Given how vital a role history placed in the English-speaking world of the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson’s own love of history should not be too shocking. Further, it should not be surprising that Jefferson embraced a rather Whiggish view of history, one that pervaded much of American political, social, cultural, and religious thought.
It would be the rare historian or biographer who did not marvel at the versatility of Thomas Jefferson’s interests, abilities, and investigations. A scholar wrote that by age 32, the year before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson could “calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.” He has, one historian wrote, one tongue only somewhat firmly in cheek, “examined as an Architect, Classical Scholar, Philosopher, Humanist, Tourist, Apostle of Americanism, and even as Himself.” Another wrote, “To catalogue the areas of his explorations is to list most of the principal categories of knowledge: Law, government, history, mathematics, architecture, medicine, agriculture, languages and literature, education, music, philosophy, religion, and almost every branch of natural science from astronomy through meteorology to zoology.” That Jefferson would also serve as a member of the Continental Congress, governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President, as founder of the University of Virginia, and as the fountainhead of the Lewis and Clark Expedition simply overwhelms the modern adherent even more. In the twentieth century, liberal artists such as Albert Jay Nock and John Dos Passos attempted to understand him, as did historians such as Dumas Malone and Julian Boyd. Legal scholars such as Notre Dame’s Clarence Manion chased after Jefferson as well.
In the late 1950s, one of the founders of the Whig/Commonwealth school of historiography, Trevor Colbourn, offered a profound look at Thomas Jefferson as historian. Colbourn’s scholarship remains some of the best of the previous century. Given just how much was written on and about and near Jefferson in the 20th century, this is not faint praise.
Colbourn approached the subject of Jefferson as historian by examining the volumes in Jefferson’s four libraries: the one obliterated by a fire in 1770, the one Congress purchased in 1815, the one he began after 1815, and the one he helped create for the University of Virginia, also in his final decade of life. “In all of Jefferson’s libraries there was a hard core of title which were common denominators to each collection,” Colbourn reported, “books which constantly recurred in lists of volumes recommended to friends, books which called forth brief or extended comment from their reader, books that were even subjects of efforts for an American edition so that others might enjoy them.” In each case, the books were, Colbourn continued, either political or historical in nature. Of the three thousand books sold to Congress in 1815, for example, five hundred were historical. Historical works also predominated in the final two libraries Jefferson created after 1815. “Only law books approached this historical predominance, and they shared second place with works on government, politics, statecraft, and political economy.”
Given how vital a role history placed in the English-speaking world of the 18th century, Jefferson’s own love of history should not be too shocking. Further, it should not be surprising that Jefferson embraced a rather Whiggish view of history, one that pervaded much of American political, social, cultural, and religious thought as understood through the play, Cato: A Tragedy, and through the writings and editorials of Cato (Trenchard and Gordon).
Finding solace in the moralistic history of the great Roman Tacitus, the Whig or Anglo-Saxon vision of history argued that all of English history had been a struggle between liberty and power and that the Anglo-Saxons had been the finest of the Germanic tribes and peoples. The pure Anglo-Saxons had best represented liberty—through their Witan, their adherence to the common law, and their traditional morality of marriage. The Normans, led by William the Bastard, had fundamentally altered the English landscape and political-scape in their great invasion of 1066. In essence, the Normans introduced power into an otherwise idyllic England. From the downfall of Harold of Hastings through the Magna Carta through the Glorious Revolution, the liberty-loving Anglo-Saxons had held their own against the encroaching power-mad Normans.
Jefferson expressed this most blatantly in his Summary View of 1774. Jefferson, as always, is worth quoting at length:
To remind him that our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness. That their Saxon ancestors had, under this universal law, in like manner left their native wilds and woods in the north of Europe, had possessed themselves of the island of Britain, then less charged with inhabitants, and had established there that system of laws which has so long been the glory and protection of that country. Nor was ever any claim of superiority or dependence asserted over them by that mother country from which they had migrated; and were such a claim made, it is believed that his majesty’s subjects in Great Britain have too firm a feeling of the rights derived to them from their ancestors, to bow down the sovereignty of their state before such visionary pretensions. And it is thought that no circumstance has occurred to distinguish materially the British from the Saxon emigration. America was conquered, and her settlements made, and firmly established, at the expence of individuals, and not of the British public. Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold. Not a shilling was ever issued from the public treasures of his majesty, or his ancestors, for their assistance, till of very late times, after the colonies had become established on a firm and permanent footing.
In short, Jefferson believed that the struggle to conquer America had paralleled the struggle to conquer England, led by elected monarchs and a natural aristocracy, but never by the hand of a tyrant and his lackies in his court.
The introduction of the feudal tenures into the kingdom of England, though antient, is well enough understood to set this matter in a proper light. In the earlier ages of the Saxon settlement feudal holdings were certainly altogether unknown; and very few, if any, had been introduced at the time of the Norman conquest. Our Saxon ancestors held their lands, as they did their personal property, in absolute dominion, disencumbered with any superior, answering nearly to the nature of those possessions which the feudalists term allodial. William, the Norman, first introduced that system generally. The lands which had belonged to those who fell in the battle of Hastings, and in the subsequent insurrections of his reign, formed a considerable proportion of the lands of the whole kingdom. These he granted out, subject to feudal duties, as did he also those of a great number of his new subjects, who, by persuasions or threats, were induced to surrender them for that purpose. But still much was left in the hands of his Saxon subjects; held of no superior, and not subject to feudal conditions. These, therefore, by express laws, enacted to render uniform the system of military defence, were made liable to the same military duties as if they had been feuds; and the Norman lawyers soon found means to saddle them also with all the other feudal burthens. But still they had not been surrendered to the king, they were not derived from his grant, and therefore they were not holden of him. A general principle, indeed, was introduced, that “all lands in England were held either mediately or immediately of the crown,” but this was borrowed from those holdings, which were truly feudal, and only applied to others for the purposes of illustration. Feudal holdings were therefore but exceptions out of the Saxon laws of possession, under which all lands were held in absolute right. These, therefore, still form the basis, or ground-work, of the common law, to prevail wheresoever the exceptions have not taken place. America was not conquered by William the Norman, nor its lands surrendered to him, or any of his successors.
Modern historians would rightly note that Jefferson’s understanding of history was, at worst, simply incorrect, and, at best, mythical. Little, however, does this matter. Jefferson believed it, and most Americans (even, strangely enough, the Loyalists) believed it. And in their belief they acted.
Thus, when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he was not merely writing yet another legal document. As a good Anglo-Saxon, he was enacting his liberty against George III’s power. As such, Jefferson and America were not only righting a wrong; they were also preventing a wrong from ever again occurring.
Or so they hoped.
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