Liberty's flawed apostle

Reason and Republicanism
July 17, 1998

Thomas Jefferson has had a bad press of late. On the one hand, the past two or three years have witnessed renewed interest in his alleged affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and the possibility that he fathered six of her children. On the other, he has been vilified by critics like Conor Cruise O'Brien who see in Jefferson a dangerous radical who condoned extremism of the worst and most violent kind. As a result, Jefferson has become diminished and somehow less worthy of our respect and admiration.

Reason and Republicanism can be seen as an attempt to answer these charges. It brings together 15 papers that were originally delivered at a conference in London in 1993 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth. The book opens with four essays that are all concerned with Jefferson's commitment to equality and human progress. As is well known, Jefferson's liberal philosophy was based on a theory of natural rights which, in John Vesper's words, stressed choice as "the decisive element in establishing any particular political society". Liberty, for Jefferson, was also inextricably linked to science and rational inquiry. This is what he meant when he talked of "arousing men to burst the chains" of "monkish ignorance and superstition".

Self-government, however, demanded watchfulness. As Paul Rahe observes, Jefferson had a natural distrust of America's grandi and he was persuaded that the only way to curb their authority was "to see to it that the American people were never in any fashion sheeplike". This was why he favoured a bill of rights and why he placed such a high premium on education.

Difficulties of a different kind arise when we come to the related issues of slavery and race. Howard Temperley is surely right when he says that it is doubtful whether Jefferson understood the Declaration of Independence to apply to anyone other than free white Americans. In fact, Jefferson's philosophical inquiries led him to conclude that blacks were a lower order of human being and therefore incapable of incorporation into white society. The solution, he believed, was colonisation or resettlement, preferably to the Caribbean. Jefferson even came up with a scheme of his own, which involved taking five-year-old slave children from their parents and training them as prospective emigrants.

Jefferson, of course, was himself a substantial southern slaveholder. Whatever he may have said against the institution, slavery provided him with his livelihood and helped to pay off his enormous debts. Emancipation, as a consequence, represented a huge financial risk. That Jefferson was unwilling to take such a risk is perhaps understandable. But his failure to free his slaves, even at his death, laid him open to the charge of inconsistency or, worse, hypocrisy. Temperley's own assessment is short and to the point. Jefferson, he concludes, was an opportunist: "The principle to which he was most committed was his own convenience."

The next three essays appropriately deal with legal and constitutional issues. Two themes emerge here. One is Jefferson's obvious respect for the common law and its ancient (English) constitution. The other is his confidence in and support for the judiciary. According to Raoul Berger, Jefferson's argument was not so much with the judiciary as an institution but with those judges (and here Jefferson obviously had in mind Federalist judges) who "twisted" the law into any form they pleased. The distinction is an important one. Jefferson, it is clear, wanted an independent judiciary. Instead, what he saw about him was "the base prostitution of law to party interests".

From law we turn to history or, to be more precise, the Jeffersonian legacy in historical perspective. One of the highlights here is a splendid essay by Colin Bonwick in which he presents Jefferson as a nationalist who grasped that the future of the Union depended on respect for local rights and local interests. Ironically, when this experiment failed during the 1850s Jefferson was invoked by both sides in the sectional conflict. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans claimed Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance (1787), which excluded slavery from the Northwest Territory. Meanwhile, Lincoln's Democratic opponents enlisted Jefferson's name in support of local self-rule and expansion of the slave power.

That Jeffersonian ideals survived the civil war at all is largely down to Lincoln. As Peter Parish demonstrates, Lincoln adapted Jefferson's definition of equality, on the one hand extending it to include equality of opportunity, and on the other establishing a more pro-active role for the federal government. That was one legacy. Another was Jefferson's celebration of agrarian values and his jealous protection of state interests, ideas that would later gain currency with Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson.

It was the welfarism of the New Deal that finally did for the Jeffersonian tradition of individualistic democracy. Increasingly, in the post-1945 world the third president seemed a peripheral, even irrelevant, figure. According to Richard King, the civil rights era saw Jefferson's reputation among activists and political intellectuals slide into "virtual extinction". And yet as King is the first to admit, Jefferson did have an impact on the civil rights movement, if only as the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jack Pole makes a very similar point in the concluding section of Reason and Republicanism. "For all Jefferson's doubts and hesitation," he notes, "nothing could extinguish the flame lit by his universalist rhetoric."

Like many volumes of this kind, Reason and Republicanism is not without its faults. There is inevitably some degree of overlap and one essay, in particular, seems to have been written with a different audience in mind. Taken as a whole, however, the book presents an extremely nuanced portrait of Jefferson as an "apostle of liberty". Yes, Jefferson could be inconsistent, not least when it came to slavery and race, but it is important to recognise that his inconsistencies were an essential part of a complex whole. That, after all, is Jefferson's great fascination and the reason for his enduring significance.

J. R. Oldfield is senior lecturer in American history, University of Southampton.

Reason and Republicanism: Thomas Jefferson's Legacy of Liberty

Editor - Gary L. McDowell and Sharon L. Noble
ISBN - 0 8476 8520 9 and 8521 7
Publisher - Rowman and Littlefield
Price - £52.00 and £19.95
Pages - 325

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