Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The WJMI Year in Review

Happy New Year from the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute!  We at WJMI are grateful for your support this past year.  A few statistics from 2013:

During 2013 over 9,171 people have downloaded WJMI’s free manual “Jefferson & Madison’s Guide to the Constitution” at the Federalist Papers Project: 

The Guide is also available on Amazon’s Kindle:
http://www.amazon.com/Jefferson-Madisons-Guide-Constitution

Our Blog averages over 2,000 page views per month.  Our top blog posts are:           
Entry
Pageviews

9535

8317

4838

2205

2044


WJMI sponsored three seminars for secondary school teachers during 2013:

     The Bill of Rights: Charter of Freedom            February 15, 2013
     Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution       September 13, 2013
     Thomas Jefferson Roundtable                            November 15, 2013

WJMI also sponsored several seminars on the Constitution for Citizens in Utah and Virginia.

Tony Williams joined WJMI as full-time Program Director in 2013. He is the author of four books on the Founding, including “America's Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation's Character” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), all available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Tony-Williams

WJMI began to collaborate in 2013 with the Center for American Studies at Christopher Newport University (http://cnu.edu/cas/) and they will co-sponsor our first teacher seminar of 2014 in February on the topic of “The Life & Character of George Washington.”

We hope that you have a Happy & Prosperous New Year and commend to all this wise advice:

"Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors,
and let each New Year find you a better man."
— Benjamin Franklin


Thursday, December 19, 2013

The History of Christmas in America

“In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday. 

The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.

After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution. Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

Washington Irving reinvents Christmas

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. But what about the 1800s peaked American interest in the holiday?

The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.

In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status.

Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended—in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.

Before the Civil War 

The North and South were divided on the issue of Christmas, as well as on the question of slavery. Many Northerners saw sin in the celebration of Christmas; to these people the celebration of Thanksgiving was more appropriate. But in the South, Christmas was an important part of the social season. Not surprisingly, the first three states to make Christmas a legal holiday were in the South: Alabama in 1836, Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838.

In the years after the Civil War, Christmas traditions spread across the country. Children's books played an important role in spreading the customs of celebrating Christmas, especially the tradition of trimmed trees and gifts delivered by Santa Claus. Sunday school classes encouraged the celebration of Christmas. Women's magazines were also very important in suggesting ways to decorate for the holidays, as well as how to make these decorations.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, America eagerly decorated trees, caroled, baked, and shopped for the Christmas season. Since that time, materialism, media, advertising, and mass marketing has made Christmas what it is today. The traditions that we enjoy at Christmas today were invented by blending together customs from many different countries into what is considered by many to be our national holiday.”
__________________________________



Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Boston Tea Party


By Tony Williams

On December 16, Americans recognize and celebrate the 240th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.  We honor what patriot John Adams called an act “so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid, and inflexible.”  Adams rightly predicted that the Boston Tea Party would be remembered as a significant event in the resistance against British tyranny. “It must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it an epocha in history.” 

The events of the Boston Tea Party are familiar to most schoolchildren. The colonists were angered by the Tea Act which gave a monopoly to the East India Company and the tax that was retained from the Townshend Acts.  The Bostonians refused to allow the tea to be landed in Boston and threatened the tea agents.  After a democratic mass meeting of thousands in which Sam Adams warned that they would make “Boston harbor a tea-pot tonight!” the assembled crowd make their way to Griffin’s Wharf to destroy the tea.  Patriots dressed up like Mohawk Indians and methodically dumped an incredible 90,000 pounds of tea worth £10,000 into the water. 

For the colonists, it was not a matter of paying a few extra pence for their tea, but rather the constitutional principle of Englishmen not wanting to be taxed without their consent.  George Washington asked from Virginia: “What is it we are contending against?  Is it against paying the duty of 3d. per pound on tea because burdensome?  No, it is the right only . . . as Englishmen, we could not be deprived of this essential and valuable part of our Constitution.” 

In response to the Boston Tea Party, the British passed several acts collectively known as the “Coercive Acts,” which systematically violated the rights of the colonists in Massachusetts.  Their right to trade was violated, their right to their property and not to have troops in their home without their consent was violated, their right to self-government was violated, their right to justice and local trial by jury for accused royal murderers, and their right to settle out West was violated.    

The colonists believed that these acts constituted a systematic British plan of despotism to enslave the colonists.  They argued for their rights as Englishmen, but they also argued that their natural rights from nature and nature’s God were being violated as well.  Washington wrote, “An innate spirit  of freedom first told me, that the measures, which administration hath for some time been, and now are most violently pursuing, are repugnant to every principle of natural justice; whilst much abler heads than my own hath fully convinced me, that it is not only repugnant to natural right, but subversive of the laws and constitution of Great Britain itself.”

It is no surprise then that Washington averred, “The crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights, or submit to every imposition.”  Although history is filled contingency and reconciliation was certainly possible to avert war and revolution at this point, it is also true that the Boston Tea Party triggered a series of events that would ultimately lead to independence and self-government for Americans. 

It is for that reason that Americans rightly commemorate the event. 


Tony Williams is the WJMI Program Director and has written about the Boston Tea Party and related events in his book America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The First Whitehouse Christmas with John & Abigail Adams

“When the second President of the United States, John Adams, and his wife Abigail, moved into what would come to be known as the White House [in November 1800], the residence was cold, damp, and drafty. Sitting at the edge of a dreary swamp, the First Family had to keep 13 fireplaces lit in an effort to stay comfortable. It is in this setting that the cantankerous president held the first ever White House Christmas party in honor of his granddaughter, Susanna. It could be said that the invitations sent for this party were the very first White House Christmas cards, though in those early days, the building was referred to as the President’s Palace, Presidential Mansion, or President’s House.

The affair was planned in large part by the vivacious First Lady, Abigail Adams, and was considered a great success. A small orchestra played festive music in a grand ballroom adorned with seasonal flora. After dinner, cakes and punch were served while the staff and guests caroled and played games. The most amusing incident of the evening occurred when one of the young guests accidentally broke one of the First Granddaughter’s new doll dishes. Enraged, the young guest of honor promptly bit the nose off of one of the offending friend’s dolls. The amused president had to intervene to make sure the incident didn’t take an uglier turn.”

Following the Adams’ first Christmas in the White House, they held the first presidential levee on New Year’s Day.

“As you can imagine, the celebration was grand! Cookies, custards, and cakes, all baked in the new hearths on either side of the enormous kitchen fireplace, were served, along with all kinds of puddings, pastries, trifles, and tarts. Borrowing court etiquette from European kings and queens she had seen while John was U. S. Ambassador to Britain, Abigail regally greeted guests from a throne-like chair. Standing proudly beside her was her husband, wearing velvet breeches and lace with fashionably powdered hair.

Although that reception was a lavish affair, John and Abigail preferred more basic fare, and a few of their favorite foods, which can be traced to their New England roots, included Green Turtle Soup, Indian Pudding, and Gooseberry Fool.”
_________________________________
Sources:
http://www.whitehousechristmascards.com/john-adams-1797-1801/john-adams/
http://lincolnslunch.blogspot.com/2010/07/john-and-abigail-adams-indian-pudding.html

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Remember Pearl Harbor

In  the morning hours of Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise air attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii (located on the south side of the Hawaiian island of Oahu).  The first wave of Japanese planes reached the U.S. Naval Station at 7:55 a.m

Almost two weeks before the strike, on November 26, 1941, the Japanese attack force, led by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, left Etorofu Island in the Kurils (located northeast of Japan) on its 3,000-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean with an armada of six aircraft carriers, nine destroyers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and three submarines. 

At 6:00 a.m. on December 7th, the Japanese aircraft carriers began launching their planes amid rough sea. In total, 183 Japanese aircraft took to the air as part of the first wave of the attack on Pearl Harbor. At 7:15 a.m., the Japanese aircraft carriers, plagued by even rougher seas, launched 167 additional planes to participate in the second wave of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

That Sunday morning, U.S. military personnel at Pearl Harbor were either still asleep, in mess halls eating breakfast, or getting ready for church. They were completely unaware that an attack was imminent.  Just before the first bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, leader of the air attack, called out, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" ("Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!"), a coded message which told the entire Japanese navy that they had caught the Americans totally by surprise. 

The Japanese onslaught lasted just two hours, but it was devastating. They had been hoping to catch U.S. aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor, but the aircraft carriers were out to sea that day. The next major important naval targets were the battleships. As their planes approached, there were eight U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor, seven of which were lined up at what was called Battleship Row and one (the Pennsylvania) was in dry dock for repairs (the Colorado, the only other battleship of the U.S.'s Pacific fleet, was not at Pearl Harbor). One of the eight, the Arizona, was struck a number of times by bombs. One of these bombs, thought to have hit the forward magazine, caused a massive explosion, which quickly sank the vessel. Approximately 1,100 of her crew were killed and drowned. Including the eight battleships, enemy bombs and torpedoes destroyed nearly twenty American naval vessels and almost two hundred aircraft.  In total, more than 2,400 American soldiers and sailors died in the attack, and another 1,000 were wounded.  

The day after the assault, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. In his speech he said,

“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan….No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory…With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph -- so help us God.”

Congress approved the President’s pronouncement with just one dissenting vote.  Three days later, Japanese allies Germany and Italy also declared war on the United States.  America had been thrust into World War II.
___________________________________

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Reflections on the Gettysburg Address

By Tony Williams

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered all 272 words of the Gettysburg Address in a mere two minutes to dedicate the cemetery for the soldiers who died there in early July.  The result of the brief speech was one of the most profound, and certainly the most poetic, reflections upon the meaning of America.

Evoking the language of the King James Bible, Lincoln begins with the immortal words:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Lincoln takes his audience, and us, back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence.  Throughout his public career, he appealed to the Declaration of Independence dozens of times to denounce the evils of slavery and praise the American natural rights republic in which our rights were from God, who created all men equal in those rights according to natural law and human nature.

For example, in 1858, in addition to similar statements in the debates with Stephen Douglas, he explained that the Declaration asserted a moral principle of equality that breathes life into the American experiment in liberty and self-government:

When they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

In addition, in 1859, Lincoln wrote that Jefferson’s revolutionary principle of the equality of mankind changed the world:

All honor to Jefferson--to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

In the opening of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln evokes the past – taking us back to the founding or conception of the republic at its birth – and provides a vision of the American continent.  Notice the brilliant use of time and place in each paragraph which could be graphed if you’re of such a mind to do such a thing. 

In the next paragraph, Lincoln brings us to the present – an awful, bloody present in which 51,000 Americans perished at this one battlefield over three horrific days.  Instead of continent, Lincoln discusses the nation.  So, rather than birth-past-continent, this haunting paragraph gives us death-present-nation. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Note how Lincoln repeats the word “dedicate” over and over again – a nation dedicated to the principle of equality, a president dedicating a battlefield, a people dedicated to seeing the bloody civil war to its end to complete its work towards equality.  You’ll find several uses of the word in the closing. 

Listen to the poetic triplets of parallel construction in the concluding paragraph when Lincoln says, “We can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow,” and “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  This rhetorical device gives the speech its magical cadence and rhyme. 

The closing takes us to the future, to the battlefield, and to the rebirth of the nation in the fulfillment of its principles from its birth as Lincoln brings us full-circle with great praise to the honored war-dead.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

With that, Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our greatest wordsmith, and arguably our greatest expositor of the ideas of the American founding reminds us that America was created as a nation of ideas – liberty, self-government, and equality of all humans. 


Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Recommended Jefferson Readings from Stephen F. Knott

Recommended Jefferson Readings from Stephen F. Knott:
1. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (Modern Library Classics), Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds.

This collection captures Jefferson as a polemicist for liberty -- the poet of the glorious cause and the rights of man. Jefferson’s pen elevated the American Revolution into something higher than an anti-colonial quest for independence. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “all honor to Jefferson - to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

2.  The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, by Merrill Peterson

An account of how Jefferson was elevated into the American Pantheon, joining Washington and Lincoln as sacred figures in the American mind. Peterson sees Franklin Roosevelt as a key figure in the rehabilitation of Jefferson’s image, which reached its nadir during and after the American Civil War. FDR led the effort to build the beautiful Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, helped to restore Monticello, and insisted that Jefferson’s visage adorn the nickel. Roosevelt believed that Jefferson’s elevation into America’s secular trinity would serve as a healthy counterweight to the Federalist George Washington and to the Republican Abraham Lincoln.

3.   Jefferson and His Time, by Dumas Malone

This six volume set, or more appropriately, this magisterial tome, was the result of decades of diligent research and writing by Dumas Malone, who devoted his life to all things Jefferson. Malone began writing Jefferson’s biography in 1943 and published the final volume of his series in 1981, four years after he began to lose his sight. Malone admired the entire founding generation, noting that in comparison to 20th century political leaders, the founders “thought more about the future, and they knew more of the past.” Malone added that “to all who cherish freedom and abhor tyranny in any form [Jefferson] is an abiding symbol of the hope that springs eternal.”

The remaining books I am recommending tend to be more critical of Jefferson and more sympathetic toward his Federalist rivals:  

4. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Ellis

Ellis portrays a complex Jefferson who was able to “compartmentalize” the various contradictions in his life, contradictions which were quite pronounced. For instance, President Jefferson violated his own embargo which was designed to pressure Britain and France to cease their harassment of American shipping on the high seas. The President ordered an expensive piano from England but massaged his conscience by “keep[ing] it in storage” until after the embargo was lifted. Ellis offers an insightful account of the Sage of Monticello’s shifting stance on the place of slavery in the new nation – toward the end of his life Jefferson came to believe that northern hostility to slavery was part of a scheme to oppress the southern states.

5. Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side, by Leonard Levy

Levy’s seminal work shattered the myth of Hamilton as a force for evil in the founding and Jefferson as the champion of the enlightenment – a Manichean view of the founding that unfortunately persists to this day. According to Levy, Jefferson “at one time or another supported loyalty oaths; countenanced internment camps for political suspects; drafted a bill of attainder; urged prosecutions for seditious libel; trampled on the fourth amendment; condoned military despotism; used the Army to enforce laws in time of peace; censored reading; chose professors [at the University of Virginia] for their political opinions.”

6. The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, by Forrest McDonald

A critical account of Jefferson’s presidency from a historian who is sympathetic to Alexander Hamilton. McDonald once described Jefferson’s embargo of 1807 as having the same effect as “a flea trying to stop a dog-fight by threatening suicide.” McDonald notes that President Jefferson met with considerable success in his first term, in part by overcoming his constitutional scruples and acquiring 827,000 square miles of the Louisiana territory from France for 15 million dollars.  However, Jefferson’s attempt to purge a hostile Federalist dominated judiciary and undo much of Hamilton’s financial plan met with less success. Jefferson deftly controlled Congress from behind the scenes, although over time the more radical wing of the Jeffersonian coalition began to question the President’s commitment to the Democratic-Republican ideology. Jefferson and his allies gutted the American military in order to cut federal spending and balance the budget – actions that had near-catastrophic consequences during the War of 1812.

Stephen F. Knott is a member of the Board of Visitors of WJMI, a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and the author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (2002). 



Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thomas Jefferson’s Political Thought: Part II, the Radicalism of Jefferson’s Political Ideas

By Tony Williams, WJMI Program Director

In my previous essay on Thomas Jefferson’s political thought, I explored the continuity in his dedication to the rights of man from the beginning of the American Revolution to his death.  This essay examines the radicalism in Jefferson’s political thought and the causes that shaped it. 

Jefferson believed in the equality of all humans with respect to their rights.  Setting aside the thorny question of the contradiction for several groups such as women, slaves, and Indians who were not actually enjoying all of those rights in 1776, Jefferson worked assiduously to destroy the inequalities that he believed plagued Virginia, Europe, and most of the world.  Clearly, the Declaration of Independence is his clearest statement of this belief in equality of all people in the natural rights of mankind.

A key corollary to equality for Jefferson was that of human freedom.  Like many French Enlightenment philosophes, Jefferson believed that individual perfectibility and social progress could only be achieved by liberating mankind from the shackles of tyranny in monarchy, in feudalism and aristocracy, and in religious traditions which burdened mankind with inequalities and ignorance.  When these institutions were destroyed, a new age of liberty and the rights of mankind would dawn. 

Evidence for this strain in Jefferson’s thought was seen in the 1770s and 1780s when he served on the committee to revise the legal code of Virginia and sought to tear down the vestiges of artificial privilege in the commonwealth.  He fought against primogeniture and entail to promote equality of property and opportunity as opposed to artificial and inherited aristocracy.  During this struggle, he wrote that the old laws that determined how land would be distributed worked for the benefit of the gentry and corrupted equality and republican virtue: “The transmission of this property from generation to generation . . . raised up a distinct set of families, who, being privileged by law in the perpetuation of their wealth, were thus formed into a Patrician order, distinguished by the splendor and luxury of their establishments.”  By revising the laws, Jefferson worked to “annul this privilege, and instead of an aristocracy of wealth . . . to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions, was deemed essential to a well-ordered republic.” 

In his failed 1778 “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” Jefferson wanted to use a rudimentary universal education for all boys and girls to further his goals of a natural aristocracy of talent and virtue and equality in society opposed to inherited inequality.   He also thought that the purpose of education in a republic was to enlighten the minds and cultivate the virtue of the people, to guard their natural rights, and to promote equality.  “It becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition.” 

Jefferson saw his “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” which was ably pushed through the VA Assembly for his friend, James Madison, as a victory for a free mind and the natural right of religious opinion against the spiritual tyranny of an established church in Virginia.  “All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities,” the new law declared.

In the late 1780s and 1790s, amidst the swirling chaos of events in Revolutionary France and the tensions in the new American nation, Jefferson’s thought became distinctly more radical.  He witnessed the extreme inequalities and privileges of monarchical, aristocratic France and conversed with many of its most important philosophes about radical Enlightenment political ideas.  The resulting radicalism is evident in statements such as, “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” or, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.  It is its natural manure.” 

Perhaps most radical was a letter Jefferson wrote to his friend James Madison in the months after the storming of the Bastille and the outbreak of the French Revolution which focused on the ideas that the “earth belongs to the living.”  Jefferson first posed the question of whether one generation may legally bind a future generation, and proposed the idea that property rights, obligation of debts, and even laws and constitutions were not perpetual and were confined to a single generation.  These radical ideas left his poor friend aghast at the breakdown in the social and political order should his friend’s ideas come to fruition and caused Madison to write a stern rebuttal in defense of natural law property rights and contractual obligations. 

What accounts for the shocking radicalism of his sentiments?  His more reasonable early work in legal reform in Virginia advanced republican equality and liberty over inherited privilege of wealth and status.  But, the inequality he saw in France and the radical answers supplied by the French Enlightenment philosophers profoundly shaped Jefferson’s thinking while abroad as minister to France. 

As historian Merrill D. Peterson wrote in his definitive biography, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, the idea that property, debt, and laws did not survive more than a generation “could not have matured in America.  It grew out of the European situation, specifically the situation in France in 1789.  It expressed the speculative fervor of the French Revolution, the rage against the past, the assault on inequalities that amounted to a tyranny of the dead over the living.”[i]  And, Jefferson would bring these ideas back to America as he advocated for the French Revolution as Secretary of State and fought the specter of monarchism and ostensible privilege under the Hamiltonian system. 

Jefferson never shed his belief in human equality.  Shortly before his death in 1826, Jefferson penned a letter reflecting on the cause of liberty and the fate of mankind in which he asserts that: “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” 

After his death on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it would be left to “the living” to bring this vision to fruition and continue his work for human equality by struggling for the end of slavery, winning universal male suffrage, and gaining women’s suffrage among other fundamental reforms. 

Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute and the author of America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character and a collection of primary sources for the WJMI Thomas Jefferson roundtable discussion. 

_________________________________

[i] Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 383. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thomas Jefferson’s Political Thought: Part I, Natural Rights Republic

By: Tony Williams, WJMI Program Director 

Thomas Jefferson is often described as “sphinx-like” or “enigmatic” because of the difficulty in grappling with the man, his inner life, his ideas, his presidency, and his legacy.  The difficulties in assessing Jefferson are no less true in his political philosophy.  There seemed to be some central tenets to Jefferson’s political thought but also some changes that were at times startling. 

Perhaps a good starting point for this discussion is to note that Jefferson seemed to have a couple of core political beliefs.  I will discuss others in future essays, but let us start with Jefferson as a man of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  Jefferson believed in a Newtonian universe constructed in natural laws, both physical and moral, which were knowable by human reason.  He believed in a Creator and a natural order that endowed humans with rights built into the fabric of their natures which were inviolable by other individuals, civil society, or government. He was a student of the great British political philosophers, Locke and Sidney, as well as other political thinkers in Europe and ancient Greece and Rome. Consequently, one of the defining characteristics of Jefferson’s political philosophy was that he was a lifelong advocate of the universal rights of man. 

Jefferson’s advocacy for the rights of man was most evident in the 1770s as the Americans declared their rights and fought against British tyranny.  In 1774, Jefferson wrote a Summary of the Rights of British America, in which he stated, that rights and liberties were “derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.”  In other words, rights come from nature and nature’s God, not the government.  Therefore, they cannot be taken away by government.  He also averred that, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”  A government that destroyed those rights was tyrannical. 

In 1776, Jefferson, with some edits by Congress, wrote the quintessential statement of the rights of mankind that all have equally in their natures in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  The purpose of republican government, which is rooted in the consent of the governed, is to protect those natural rights.  “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  And, the people can and must overthrow a government that is destructive of those ends after a long train of abuses. 

Jefferson continued to stand firm in the rights of man in the coming decades.  In 1787, he witnessed the creation of the new Constitution from afar in Paris.  In a brilliant correspondence with his friend, James Madison, about the Constitution and its ratification, one of Jefferson’s most important complaints about the Constitution was that it did not provide a written Bill of Rights.  “Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, & what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences,” he informed his equivocating friend who thought it unnecessary. 

When Jefferson later stated to Henry Lee that the natural law and natural right principles of the Declaration of Independence were based upon the “elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.,” he was appealing to those classical and modern thinkers who believed in natural law and self-government.  He might have added several Christian philosophers from St. Thomas Aquinas to reformers of the Protestant Reformation to the clergy of the American Revolution. 

As Jefferson stated in the same letter, he had not tried to “find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of,” but rather to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject.” 

He dedicated a lifetime of public service to those reasonable and enlightened, natural rights principles. 
____________________________
Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute and the author of America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character and a collection of primary sources for the upcoming WJMI Thomas Jefferson roundtable discussion. 



Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Defense of His Character

"I never had done a single act or been concerned in any transaction which I feared to have fully laid open, or which could do me any hurt if truly stated."--Thomas Jefferson, April 15, 1806.

Much has been written about the alleged affair between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Many historians now write about this as though it were fact, while it has not been proven as such. See: http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account

Lance Banning stated the case well: "We are asked to believe this U.S. minister to France, a man with ready access to some of the most beautiful and accomplished women in Europe, initiated an affair with a 15 or 16-year-old slave girl, whom Abigail Adams had recently described as more in need of care than the 8-year-old she had attended. This girl was the personal servant (and likely something of a confidant) of Jefferson's two daughters—an individual, that is, whose discretion the accomplished politician and diplomat could not possibly have trusted. Although it may well be that Sally lived, during much of her time in Paris, in the cross-town convent where Patsy and Polly were being schooled, we are to assume that Thomas and Sally carried on their affair in the crowded two-bedroom townhouse where Jefferson lived—and did so without arousing suspicion of David Humphreys, who slept in one of the bedrooms, or of anyone else who was there. She became pregnant with Jefferson's child, the story continues, entered into an agreement with him, and (with Jefferson taking care that she would have a berth convenient to his daughters) sailed back to the U.S. in this condition with him, his two girls, and her brother James. The baby, if it existed, either died soon after birth, leaving no trace other than Madison Hemings's statement, or became the elusive, unrecorded 12-year-old slave named "Tom," mentioned in James Callender's infamous 1802 newspaper accusation, who, if he later took the name Tom Woodson, was not Thomas Jefferson's child. 

"According to this story, Jefferson would continue in a monogamous and fertile relationship with Sally for nearly 20 years, ultimately fathering five or six more children (the first of whom, however, was not born until 1795). During these twenty years, he was content, as was she, to confine the relationship to the times when he was at Monticello, although he took other slaves with him wherever he went and as many as a dozen to the White House. On these terms, he continued in the relationship until at least age 64, when Eston Hemings was conceived, five years after he had been publicly accused of a relationship with Sally and while he was contemplating his second presidential term. He carried it on, all this while, while constantly surrounded by visitors and by a large white family, none of whom—and least of all the daughters who would have known Sally best—ever had the least suspicion that he was involved with any of his slaves or ever saw the slightest indication that he was closer to Sally than to any other servant. [Note: As established by Elizabeth Langhorne in her family biography of Jefferson, "Monticello: A Family Story" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1987), after the death of his wife, Thomas Jefferson's "intimate companion" at Monticello was his daughter Martha, who accompanied him on his every stay and return to Monticello, in addition to the frequent presence of his eleven grandchildren.]

"Indeed, the grandchildren who grew up at Monticello and managed it during Jefferson's last years did not merely say that any such relationship was wholly unsuspected—never a touch or a word or a glance—they said it was simply impossible in this particular house. "His apartment," his granddaughter told her husband, "had no private entrance not perfectly accessible and visible to all the household. No female domestic ever entered his chambers except at hours when he was known not to be there and none could have entered without being exposed to the public gaze." In fact, apart from Madison Hemings, no one who ever lived at Monticello and none of the uncounted visitors who stayed there overnight ever said that he was involved with Sally—not even Sally herself, though she lived in practical freedom in Charlottesville for ten years after his death. 

"It is possible, of course, that everyone except Madison Hemings was lying or covering up or engaged in psychological "denial." Jefferson's family had an interest in protecting his reputation, much as Madison Hemings had an interest in claiming descent from a famous man. I see no reason to think that any of these people were deliberately making things up. What of eye-witnesses who had no obvious interest in the matter either way? Former household slave Isaac Jefferson mentioned Sally Hemings in later years; but did not so much as hint that there was any special relationship between her and Jefferson. And in another interview, Edmund Bacon, who was overseer at Monticello when Eston was conceived and may have worked there for years before, raised the subject of the accusations against his employer. 

"He freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody, and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was ______'s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother's room many a mourning, when I went up to Monticello very early. 

"The girl was certainly Harriet Hemings, Sally's daughter. The father was named by Bacon but protected by the reporter, a preacher in Kentucky. 

"All of Sally Hemings's children who lived to adulthood did achieve their freedom, either de facto or de jure, and it is often said that they were the only nuclear family of Monticello who did. However, contrary to the terms of the "treaty" as Madison Hemings described it, Sally Hemings did not receive extraordinary privileges at Monticello. Jefferson fed, clothed, and treated Sally Hemings pretty much indistinguishably from his other household servants, recorded her life and childbirths in much the same way, and left her as part of the estate. By Madison Hemings's own account, moreover, Jefferson showed no particular affection for her children and reared them much as he did other household slaves." (Lance Banning, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Case Closed?" The Claremont Institute, August 30, 2001).

Douglass Adair adds this: "Like other men, Jefferson was sensitive to these false accusations. . . Publicly, however, he made no response to these unsrcupulous attacks. 'I should have fancied myself half guilty,' he said, 'had I condescended to put pen to paper in refutation of their falsehoods, or drawn them respect by any notice from myself.' [Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. George Logan, June 20, 1816]. Nor did he use the channels of civil authority to silence his accusers. True to the declarations he had made in his inaugural address and elsewhere, he defended his countrymen's right to a free press. . . [Regarding this issue], one of the recently discovered documents . . . [is] a letter written by nineteenth century biographer Henry Randall (who published a three volume biography,Life of Jefferson (1858)), recounting a conversation at Monticello between himself and Jefferson's oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. In this conversation Randolph confirmed . . . that 'there was not the shadow of suspicion that Mr. Jefferson in this or any other instance had commerce with female slaves.' [See also, "The Jefferson Scandals" (1960), Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays by Douglass Adair, ed. Trevor Colbourn (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1974), pp 169.]"

Additionally, "Colonel Randolph said that he had spent a good share of his life closely about Mr. Jefferson, at home [Jefferson never locked his bedroom door by day and left it open at night, Colonel Randolph sleeping within the sound of his breathing at night] and on journeys, in all sorts of circumstances, and he fully believed him chaste and pure -- as "immaculate a man as God ever created." [Henry S. Randall to James Parton (June 1, 1868).]" 

This is only a brief account, and readers are encouraged to read and examine all of the evidence For example, “. . . Robert Turner's 'The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission' (Carolina Academic Press, 2011) . . . presents a substantial argument for the position that Hemings's paternity is still unknown.” — Alan Pell Crawford, Wall Street Journal, Sat., April 14, 2012, p. C8.   However, while for some doubts may persist, an honest review of the arguments leaves one to wonder why the claims are so often accepted as truth.


 By: J. David Gowdy, President & Founder, The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute