Jefferson in His Time

By Wood, Gordon | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview
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Jefferson in His Time


Wood, Gordon, The Wilson Quarterly


"If America is wrong, Jefferson is wrong," an early biographer wrote. "If America is right, Jefferson is right." This year, on his 250th birthday, it would appear that Jefferson was wrong. Many historians of late have found the third U.S. president guilty of racism and other sins that besmirch the national character. Gordon Wood, by contrast, argues that Jefferson has never been an apt mirror of America. He was a representative figure of his day whose words haunt us because, unlike him, they transcend his own time.

Americans seem to have forgotten nothing about Thomas Jefferson, except that he was once a living, breathing human being. Throughout our history, Jefferson has served as a symbol of what we as a people are, someone invented, manipulated, turned into something we like or dislike within ourselves--whether it is populism or elitism, agrarianism or racism, atheism or liberalism. We continually ask ourselves whether Jefferson still survives, or what still lives in his thought, and we quote him on nearly every side of every major question in our history. No figure in our past has embodied so much of our heritage and so many of our hopes.

In his superb The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), Merrill Peterson showed that American culture has always used Jefferson as "a sensitive reflector...of America's troubled search for the image of itself." The symbolizing, the image-mongering, and the identifying of Jefferson with America has not changed a bit since Peterson's book was published, even though the level of professional historical scholarship has never been higher. If anything the association of Jefferson with America has become more complete. During the past three turbulent decades many people, including some historians, have concluded that something is seriously wrong with America and, therefore, that something has to be wrong with Jefferson.

The opening blast in this criticism of Jefferson was probably Leonard Levy's Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (1963). No subtle satire, no gentle mocking of the ironies of Jefferson's inconsistencies and hypocrisies, Levy's book was a prosecutor's indictment. Levy ripped off Jefferson's mantle of libertarianism to expose his "darker side": his passion for partisan persecution, his lack of concern for basic civil liberties, and a self-righteousness that became at times out-and-out ruthlessness. Far from being the skeptical enlightened intellectual, allowing all ideas their free play, Jefferson was portrayed by Levy and others as something of an ideologue, eager to fill the young with his political orthodoxy while censoring all those books he did not like.

Not only did Jefferson lack an original or skeptical mind; he could in fact be downright doctrinaire, an early version of a "knee-jerk liberal." In this respect he was very different from his more skeptical and inquisitive friend James Madison. Jefferson, for example, could understand the opening struggles of the French Revolution only in terms of a traditional liberal antagonism to an arrogant and overgrown monarchy. He supported the addition of a bill of rights to the federal Constitution not because he had thought through the issue the way Madison had but largely because he believed that a bill of rights was what good governments were supposed to have. All of his liberal aristocratic French friends said so; indeed, as he told his fellow Americans, "the enlightened part of Europe have given us the greatest credit for inventing this instrument of security for the rights of the people, and have been not a little surprised to see us so soon give it up." One almost has the feeling that Jefferson advocated a bill of rights in 1787-88 out of concern for what his liberal French associates would think. One sometimes has the same feeling about his antislavery statements, many of which seem to have been shaped to the expectations of enlightened foreigners.

It is in fact his views on black Americans and slavery that have made Jefferson most vulnerable to modern censure.

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