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:

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). 

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

See also: "Thomas Jefferson vs. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation"

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Review of Jon Meacham, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"

By: Tony Williams

Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable statesman from early in the American Revolution through the American founding to the early decades of the new nation. His lifetime of public service included the Virginia Assembly, the Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, the Confederation Congress, minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and finally President for two terms.  This incredible record places him among the highest ranks of founding fathers. 

For a long time, Jefferson has been seen as an idealistic visionary who had a wholly optimistic view of human nature and trusted ordinary Americans to govern themselves as yeoman farmers in his agricultural republic.  Moreover, he advocated consistently throughout his life for rights of mankind.  Never was Jefferson more idealistic than in his nearly uncritical support for the French Revolution that sought to bring radical French Enlightenment to life.  Of course, scholars recognized that the “sage of Monticello” played hard in the rough-and-tumble fierce partisan politics of the 1790s and early 1800s, but our vision of him was deeply rooted in loftier vocations and avocations. 

In his recent book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, 2012), journalist and biographer, Jon Meacham, challenges this traditional view of Jefferson.  Meacham’s Jefferson is a statesman who was a pragmatist who knew how to wield political power behind the scenes and cut deals to get things done.  The author argues: “Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic.  To realize his vision, he compromised and improvised . . . . his creative flexibility made him a transformative leader.”  Meacham continues to delineate his thesis, stating that, “Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver.  Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously.  Such is the art of power.”  Jefferson is still the genius sitting atop his mountaintop, but he is also the consummate politician bringing his vision to life. 

With a smooth and inviting narrative, Meacham gets much about Jefferson correct.  The early chapters narrate the early life in the rising Virginia gentry, his classical education, and his study of the law under George Wythe and the practice of it.  Meacham then weaves together the personal life of his subject and the introduction to politics in the milieu of resistance to British tyranny as an eloquent writer proclaiming the rights of man but also witnessing the performance of the great orators who made persuasive speeches and the politicians won people over to their points of view in the taverns of Williamsburg or Philadelphia. 

Meacham buys into some fashionable interpretations of the American Revolution, calling it a “rich man’s revolution” and a “shrewd economic choice.”  Yet Meacham cannot avoid the fact that, for Jefferson, it was a revolution of ideas and natural rights as he penned some of the most eloquent statements of rights in the American Revolution beginning with the Summary View of the Rights of British America – which he states “moved [Jefferson] toward the front ranks of the cause” – the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms in the Second Continental Congress, and the penultimate statement of rights and self-government in the Declaration of Independence.  Whatever Meacham’s strained attempts to paint the latter as a practical document, the three great statements of rights and the purposes of government as well as his silence on the floor of the Continental Congress reveals Jefferson in the traditional way: a philosophical and eloquent writer and statesman rather than a political operator. 

The next stage of his life does perhaps even less to prove Meacham’s main contention.  Jefferson helped to revise the legal code of Virginia, served as a weak and ineffectual governor who controversially fled from the British, a congressman who achieved little, and then the minister to France who had few concrete achievements besides developing a profound loathing of monarchy and aristocracy as well as contributing to the French declaration of rights once their revolution began.  Even his famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was an articulation of a free mind and conscience.  Moreover, Jefferson was frustrated and settled for the idea of praying for Patrick Henry’s death while his friend and political ally, James Madison, was responsible for clever maneuvering to nullify Henry’s influence and securing passage of the bill in the assembly.  As for his time in France, Meacham labels Jefferson an enlightened “Man of the World,” which hardly supports the idea of a pragmatic politician.  Moreover, his letters are filled with idealistic, radical notions that debts, property, laws, and constitutions cannot be transferred to future generations, while infamously praising the spilling of blood in revolutions. 

Increasingly, during the 1790s, as Secretary of State in the Washington administration, Jefferson undoubtedly became fiercely partisan as he battled his nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, and helped to create the first political parties despite the universal antipathy towards factions.  For Meacham, this period is Jefferson’s most pragmatic by teaching Americans that “in his defense of republicanism – then tactical flexibility can be a virtue.”  Here is where Meacham is most wrong on his subject.  Jefferson was hardly a pragmatic statesman who engaged in compromise and set aside partisanship as he worked for the common good of the country.  Jefferson constantly expressed an unalloyed fear that monarchism was springing up all over the land, complaining to President Washington on numerous occasions and leading to a presidential rebuke that there weren’t more than a handful of monarchists in republican America.  Additionally, at times Jefferson acted as little more than a party hack, establishing an anti-administration, partisan newspaper in his office and callously sought to discredit his political opponents personally and politically. 

Vice-President Thomas Jefferson was no better as a pragmatic politician as he assiduously worked behind the scenes to oppose President John Adams, most notably with the Kentucky Resolutions arguing for nullification of the Alien and Sedition Acts.  His presidency was moreover ideologically democratic but marked with a strong Hamiltonian strain of a powerful executive who acted according to a broad construction of the Constitution, whether in the Louisiana Purchase or the Embargo Act.  One might well argue that Jefferson was acting pragmatically but one might also chalk up Jefferson’s exercise of presidential power as an example of his earlier naïveté and idealism that he contradicted once he actually came to the nation’s highest office.    

Meacham has written an admirable biography on a grand, enigmatic subject not easily explained.  However, his thesis simply is not supported by the evidence.  As I read the book, I kept thinking of the incredible statesmanship of James Madison who was indeed the pragmatic, compromising politician of the deliberative Constitutional Convention, Ratification debate, and First Congress that Thomas Jefferson was decidedly not. 

Tony Williams is the Program Director for the WJMI and has written four books including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.  He also recently edited a collection of primary sources on Thomas Jefferson for an upcoming WJMI roundtable discussion for teachers.