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Sunday, June 27, 2010

What's the Deal with Jefferson?

The Problem with Jefferson

All students of the history of the American Revolution and the early republic eventually must, in their own minds, if not in formal analytical writing, deal with the problem of Thomas Jefferson. More than any other founding father, Jefferson’s paradoxical contradictions challenge even the most sympathetic of interpreters. The soaring rhetoric of the Revolution is encapsulated in the Jefferson drafted Declaration of Independence. He was devoted to human liberty and the hopeful progress that could be the fruit of human reason. At the same time, he indulged in racialist determinism in his Notes on the State of Virginia, made absurd apologias for the horrors of the French Revolution, unjustly tarred and condemned any number of well meaning opponents like Alexander Hamilton and George Washington (without the saving grace of being correct), proclaimed Jesus Christ to be the greatest moral philosopher in the history of the world, and indulged the fantasies of slavery’s defenders by promoting in lazy and paranoid moments the delusion that attacks on slavery were attacks on “liberty.”

It is easy to combine all of these criticisms, plus his likely sexual abuse of one of his slaves, into a full-fledged indictment of the man as not only undeserving of the highest accolades of the revolution and founding which he has often received, but as more deserving of scorn than admiration. This is the fountainhead of every scholar’s “problem with Jefferson.” It seems that the more one learns of Jefferson, the more uncertain is his legacy. The more problems arise in one’s understanding of the man, the more one is made to start making excuses, justifications, and rationalizations for a man who died 184 years ago. This is only natural. Jefferson’s name and image are, in many respects, the revolution. The Declaration of Independence is one of the pinnacle human achievements, certainly among the top three or four political statements ever written in the history of mankind. Yet the principal draftsman of that quintessential statement on the right of humans to throw off the shackles of oppressive government because of their fundamental equality as human individuals, was deeply (perhaps fatally) flawed.

Having dealt with Jefferson for years now, I’m still not certain what I make of him. On the one hand, I admire his ability to essentialize the revolution around individual rights and the legwork he did abroad as a diplomat. But, I cannot really understand why he overreacted to Hamilton’s financial plans as severely as he did, to the point of undermining Washington and dishonestly dealing with his colleagues in government. I also find his interpretation of the events of the French Revolution, which many of his colleagues (Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jay, Marshall, etc.) got right very quickly, bizarre and horrific. Add to that his inability to ever boil slavery down to the same obvious essential fundamentals he was able to see so clearly during the revolution, and you have a whole list of major complaints. The most damning part of it all is that many others who were not nearly so brilliant, figured these things out and acted upon their ideas with honest conviction and courage. In some ways Jefferson comes off deficient and cowardly after 1776 and I’m not sure he is salvageable in many major respects. More troubling, I’m not sure anyone should take the trouble to try since there are a great many worthy candidates of our admiration left among the founders.


mapeters said...

Hi Alexander,

Assuming that "likely sexual abuse of one of his slaves" refers to the Sally Hemmings issue, I was under the impression that the genetic evidence available demonstrates only that one of the Jefferson brothers (there were four) was the father of her child, and that other evidence pointed towards Randolph as the most likely suspect.

Is that not the case?


Mark Peters

Alexander V. Marriott, ABD said...

Great question. The actual state of the genetic evidence is this--and if you're interested in reading more about this, Annette Gordon-Reed has very recently published a massive volume on the entire history of the Hemings family at Monticello entitle "The Hemingses of Monticello"--there are four probable candidates among the male Jeffersons who were in the area (Thomas, his brother Randolph, and two of Randolph's sons). But in terms of access and opportunity there are really only two, Thomas Jefferson and one of his brother. That's about as much as one can say definitively as the rest of the evidence for either men is completely circumstantial. But I think it's fair to say that Jefferson is a more likely candidate because of his more consistent access and the various motives that were unique to him. His famous deathbed promise to his wife for instance to never remarry put him in an unnatural box that would have demanded some manner of release, whereas Randolph was married during much of the time Sally was having children (though of course infidelity is not at all impossible). Also, Sally was Thomas's deceased wife's half sister, being the child of Jefferson's father-in-law and one of his slaves. So it was likely that Sally bore some resemblance to his deceased wife as well as being quite fair skinned for a slave. The proof is by no means conclusive, but I think Thomas Jefferson is a more logical candidate than Randolph Jefferson or any of his sons. Nearly all current scholarship points towards that conclusion as well. The only thing I know of that points to Randolph is the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society report from 1999, but there is a tremendous amount of politics to get around in this debate and there is a strong push among Jefferson apologists to deny this sort of connection at all costs.

Even if it could be proven beyond doubt that Thomas Jefferson did father children with Sally, it would not change the essential problems one has with Jefferson's frustrating inability to apply his own principles to his own life as concerned slavery more generally. In fact, it just makes his predicament and failures more tragically frustrating. And even if Randolph or one of Randolph's sons were the father or fathers of Sally's various children, it would indict Thomas for owning nieces and nephews or cousins as opposed to sons and daughters. Neither scenario is attractive in the least. And neither scenario, one of which is undoubtedly the case, absolves Thomas of the unfortunate sin of owning members of his own family. But such a situation was not very unique in slave-owning America and was just one of many reasons why men like Jefferson despaired over the justice of God, because it could only be with one side and he thought it obvious that it would be with the slaves.

mapeters said...

Thanks for the response.

I didn't know Sally Hemmings was related to Jefferson's wife. That does make the whole situation uglier than I thought.

Can you recommend a good source on the Jefferson/Hamilton issue? All I "know" on the subject is contained in a scene or two from the HBO mini-series on Adams, where the Jefferson character makes it plain he disapproves of Hamilton's plan for a national bank.

If true, that much sounds reasonable, so I'm curious about what Jefferson overreacted to. I wouldn't expect Jefferson to approve much of any Federalist - which also makes his friendship with Adams a puzzle to me.

Mark Peters

Alexander V. Marriott, ABD said...

It is fine to disagree with some if not all of Hamilton's financial program. I suppose my chief objection to Jefferson's objections lay in his attempt to impugn the motives and republicanism of Hamilton and anyone else who happened to agree with the Tresury Secretary.

Good books on the Hamilton-Jefferson debate and the 1790s are, if you're up for it, Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick's very large "The Age of Federalism;" Joseph Ellis's very readable, much shorter, and mostly reliable account, "Founding Brothers;" and a number of more specific biographical accounts of which I think Chernow's bio of Hamilton, Merrill Peterson's bio of Jefferson, and Flexner's bio of Washington are the most illustrative. Also look into Peter Henriques "Realistic Visionary" for a very interesting and brief account of Washington as a thinker--public and private--as, among other things, there is a great chapter on his famous and mostly productive collaboration with Hamilton. If there is some more specific thing you would be interested in knowing about--for instance part of the rationale behind Jefferson's penchant for casting things in the fashion that he did is accounted for in Joanne Freeman's "Affairs of Honor"--let me know, I may have read about it somewhere.

mapeters said...

Thanks Alexander!

Mark Peters

mapeters said...

Hi Alexander,

I've finished my first reading of the Henriques book and the Ellis book, and I'm about halfway through the Elkins/McKitrick book.

The first two were interesting and enlightening, but the third is hard to read for me - too much detail for my purposes.

These are O'ist terms, but it looks like Washington thought Jefferson was a rationalist and Jefferson thought Washington was an empiricist. If true, that would explain alot.

Hamilton comes off, in my view, as a true-blue Federalist, so I'm curious now why you think Jefferson "impugned his motives and republicanism". He doesn't seem to be anything close to a republican. From this first reading (and based on nothing else, admittedly), Hamilton seems like America's first statist.

Having said that, I'm hesitant to take what these authors say at face value. Elkins/McKitrick in particular seem to be unprincipled.

Right now the lingering effect of these books on me is sadness ... from the realization that so many relationships were irrevocably broken among the Founders. Damn.

Mark Peters

Alexander V. Marriott, ABD said...


My apologies for taking so long to get back to you. When I use the word "republican" I am referring to an adherent of the republican form of government as opposed to a disciple of Jefferson's incipient political party. On the former point, Hamilton's bona fides are unimpeachable. You are correct to identify a greater honesty on Hamilton's part about the use of governmental power, but keep in mind that Hamilton's entire experience in the 1770s and 1780s was with a feckless Continental Congress that nearly destroyed republicanism in the United States through decentralized weakness. Individual liberty would be a moot point in Hamilton's view if the government instituted to protect it faltered and collapsed right away. His methods of assuring stability were questionable, but they were simply derived from late 17th and early 18th century British history (hence the negative reaction of recent American revolutionaries), and no alternative was provided by Jefferson or anyone else--when he came to the Presidency, he kept Hamilton's bank in place for instance.

Elkins and McKitrick are good for some of the greater detail. I would not actually recommend siting down and reading that book cover to cover, it's better as a resource for specific subjects. If you wish to read more about Hamilton, that may help to take the edge off of him (or simply confirm your dislike) try to track down Gerald Stourzh's "Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government" and Karl-Friedrich Walling's "Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government."

Also, reread Hamilton's entries in the Federalist Papers (Jay and Madison too if you have the time), his political philosophy for the rest of his career is laid out there.

Hamilton does boil over in the 1799-1800 period--but so do Jefferson and Madison. About the only one who manages to barely keep things together in that moment are Adams, Jay, Marshall and Washington until he dies in December 1799.

Sadness is the right feeling to have, because the revolution was a great achievement and offered so many opportunities, so many of which were brilliantly taken advantage of, but as it turned out, not enough of them. By the time all of these men retired, they knew it, making each of their retirements and deaths particularly sad. For a great example of this, my graduate advisor wrote a great book you might enjoy "The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy."