From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition by Clyde N. Wilson (356 pages,
The Foundation for American Education, 2003)

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Publisher W. Winston Elliott III, as he considers a classic collection of essays about the Jeffersonian tradition. —Stephen M. Klugewicz, Editor

“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.”

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in February 2011.

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Editor’s note: The featured image is a portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1805), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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