American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson | Chapter 12 of 17

Author: Joseph J. Ellis | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 26461 Views | Add a Review

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The true Jefferson legacy is to be hostile to legacies.


Jefferson’s ideas had also this felicity, and also perhaps a little too much of it. They come to birth a little too easily, and rest a little precariously on the aspirations and ideals of good men, and not sufficiently on the brute concrete facts of the world as it is.


WHAT, THEN, is the historically correct Jeffersonian legacy? What, if any, are the values that the real person who was Thomas Jefferson embodied in his life that remain vital and viable over two centuries after he declared American independence? More than half a century after the historian Carl Becker posed the question in its most familiar form, it seems appropriate and even timely to ask ourselves again, “What is still living in the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?” 1

The question, it must be noted, would strike Jefferson himself and the majority of professional historians as bizarre. Jefferson certainly wanted to be remembered, but he had little patience with historical heritages, which he tended to regard as burdens imposed on the present by the past. Joyce Appleby, one of Jefferson’s most astute modern-day admirers, has put it nicely: “The true Jeffersonian legacy is to be hostile to legacies.” If he could make a miraculous appearance among us, it would be perfectly plausible for him to denounce the entire Jeffersonian enterprise as a massive waste of time. The present generation of Americans, he might well say, needs to liberate itself from the dead hand of ancestors and predecessors and seek its own fate and future. Indeed only by doing so will we remain faithful to the core Jeffersonian convictions. 2

Most historians would chime in with a different version of the same message. As they see it, the past is a foreign country with its own distinctive mores and language. All efforts to wrench Jefferson out of his own time and place, therefore, are futile and misguided ventures that invariably compromise the integrity of the historical context that made him what he was. Lifting Jefferson out of that context and bringing him into the present is like trying to plant cut flowers. Granted, this means protecting the purity of the past at the expense of abandoning its relevance to the present. But most historians would rather run the risk of antiquarianism than commit the sin of presentism.

For better and for worse, however, Jefferson has long since broken through the barricades that historians set up between the present and the past. Different versions of him as both hero and villain are loose among us, and different claims on the Jeffersonian legacy have become a permanent feature of contemporary American culture. To be sure, Bill Clinton’s calculated pilgrimage to Monticello and Ronald Reagan’s uplifting recommendation that we “pluck a flower from Thomas Jefferson’s life and wear it on our soul forever” represent the same transparent impulse to appropriate an icon for their own political purposes. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, now icons themselves, perfected this technique long ago. (In fact a good case can be made that Roosevelt championed the construction of the Jefferson Memorial primarily to provide the Democratic party with a symbolic counter to the Lincoln Memorial, which the Republican party claimed as its own.) Such public invocations and appropriations of the mythical Jefferson have only the faintest connection with the historical Jefferson, who is presumably resting comfortably in archival enclaves tended by vigilant but invisible scholars. 3

While prominent public figures quote from Jefferson without fear and without embarrassment at their ignorance, there is also an ongoing conversation of equivalent superficiality occurring at all hours of the day and night on the Internet. When John Adams spoke his last and most prophetic words—“Thomas Jefferson survives”—he had no way of knowing about cyberspace. But there is now more “talk” about Jeffersonian topics (i.e., Tom and Sally, Jefferson and Newt [Gingrich], Monticello recipes, Jefferson and GOD) on America Online than any other historical figure. In February 1996 the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation injected at least a semblance of informed opinion into these otherwise gossipy exchanges. “Monticello is pleased to announce its presence on the World-Wide Web,” the foundation declared, offering access to “a typical day in Jefferson’s life in the early 1800s” among other topics. 4

In several senses cyberspace is the perfect Jeffersonian environment, an ethereal place where shifting images and impressions float freely and without any pretense of coherence. Likewise, the personal computer is the perfect Jeffersonian instrument; it allows ordinary individuals to communicate from the privacy of their solitary studies with laptop machines that a reincarnated Jefferson would surely regard as the modern analogue to his laptop desk. All this only reinforces the realization that maintaining scholarly control over Jefferson’s memory and legacy is a long-lost cause.

To revisit Carl Becker’s old question, then—“What is still living . . . ?”—is really to join an ongoing conversation that most scholars have simply chosen to avoid. Becker’s formulation of the question also implicitly suggests that any answer with pretensions of historical accuracy must begin with the recognition that substantial portions of Jefferson’s legacy are no longer alive; they have died a natural death somewhere between 1826 and now. Perhaps the best way to visualize that process is to imagine a series of sand castles on a beach, located different distances from the shoreline but all vulnerable to the tide of time.

The first major wave to strike was the Civil War, which destroyed slavery, the political primacy of the South and the doctrine that the states were sovereign agents in the federal compact. After 1865, Jefferson’s “Virginia-writ-large” version of the United States was gone with the proverbial wind, and his convictions about the proper distribution of power between state and federal governments, if not completely washed away, were permanently put on the defensive.

The second wave, really a series of waves, struck between 1890 and 1920. In 1890 the census of the United States revealed that the frontier phase of American history was over. (Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” three years later announced that “the frontier is gone and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”) Then the Census of 1920 reported that for the first time the majority of American citizens lived in urban as opposed to rural areas. And between these two dates the United States accepted a huge influx of European and Asian immigrants that permanently altered the previously Anglo-Saxon character of the American population. Taken together, these demographic changes transformed Jefferson’s agrarian vision into a nostalgic memory, his belief in the resuscitative powers of the West into a democratic myth and his presumption of Anglo-Saxon hegemony into a racial relic. 5

The third wave arrived in the 1930s with the New Deal. In hindsight, one could actually see it coming from the early years of the twentieth century, when the effects of urbanization, industrialization, the increased density of the population and the exponential growth of corporate power over the economy combined to generate a need for a more centralized government to regulate the inequities of the marketplace and discipline the boisterous energies of an industrial economy. Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909) had prophesied and championed these political changes, but it took Roosevelt’s New Deal to implement and institutionalize them. Roosevelt’s appropriation of Jefferson as a New Deal Democrat was one of the most inspired acts of political thievery in American history, since the growth of federal power during the New Deal represented the triumph, in Jeffersonian terms, of “consolidation” over “diffusion.” The New Deal was in fact the death knell for Jefferson’s idea of a minimalist government. 6

The fourth and final wave came crashing down between 1950 and 1965. The onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s employed an essentially Jeffersonian moralism to mobilize public opinion against the Soviet Union. But with National Security Memorandum 68 in 1950, the United States committed itself to a massive military establishment to fight the Cold War that embodied precisely the kind of standing army (and navy and air force) that Jefferson abhorred. Meanwhile the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, then the civil rights legislation of the early 1960s, institutionalized the ideal of a biracial American society, making Jefferson’s belief in the physical and legal separation of blacks and whites an anachronism. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, with its entrenched military establishment, its dedication to the welfare state, its extension of full citizenship to blacks and women, represented the epitome of political corruption in the Jeffersonian scheme, as well as the repudiation of racial and gender differences that Jefferson regarded as rooted in fixed principles of nature. 7

The mention of “fixed principles of nature” suggests an entirely different series of waves generated by the winds of change in the scientific as opposed to the political world. Chief among these are the discoveries associated with Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, which, taken together, completely shattered Jefferson’s premodern assumptions about the physical principles that governed the natural world as well as the relationship between what he called “the heart and the head.” The entire mental universe in which Jefferson did his thinking has changed so dramatically, modern science has so unmoored all the “fixed principles” that he took for granted, that any direct connection between then and now must be regarded as a highly questionable enterprise. 8

It should now be abundantly clear that the ingrained reticence of historians to translate Jefferson across the ages is rooted in more than mere timidity; it is grounded in a fuller appreciation of the sea change that separates his world from our own. To extend the image of sand castles on the beach, it is not just that successive waves of change have swamped Jefferson’s core convictions; it is also that the shape of the entire shoreline has been completely reconfigured. The decisive demographic and attitudinal changes that made the United States “post-Jeffersonian” occurred between 1890 and 1920. Ironically, one of the most discernible strands of Jeffersonian thought that remains very much alive is the steadfast reluctance, in some instances downright refusal, to accept the political implications of these changes.

The chief voice for this potent version of Jeffersonian nostalgia in the late twentieth century is the conservative wing of the Republican party. Starting with Barry Goldwater in the 1960s, then reaching a crescendo of national success with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and continuing with Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in the 1990s, the conservative movement has campaigned against the encroaching character of the federal government, much as Jefferson campaigned against the consolidating tendencies of the English Parliament in the 1770s, the Hamiltonian financial program of the 1790s and federal efforts to block the expansion of slavery in the 1820s. It is not just that the Republican desire to shift power from the federal to the state governments echoes Jefferson’s constitutional preference; more significantly the deeper echo is his profound hostility to government power per se. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the American government has replaced the Soviet Union as our domestic version of the Evil Empire. 9

This is pure Jefferson, both in its congenital aversion to centralized authority located far from local communities and in its tendency to overlook the legitimate reasons why these political institutions at the federal level came into existence in the first place. Like Jefferson upon his ascendancy to the presidency in 1800, modern conservatives conceive their task as a dismantling operation designed to remove the accumulated political debris that has built up since the golden age. For Jefferson the clock needed to be turned back to 1776. For modern conservatives the target date is more elusive: 1963 (pre–Great Society); 1932 (pre–New Deal); even 1890 (pre-Progressivism). The underlying logic of conservative thought clearly regards the entire federal edifice that has developed in post-Jeffersonian America—that is, over the past century—as both dangerous and dispensable. One could argue that this is primarily a rhetorical posture, that no one seriously contemplates the elimination of Social Security or the Federal Reserve Board, that in fact the quadrennial assaults on the powers of the federal government have had little, if any, impact on the growth of federal spending or the size of the Washington bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the rhetorical prowess of Jefferson’s antigovernment ethos should not be underestimated as an influence on the special character of political discourse. Unlike any other nation-state in the modern world, the very idea of government power is stigmatized in the United States. And it is the residual power of Jeffersonian rhetoric that keeps government on the defensive. This potent strand of Jeffersonian thought remains alive and well in the conservative wing of the Republican party. 10

The persistent and even reinvigorated vitality of the antigovernment ethos cuts two ways, however, because its rhetorical relevance as a distinctly Jeffersonian way to frame questions about public policy means that on the most disturbing and controversial problems in contemporary American society—abortion, drugs, poverty, crime—the Jeffersonian legacy has little to say. The debate about such social problems is a debate about government’s proper role, and from a Jeffersonian perspective, government should have no role at all. As Carl Becker put it, Jefferson believed that “the only thing to do with political power, since it is inherently dangerous, is to abate it.”

Within that antigovernment context, Jefferson’s most enduring legacy is the principle of religious freedom, defined as the complete separation of church and state, though he would be distressed to know that the chief defender of this negative principle in the last half of the twentieth century has been the Supreme Court, the branch of government he hated most. Nevertheless, the principle that the government has no business interfering with a person’s religious beliefs or practices is the one specific Jeffersonian idea that has negotiated the passage from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century without any significant change in character or coloration. 11

His other enduring legacies are less specific and must be sought at more rarefied regions where the thinner intellectual atmosphere makes it much easier to mistake platitudes for ideas. Two examples of the dangers entailed in working at such altitudes might serve as object lessons that improve our prospects of avoiding the same vacuous fate. First, a host of otherwise intelligent commentators, following the lead of Gunnar Myrdal in An American Dilemma (1943), have claimed that the core ideas of what he called the American Creed, as first articulated by Jefferson in the natural rights section of the Declaration of Independence, constitute the intellectual common ground on which America’s many different racial and ethnic groups can congregate. Jefferson’s most eloquent words, and the ideas of freedom and equality they proclaim, thereby become the intellectual cement or glue holding multiracial America together. 12

Not only is it rather preposterous to believe than an abstract idea can perform such a massive social function, but it also flies in the face of all that we know about the historical Jefferson to make him an advocate of racial equality or the modern-day multiracial ideal. He was a staunch believer in white Anglo-Saxon supremacy, as were several other leading figures in the revolutionary generation. Moreover, he went out of his way to identify the differences between the races as products of nature rather than nurture. Martin Luther King, Jr., was right to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, for it was Lincoln’s expansive revision of the original Jeffersonian version of the natural rights philosophy that broadened the message to include blacks. While it is plausible to cite Jefferson as an enemy of slavery, though even here the evidence of his life contradicts the logical imperatives of his thought, it is a wholesale distortion of both his life and his thought to describe him as a friend to racial integration.

Second, Jefferson has become the preeminent historical source for presidents and public officials eager to sound an optimistic note about the superiority of American political institutions and ideas and the foreordained character of their eventual triumph. A host of Jefferson quotations can in fact be gathered to support this most optimistic form of patriotism. The Cold War, for example, was waged within the intensely moralistic and dualistic Jeffersonian categories of thought. And it is neither implausible nor ahistorical to imagine Jefferson describing the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 as the culmination of the global struggle launched with the American and French revolutions, the long-term war of ideas fated to replace despotic regimes dependent upon coercion with representative governments and market economies based on popular consent and personal voluntarism.

On the other hand, it is misleading and in the end dead wrong to equate Jefferson’s optimism about the outcome of the international struggle, often depicted in cosmic terms with providential guarantees, and his more specific vision of the United States as the eternal City on the Hill. Jefferson did not believe, as Ronald Reagan put it, that “it is always morning in America.” Toward the end of his life especially, he was extremely pessimistic about the long-term viability of the American nation he had helped create. Although it is true that he was distinctive within the revolutionary generation for his way of describing America’s limitless horizons, even Jefferson shared with his fellow founders the realistic realization that all nations, including the United States, had limited life spans.

Madison, writing in 1829, predicted that the American republic would last for another hundred years, a prediction that must have looked eerily prescient at the start of the Great Depression. Adams oscillated between apocalyptic warnings that the end was close and more sanguine projections ranging up to another century and a half. Even though one of the most seductive features of Jeffersonian thought was its capacity to levitate out of its specific historical context, Jefferson shared with other members of the revolutionary generation the belief that all rising nations must eventually fall, that America’s political success depended on a favorable set of social, economic and demographic conditions, chiefly the existence of vast tracts of western land, that would eventually run out. As Drew McCoy has so succinctly put it, Jefferson hoped to delay the inevitable ravages of time by extending the American experiment through space. (John Kennedy’s New Frontier represented the same Jeffersonian impulse projected into space itself.) As we have seen, those favorable conditions disappeared between 1890 and 1920, so that the entire political landscape of twentieth-century America would have struck Jefferson as alien, indeed symptomatic of American degeneration along what he regarded as the corrupt path of the British Empire. If, in other words, we wished to conjure up Jefferson standing atop the Berlin Wall and leading the cheers for its demolition, we must also realize that the victorious version of democratic politics and capitalistic economics triumphant at the end of the twentieth century was not at all what he had in mind. 13

Virtually all commentators who ascend into the rarefied regions in pursuit of Jefferson’s enduring legacy eventually end up discovering its essence in the natural rights section of the Declaration of Independence and the ideal of individual freedom it so eloquently celebrates. At the beginning of the twentieth century Woodrow Wilson, questing after what he called “The Spirit of Jefferson,” found it in “the right of the individual to a free opportunity. . . .” At the end of the century Joyce Appleby, engaging in the same quest, also concluded that Jefferson’s “most enduring legacy, entailed on us in the name of nature, has been a particular understanding of human freedom.” In between these interpreters countless orators, statesmen and scholars have sounded a similar note, usually as part of a patriotic hymn in which Jefferson has proved a serviceable source for campaigns against foreign foes, such as Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, or in domestic battles against such contradictory targets as labor unions and corporate power, welfare legislation and entrenched poverty, the death penalty and the right to die. Jeffersonian rhetoric lends itself naturally to this kind of benign dilution and functional promiscuity. Where the real Jeffersonian idea ends and the platitudinous cant begins has become an unanswerable question. 14

Clearly, Jefferson’s own conception of individual freedom was more restricted than modern-day notions. His vision was essentially negative: freedom from encroachments by either church or state. It was all a piece with his antigovernment ethos and therefore incompatible with our contemporary conviction about personal entitlements, whether it be for a decent standard of living, a comfortable retirement or adequate health care, all of which depend on precisely the kind of government sponsorship he would have found intrusive. His was the freedom to be left alone, which has more in common with twentieth-century claims to privacy rights than more aggressive claims to political or economic power. He really had little to say about the positive ways that Americans should use their individual freedom, though the nineteenth-century scramble for wealth, then the twentieth-century pursuit of unprecedented levels of consumption, would surely have left him disappointed in his fellowman.

For all those reasons modern-day invocations of Jefferson as “the apostle of freedom” are invariably misleading and problematic. Nevertheless, even though the content of the idea has changed in several expensive ways since Jefferson’s time, what has not changed, and what remains a truly powerful Jeffersonian legacy, is the format within which all considerations of personal freedom are framed. Alone among the influential political thinkers of the revolutionary generation, Jefferson began with the assumption of individual sovereignty, then attempted to develop prescriptions for government that at best protected individual rights and at worst minimized the impact of government or the powers of the state on individual lives. Both Adams and Madison and, to an even greater extent, Hamilton, began with the assumption of society as a collective unit, which was embodied in the government, which itself should then be designed to maximize individual freedom within the larger context of public order. Jefferson did not worry about public order, believing as he did that individuals liberated from the last remnants of feudal oppression would interact freely to create a natural harmony of interests that was guided, like Adam Smith’s marketplace, by invisible or veiled forms of discipline. This belief, as Adams tried to tell him in the correspondence of their twilight years, was always an illusion, but it was an extraordinarily attractive illusion that proved extremely efficacious during the rowdy “takeoff” years of the American economy in the nineteenth century, when geographic and economic growth generated its own topsy-turvy version of dynamic order. Not until the late nineteenth century, with the end of the frontier and the emergence of the massive economic inequalities of the Gilded Age, was it fully exposed as an illusion.

But by then the Jeffersonian formulation of individual freedom as the bedrock conviction and the privileged starting point in all political debates was firmly entrenched. Just as Jefferson himself was prepared to abandon the principle temporarily when great opportunities (i.e., the Louisiana Purchase) or great crises (the Embargo Act of 1807) required it, twentieth-century Americans have only been willing to adopt a more collectivistic mentality when threatened by the Great Depression or by foreign foes during World War II and then the Cold War. But individual sovereignty remains the seminal conviction and the ideological home-base for all mainstream political thinking after the threats recede. It continues to frame political conversations in ways that put all communal schemes and proposals for group rights, like affirmative action, on the defensive. At the end of his panoramic review of American democratic culture, Robert Wiebe has concluded that the Jeffersonian ideal of “self-government,” though a contradiction in terms, remains the abiding belief of most Americans: “The substantial body of contemporary criticism that singles out individualism as the special curse of American democracy simply flies in the face of its history. Telling Americans to improve democracy by sinking comfortably into community, by losing themselves in a collective life, is calling into the wind. There never has been an American democracy without its powerful strand of individualism, and nothing suggests there will ever be.” 15 For better and for worse, American political discourse is phrased in Jeffersonian terms as a conversation about sovereign individuals who only grudgingly and in special circumstances are prepared to compromise that sovereignty for larger social purposes.

Finally, Jefferson created a particular style of leadership adapted to the special requirements of American political culture that remains relevant two centuries later. It is a style based on the capacity to rest comfortably with contradictions. If you begin with the conviction that government is at best a necessary evil, then effective political leadership must be indirect and unthreatening. It must cloak the exercise of power from public view, appear to be a tamer and more innocuous activity than it really is. If there is also an inherent disjunction between the ideals on which the nation is founded (i.e., individual freedom, equality of opportunity and popular sovereignty) and the imperatives of effective government, imperatives which require the capacity to coerce and discipline the undecided and faint of heart, then effective leadership, especially at the executive level, must be capable of benign deception. And if the political culture claims to derive its authority from popular opinion, which is by definition divided over the contested questions of the day, then leadership must at least appear to be followship, and the knack of political survival requires the skill to use language in ways that permit different constituencies to hear what they are listening for.

Within the corporate world and the military profession, late-twentieth-century America does permit more direct, more conspicuous, less elusive styles of leadership. But in the political realm, authority remains severely circumscribed and must achieve its ends more covertly. Television has only intensified the manipulative milieu; instant, more accurate polling techniques have only amplified the influence of popular opinion. The exponential growth in the size of government over the course of the century, at the same time as the Jeffersonian hostility to government flourishes in the deepest corners of the culture, places an even greater premium on paradox by enhancing the attractiveness of political candidates who, like Jefferson in 1800, claim to despise the federal government they are campaigning to head.

Jefferson did not come to this style self-consciously, did not hone his personality to fit the requirements of popular leadership in a political culture inherently suspicious of government. The style came to him naturally. His protestations about public life were completely sincere. If he were reincarnated and invited to run for political office in our time, he would almost certainly decline in favor of the tranquillity of Monticello. But by temperament and disposition he possessed the internal agility to generate multiple versions of the truth, the rhetorical skills to propose policies that different audiences could hear favorably, the deep deviousness only possible in a dedicated idealist, the honest aversion to the very power he pursued so effectively. These remain invaluable political talents. And the bedrock moralistic simplicity of the Jeffersonian vision has only increased its political potency as the size of the American electorate has grown larger and more unwieldy. If we could ever persuade him to run, he would remain a formidable candidate for national office.


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