Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy

By Francis D. Cogliano | Go to book overview
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Chapter 2
The Revolution

I

During his retirement Thomas Jefferson was increasingly preoccupied with the history of the American Revolution and its aftermath. As the years passed and the number of men and women who had lived through the struggle for independence dwindled, Jefferson despaired of preserving the history of the Revolution. In 1815 he wrote to John Adams, 'On the subject of the history of the American Revolution, you ask who shall write it? Who can write it? And who will ever be able to write it? Nobody; except merely its external facts.' This was because 'all it's councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having made notes of them, these which are the soul and life of history must forever be unknown'.1 A true history of the Revolution would have to be written by a participant or someone with a close knowledge of the major events and people.

For Jefferson, the question of who would write the history of the American Revolution was of more than academic interest. In his mind the fate of the American experiment with republican government was closely linked with the history of its birth. The whiggish interpretation of British history to which Jefferson subscribed taught him that the forces of tyranny constantly sought to subvert liberty. If, as Jefferson believed, David Hume's Tory History of England threatened liberty in Britain, what might happen if the Federalists, whom Jefferson often derided as American Tories, wrote the history of the American Revolution? They would appropriate and pervert its legacy and threaten its achievements. Throughout his retirement Jefferson worried that this was occurring. 'We have been too careless of our future reputation,' he lamented in 1823, 'while our tories will omit nothing to place us in the wrong.'2 To combat this threat Jefferson undertook to promote his version of revolutionary history in a variety of ways. Beginning in the 1780s he encouraged and promoted writers whom he felt would write sound histories of the Revolution. As time passed and he became aware of the danger posed by Federalist historians, he supplied some authors with source materials

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