Jefferson was a slave-holder who urged permanent revolution. He doesn’t deserve acclaimby Ferdinand Mount / April 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
There are two stories about how Thomas Jefferson came to write the United States Declaration of Independence. The most famous is Jefferson’s own account: “The committee of five met; no such thing as a sub-committee was proposed, but they unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught.”
The other comes from John Adams, Jefferson’s grumpy, brilliant predecessor both as vice-president and as president of the US. Both men were writing nearly 50 years after the event, but I prefer Adams’s version, which brings back the anxious, chaotic days of July 1776. “We were all in haste, Congress was impatient,” Adams recalled, “and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson’s handwriting as he first drew it”—no time for a fair copy.
Adams thought the Declaration, for all its subsequent fame, “contained no new ideas, that it is a commonplace compilation, its sentiments hacknied in Congress for two years before.” Jefferson retorted that “I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether.” In fact, several weeks earlier, while Jefferson was away in Philadelphia, George Mason had composed Virginia’s own Declaration of Rights in very similar language, down to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“It has been a struggle to fit Jefferson into the national pantheon and keep him there”
When the Second Continental Congress went through Jefferson’s draft, they struck out quite a bit of the high-flown, near-hysterical language about blood and tyranny, though leaving in a long enough catalogue of George III’s crimes against the colonies. What they most conspicuously took out was Jefferson’s fierce denunciation of the King for having “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
It was outrageous humbug, especially for a Virginian planter, to blame George III for the slave trade, since it was the colonists who had so enthusiastically imported the slaves. Lord Dunmore, the last British Governor of Virginia, had freed any slave who was willing to fight for the British, and it was the first business of the victorious American rebels to recapture and re-enslave as many as they could. The same issue of the Virginia Gazette (20th July 1776) that printed Jefferson’s Declaration also carried ads offering rewards for the recapture of runaway slaves.
It is primarily because he composed the Declaration that Jefferson has been acclaimed as one of the founding fathers of the republic. (He had little or no part in the making of the Constitution of the United States, because he was in Paris throughout the process.) It is for that reason, rather than the achievements of his two-term presidency, that he is one of the four presidents whose head is sculpted on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of Dakota. In a canyon behind the heads, there is a chamber cut into the rock containing the texts of the Declaration and the Constitution on porcelain enamel panels. The head of Jefferson was originally intended for the rock face to Washington’s right, but the stone turned out to be too crumbly, and so Jefferson was moved to a narrow space on the general’s other shoulder.
by Ferdinand Mount
(Simon & Schuster, £22)
In other ways, too, it has been a struggle to fit Jefferson into the national pantheon and keep him there. Throughout the standard six-volume biography of him, Dumas Malone repeatedly magnifies his hero beyond all the evidence, downplays his debacles, declines to offer direct quotation from his more embarrassing outbursts and badmouths or ignores his rivals. For example, he does mention George Mason’s Virginia Declaration, but only in passing, and does not quote from it, fearing that it would make the Jefferson version seem less trailblazing and original. How, after all, can you glorify a mere draughtsman, and a derivative one at that?
But even Malone cannot entirely whitewash Jefferson’s ignominious conduct during the War of Independence, when, although the head of the Virginia militia, he twice ran away from the sound of British gunfire.
Jefferson has an enduring reputation as the most enquiring mind in American history, but his only completed treatise, Notes on Virginia, a prolonged 200-page response to a questionnaire from a French minister, is a very odd book and in many places a repellent one. The author sets out as a scientifically-minded philosopher surveying the beauties of his native country. But as the Notes billows forth, it mutates into a very peculiar vision of the American destiny.
He insists that the future of America shall be white. The most notorious passage in the book starts innocently enough as a description of Jefferson’s new legislative programme for Virginia: to abolish primogeniture, to establish religious freedom in the state, to emancipate all slaves born after the act is passed. All sound measures in the liberal spirit.
But then, after being brought up at the public expense, the freed slave-children would be “colonised to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper,” and at the same time vessels would be sent “to other parts of the world for an equal number of white inhabitants.” In other words, a progressive racial exchange of populations between African-Americans and white Europeans.
Why not retain and incorporate the freed blacks into the state and save the expense of this huge exercise in inhuman engineering? Jefferson starts off his reasons in seemingly liberal style by instancing the “deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites” and the “ten thousand recollections by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained.” But then he switches unnervingly into claiming that “the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the termination of the one or the other race.” Besides, blacks have a peculiar smell, they are stupider than whites and they are incapable of the deeper feelings.
And what are these natural distinctions that will infallibly end in all-out war between the races? Well, blacks are uglier. Is skin colour “not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of color in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers the emotions of the other race?” Even the blacks think that the whites are more beautiful. Look at “their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan [orangutan] for the black woman over those of his own species.”
The usual indictment of Jefferson is that he was a large slave-holder—he had more than 200 slaves at one time or another—and that, unlike other Virginia squires such as George Washington, he freed very few of them, even in his will. Nor was he a notably kindly master; he was not slow to punish offending slaves or to take measures to recapture his many runaways. But what he actually thought about black people is almost more repellent than his treatment of them.
Jefferson never changed his mind: he was still saying the same thing in his autobiography written in his late seventies. There he asserts no less plainly that the blacks must be emancipated and then got rid of: “nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”
Go to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, dedicated by FDR in 1943, on the bicentenary of Jefferson’s birth, and you will see the last words of the inscription: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” The inscription stops there. The lie that hides Jefferson’s vision of an all-white America is graven in stone at the heart of the American pantheon.
Writing in November 1787 about the Shays’ Rebellion, a rising of small farmers in Massachusetts a few months earlier, Jefferson said: “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion… What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Famously, the “tree of liberty” phrase was emblazoned on the T-shirt that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, wore when he was arrested. McVeigh’s co-bomber, Terry Lynn Nichols, was also a disciple of Jefferson’s and fond of “the tree of liberty” maxim.
After witnessing the early stages of the French Revolution, Jefferson waved aside his secretary’s dismay at the progress of the Terror: “was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? … Rather than that it should have failed, I would have seen half the Earth desolated.”
Jefferson’s repeated praises of violent rebellion represent the sharp end of a more general doctrine. In America, that doctrine is politely described as “Jeffersonian democracy.” In other less happier lands it is more usually called “permanent revolution.” The outline of such doctrines is fuzzy, often deliberately so, but their core is roughly as follows: legitimate authority flows directly from the people, and only from the people. It is merely on temporary loan to political institutions and leaders, and may be recalled at any time, by violent means if need be, whenever the people believe that the institution is betraying them. Thus, the mandate that any government enjoys is strictly provisional. By contrast, those individuals or groups whom the people have chosen as their “democratic vanguard,” are equipped with an absolute authority that is not to be resisted.
“Famously, Jefferson’s tree of liberty phrase was emblazoned on the T-shirt of the Oklahoma City bomber”
The Jefferson industry has persistently tried to anchor their man in the mainstream of the American political tradition, to make him look much like his three neighbours on Mount Rushmore. Yet it is clear that his views place him in a different tradition altogether from Washington, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt who all believed in stable constitutional government.
When he eventually received a copy of the Constitution, he raised substantial objections: to the eligibility of the president for re-election, for example, which he thought smacked too much of “an elective despotism,” which “was not the government we fought for.” Then he didn’t like the way the judges were to be virtually irremovable and so “effectually independent of the nation.” Instead, they should be “submitted to some practical and impartial control,” by which he appears to mean that it should be possible to vote
You might call these the respectable demands of Jeffersonian democracy, calculated to give the people more immediate and frequent access to the levers of power. But he goes much further. Jefferson is suspicious of the very idea of a constitution in the sense of a document with special status. No arrangements are to be considered as permanent or unalterable. Everything is up for question all the time, everything is reformable at will. The revolution is never over.
This doctrine is set out most memorably in Jefferson’s long letter to his disciple James Madison of 6th September 1789, in which he argues that it is self-evident that “no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The Earth belongs always to the living generation.”
But this isn’t self-evident at all. Edmund Burke, writing only a few months after Jefferson, declares that, on the contrary, society is a contract between the generations: “It becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who have yet to be born.”
These two views of society are utterly opposed: on the one hand, the idea of culture with all its obligations, accumulated data and learning curves as maturing over generations: and on the other, the view that it is we now who make our own culture as we go along, and that we owe nothing to our forefathers or to our descendants. These remain the two magnetic poles of political thought.
The impact of the Jefferson doctrine was immediate, the challenge to traditional ways of thinking posed almost as soon as Jefferson returned from Paris in September 1789. After his usual fine show of reluctance, Jefferson accepted Washington’s offer of the secretaryship of state and abandoned his plans to go back to France. He soon found himself embroiled in a cat fight with the Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton—the subject of the hit musical Hamilton.
It was both a turf war and a profound doctrinal dispute that was to last through most of the 1790s. Both sides deployed the seediest hired hacks and resorted to some of the bitchiest abuse in political history. Malone does his best to suggest that all the foulest vituperation came from the Hamilton camp. That just isn’t true. Jefferson and his fans were equally trigger-happy with their insults: “covert monarchists,” “anglomanes,” “tools of corruption,” and so on.
Hamilton believed that the nation could not progress until it had a central bank to expand credit and that individual states, especially the poorer southern states, could not advance unless the nation assumed their considerable debts. The obsessively independent southern states, led not so covertly by Jefferson, argued that there was nothing in the Constitution about a central bank or the assumption of states’ debts. Hamilton retorted, in essence, that any fool could see that if you wanted to provide for the general welfare, this was what you had to do: they were “implied Powers.”
Jefferson and the “strict constructionists” relied on the 10th amendment, which reserved to the states all powers not delegated and “enumerated” to the United States. So the row went on, to be resolved, in practical if not doctrinal terms, by what was called the “residence-assumption” bargain. The northern states would agree to a southerly site for the new capital on the banks of the Potomac, and in return the south would agree to the United States assuming their debts.
But like any self-respecting ideologue, Jefferson did not give up. He continued to denounce what he called “the Hamilton system” as a boondoggle for the speculators and stockjobbers who infested Congress and who were all in the pocket of the Treasury Secretary. He continued to campaign for a looser union in which “the people” could call the shots and where the states did not have to dance to Washington’s tune. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, secretly written by Jefferson and Madison, demanded that any state should have the right to strike down any Federal law that it deemed unconstitutional—a disastrous recipe for unravelling the Union step by step. Jefferson’s pernicious version of states-rights theory lingered on after his death, erupting at intervals, and gathering final and catastrophic force as the pretext for the breakaway of the south, although the driving force was the defence of the “peculiar institution,” better known as slavery. From first to last, Jeffersonian democracy and Jeffersonian racism remained hopelessly, tragically, intertwined.
It is difficult not to agree with Conor Cruise O’Brien that as the 21st century progresses, we will increasingly find Jefferson’s influence flourishing, not on the left where he has traditionally been placed, but on the libertarian, gun-toting, not-so-crypto-racist right. You want to “drain the swamp” of Washington, you want to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out, you want to ban immigrants from countries that have nasty regimes, you want to keep out foreign goods? What you get is President Donald Trump. President Thomas Jefferson would have done the job for you so much better, and with a lot more class.
This is an edited extract from Ferdinand Mount’s new book “Prime Movers: From Pericles to Gandhi, 12 Great Political Thinkers and What’s Wrong with Each of Them” (Simon & Schuster)