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). 

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