferson was visited at Monticello by Noah Webster of Connecticut. Webster’s American Dictionary was really a New England dictionary. In the introduction Webster explained that New Englanders spoke the best and purest English of any people in the world, and he indulged in raptures about the superior wisdom and virtues of his region. Jefferson described Webster to Madison as “a mere pedagogue of very limited understanding and very strong prejudices and party passions.”
I have always thought that Jefferson’s advocacy of the separation of church and state was in part inspired by his distaste for the political power of the Yankee clergy. Remember, the famous letter about “the wall of separation” was addressed to a group of Baptists in Connecticut, who were independent of that state’s established Puritan church. One can still find die-hard Calvinists who denounce Jefferson as an atheist. For some reason they never mention that John Adams became a Unitarian.
Through the nineteenth century Jefferson remained a very popular symbol among the people and occasionally among writers, but New Englanders tended to dominate the print culture. This was a very calculated and largely successful program of the New England elite to make up for their political eclipse by capturing American discourse and symbols. Jefferson noticed this. He mentions, for instance, that several writers had given credit to Massachusetts for a step toward independence that belonged to Virginia. The Hemmings charge gained traction because New Englanders routinely and relentlessly charged that all Southern men acted that way. You see, New Englanders were models of sturdy Christian character while Southerners were lazy, incompetent, and of depraved morals. The literature spreading this viewpoint is massive from the 1790s up until the Civil War and even after.
In the early twentieth century the American Nation series was published as a definitive multi-volume history of America for libraries and upper-middle-class parlors. The volume on the Jefferson era was given to the Harvard historian Edward Channing. He describes Jefferson as “shambling” and his administration as incompetent. In 1905 New Englanders are still manly and dignified achievers and Southerners are still sloppy and contemptible.
Throughout the nineteenth century, and especially after the war to “preserve the Union,” the respectable American symbolic founder in published literature, after Washington, was Hamilton; Jefferson was a lesser and somewhat dubious figure. But as time went on, he could not avoid being nationalized to some degree. Teddy Roosevelt was able to invoke the Louisiana Purchase and the Monroe Doctrine as Jeffersonian precedents for imperialism. I think Mr. Jefferson would not be pleased to become an icon on Mount Rushmore along with the blood-and-iron nationalists Lincoln and Roosevelt. His vision of peopling the North American continent with American farmers is something very different from Northern capitalists using the armed forces to seize Cuba and the Philippines.
Given the time, it would be interesting to examine the subtle distortions of Jefferson’s image that were promulgated by the Massachusetts historians George Bancroft and Henry Adams. But let us turn, instead, to the restoration of Jefferson as a favourable symbol in the first half of the twentieth century by thinkers and writers who might be called progressives or liberals. Charles Beard published his Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy in 1915, and ten years later Claude G. Bowers produced Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton: The Struggle for American Democracy. They were joined by many others invoking Jefferson positively. Those who were unhappy with the domination of the American government by crony capitalism discovered that the Jeffersonians had opposed and foreseen such a sad state of affairs. The Jefferson Memorial was built in Washington by New Dealers, and John Taylor of Caroline was revived as a great thinker and prophet.
We should be grateful for this wave of positive Jeffersonianism, because it allowed opportunity and scope for Dumas Malone’s masterwork, Jefferson and His Time. Yet this favourable image of Jefferson involved distortions that were almost as bad as the old Federalist ones. I doubt that Mr. Jefferson would have cared much for the centralizing policies of the New Deal. New Dealers engaged in incredible acrobatic feats of tortured interpretation to make Jefferson appear to be one of them.
The fight over the Jefferson symbol in recent years, I submit, has largely been a sham battle. On one side are those who want to preserve the inaccurate but comforting image of Jefferson as the twentieth-century liberal. On the other side are those liberals who have discovered the obvious fact that he is not one of them and therefore should be banished forever into the outer darkness.
No wonder Jefferson arouses a negative reaction among today’s prevailing intelligentsia. It is impossible to imagine an American society that is more un-Jeffersonian than the regime we live under today.
Jefferson abhorred entangling alliances and hoped to preserve the great gulf between the New World and the Old. The United States today has a military presence in more than one hundred places around the globe.
Jefferson envisioned a continent filled with the descendants of Americans, with a few Europeans with valuable skills invited in. Today the descendants of the original Americans are an ever diminishing minority in an international unmelting pot.
Jefferson’s educational system was designed to nurture natural aristocrats who might be born into the unprivileged ranks of society, so that their talents and virtues would not be lost to the commonwealth. Instead, America early adopted the Massachusetts/Prussian system of public education designed to cultivate mass conformity and obedience.
Jefferson believed in the freedom of the mind to seek the truth and did not fear any genuine truth. We live in a society virtually without any real debate, dominated by Political Correctness.
Jefferson abhorred judicial oligarchy that thwarted the will of the people. Today the Supreme Court, not the people of the States, has sovereign power.
Jefferson feared banks and paper money. Our society is now dominated by banks that are Too Big to Jail.
Jefferson hated public debt. It placed a tax burden on the productive in order to profit the privileged unproductive, John Taylor’s “paper aristocracy.” Not only that, Jefferson’s constant theme throughout his life was that “the earth belongs to the living.” For the current generation to bind future generations down with debt was deeply immoral and anti-democratic. What would he make of our catastrophic national debt? That much of it is owed to foreign governments Mr. Jefferson would undoubtedly label as treasonable.
The reason that people today have such trouble dealing with Jefferson and slavery is that when they think of slavery they think of something different than what Jefferson saw. We look at slavery through a nationalist and abolitionist lens that Jefferson did not have before his eyes when he regarded the subject. Jefferson lived all his life in a system of domestic, household slavery that had been a way of life for generations. He was on record about the undesirability of slavery and had done what he could to encourage its end. Like most thoughtful Southerners, he regarded it as an unfortunate thing, but a thing so interwoven with society that nobody knew what to do about it—what he meant by “holding a tiger by the tail.” Lincoln himself said in 1860 that he would not know what to do even with plenipotentiary power.
Perhaps we can understand Jefferson’s conception of slavery by quoting John Adams, who is falsely portrayed in television epics as an abolitionist. He thought that debate on slavery was a matter of words, not realities. Here is Adams speaking on the Constitutional provisions regarding slavery:
…that in some countries the laboring poor were called freemen, in others they were called slaves; but that the difference as to the state was imaginary only….That the condition of the laboring poor in most countries, that of the fishermen particularly in the Northern States, is as abject as that of slaves.
Writing sympathetically to Jefferson at the time of the Missouri controversy. Adams remarked that he was entirely willing to leave the question of slavery to Southern men.
When you say “slavery” today, people think of the blighted and barbaric South that was pictured by the abolition movement from the 1830s onward. The abolitionists were vituperative, accusatory, called on unconstitutional federal power, and were marked by an almost religious fanaticism. They had no constructive solutions regarding the life of Southern people, black or white. They were a product of the perverse Massachusetts and Connecticut character which Jefferson had always abhorred. For Jefferson, slavery was something to be dealt with by Virginia in the light of reason. Like every other Southerner, Jefferson, had he been there, would have found abolitionism to be an irresponsible, disingenuous, slanderous, dangerous, and repugnant attempt to dictate to Virginia by people who would feel none of the consequences of their fury.
Any inconsistency or hypocrisy in regard to the issue is not in Jefferson, but in the eye of the beholder. To understand this we need only look at Jefferson’s response to the Missouri controversy—“the fire-bell in the night.” Jefferson had, of course, fathered the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territory. But Missouri was not a territory but a State in which a sovereign people had incorporated themselves. Their constitution and domestic institutions were not to be over-ruled by the federal government. Furthermore, unlike the 1780s, the foreign slave trade was closed and there was not the likelihood of many more Africans being imported. In his letters to Lafayette and to John Holmes, it is clear that what alarmed Jefferson and filled him with despair about the American future was not the persistence of slavery but the fact that Northerners had gratuitously and with bad motives drawn an ineffable sectional line. The campaign for territorial restriction of slavery really had nothing to do with the institution but represented a power grab by the Northern interests who had been eclipsed in his revolution of 1800.
One of the most egregiously dishonest symbolizations in American history took place when the party proclaiming “free soil” after the Kansas-Nebraska acts gave itself the Jeffersonian name Republican. That party was based in the regions that had always been most anti-Jeffersonian. It had a mercantilist program that was the polar opposite of a Jeffersonian political economy. Further, the demand to exclude slavery from the territories came from a very different perspective than Jefferson’s. When Jefferson looked westward he saw succeeding generations of Americans creating new self-governing commonwealths. The new Republican defenders of “the Union” saw something very different when they looked in that direction. They saw natural resources to be exploited, new markets to be developed behind a tariff wall that diverted wealth to favoured interests, more political offices to be filled by their party, more immigrants to be lured, which would keep down the wages of native labour and enhance the value of the lands to be given to corporations by the government. In their plans, black people—slave or free—were eternally excluded. And, for the crowning hypocrisy, the campaign against the “extension of slavery” violated completely Jefferson’s only hope for emancipation. As he observed, the movement of slaves from one place to another did not create any new slaves, and the dispersion of the rapidly increasing African population was the best hope for amelioration and eventual freedom.
Jefferson was a patriot. He was not a nationalist advocate of “one nation indivisible.” During and after his time nationalism was becoming a dominant force in the Western world, including the plural States United. Nationalism meant a territory politically and economically controlled by a central state and an emotional attachment to that state. For Jefferson one could be an American patriot without requiring total and unreserved obedience to the central government or believing that the people were spiritually inseparable from that government.
American nationalists glory in imagining Jefferson, having consummated the Louisiana Purchase, sitting in the presidential mansion celebrating the growing power and glory of the mighty new nation, the United States of America. This picture is an invention of the imperialist impulse of the late nineteenth century. At the time of the Purchase, Jefferson writes to a close associate:
The future inhabitants of the Atlantic and Mississippi States will be our sons. We leave them in distinct but bordering establishments. We think we see their happiness in their Union, and we wish it. Events may prove otherwise; and if they see their interest in separation, why should we take side with our Atlantic rather than our Mississippi descendants? It is the elder and the younger son differing. God bless them both, and keep them in union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better.
A letter to the English savant Joseph Priestly, January 29, 1804, expresses the same sentiments. After expressing relief that the worrisome problem of the Napoleonic empire on the Mississippi has been solved, Jefferson writes:
The denoument has been very happy; and I confess if look to this duplication for the extending a government so free and economical as ours, as a great achievement to the mass of happiness that is to ensue. Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children and descendants as those of the eastern . . . .
The Union was not sacred and eternal. It was an arrangement that could be changed. What was important was the principle of self-government.
Perhaps the most egregious distortion perpetrated by the New Deal Jeffersonians was the dismissal of State rights—which indeed for Jefferson was not State rights but State sovereignty. According to them, State rights were not really important to Jefferson and Madison. They just resorted to a handy device for defending dissenters. This was no longer relevant because now good liberals were defending dissenters through the federal government and, after all, the American Civil Liberties Union was on the ball. No honest person who reads the plain language of the Kentucky resolutions and the relevant passage in the first inaugural can possibly believe this nonsense. State rights and American liberty were inseparable in Jefferson’s mind—always. This idea he repeated again and again and again to the end of his life. And when Jefferson suggested the usefulness of a little rebellion now and then, what he had in mind was the people rising to curtail the usurpations of rulers and return the government to its original limited powers. Unlike those who later celebrated him as a hero of dissent, he did not advocate overthrowing society in favour of some new plan to be implemented by a powerful government.
Mr. Jefferson spent his last Christmas Eve in this earthly realm drafting a document that was designed to initiate Virginia nullification of the internal improvements legislation of the J. Q. Adams administration. This was less than three years before John C. Calhoun drafted the plan for South Carolina to nullify the protective tariff. Jefferson made the same points that Calhoun was to make: the laws were unconstitutional and exploitive of the South; the self-interested majority responsible for them was blind to all pleas for the redress of grievances. Therefore, the proper remedy was the interposition by the sovereign people through their states.
During the same Christmas season of 1825, discussing his proposal for nullification, Mr. Jefferson writes this to William Branch Giles. “We should“:
separate from our companions only when the sole alternatives left, are the dissolution of the Union with them, or submission to a government without limits to its power. Between the two evils, when we must make a choice, there can be no hesitation.
There is no doubt that had Jefferson been around in 1861 he would have been, like Robert E. Lee and the families of all the great Virginia Founders, a reluctant secessionist but a firm Confederate in resistance to invaders who, like their forebears of 1798, were insulting the feelings and exhausting the substance of the Southern people.
This essay originally appeared at Nomacracy in Politics and is republished here with permission. It was presented as a paper at the Jefferson Conference on November 9th, 2013.