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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.