A Founding Father's Feet of Clay: An Interview with Conor Cruise O'Brien

By Madigan, Timothy J. | Free Inquiry, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

A Founding Father's Feet of Clay: An Interview with Conor Cruise O'Brien


Madigan, Timothy J., Free Inquiry


International Academy of Humanism Laureate Conor Cruise O'Brien is the author of more than 20 books, including Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland. He has served in the Dail and Senate of the Republic of Ireland and as a member of the Irish Delegation to the United Nations.

His latest book, The Long Affair, examines the original writings of the chief architect of the government of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. What he has uncovered about Jefferson's attitudes toward race has unsettled many who strongly identify the man with the ideals upon which the American republic is based. Below, FI Editor Timoth J. Madigan talks with O'Brien about his findings.

Free Inquiry: Thomas Jefferson is considered to be one of the great freethinkers of the past. Why do you feel that there is a need to take a rather iconoclastic attitude toward him in your new book?

Conor Cruise O'Brien: Jefferson was a humanist as, of course, in some sense all the Founding Father were, because they lived in a period when that kind of thinking was very dominant among educated people as I suppose it is today. I am not as interested in revealing Jefferson's failures as a humanist as I am in bringing to light his racist attitudes. I don't think racism is compatible with humanism as I understand it. But it is certainly compatible with distancing yourself from religion as is apparent in the case of Adolph Hitler and many other twentieth-century people. So this is a rather complex area.

FI: Do you think it's fair to judge a figure from the past like Jefferson by current concepts of liberty or freedom?

O'BRIEN: Not exactly. There were many, many people in Jefferson's own day, such as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, who held what we regard as enlightened attitudes on racial matters. George Washington inherited and owned slaves, and parted with them before he died. But he never tried to justify the practice. In modern America, Jefferson has an appeal not merely to humanists but others who I think have not looked very closely at his known attitudes in relation to race. He also has an appeal to modern racists, including the people who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, both of whom had Jefferson T-shirts.

FI: In the Epilogue of your book you describe many examples of Jefferson's racism. It seems that he had what might be called sort of a natural law view and believed that blacks were just naturally inferior.

O'BRIEN: In Jefferson's initial writings on this subject, he grudgingly entertains the possibility that perhaps blacks may be inferior. He got into it in a more wholehearted manner later. Let me quote from my book:

In the first half of the twentieth century, the most important phase affecting the posthumous reputation and civil-religious status of Thomas Jefferson was the New Deal. As Merrill D. Peterson puts it: "The Roosevelt administration built a great national temple to Jefferson's memory." The temple is the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birth, 13 April 1943. According to an unofficial brochure: "Inscriptions at the memorial were selected by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission and were taken from a wide variety of his writings on freedom, slavery, education and government." The sections of the inscriptions that deals with freedom and slavery runs as follows: "God, who gave us life, gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free."

All of this passage except the last sentence is taken from Notes on the State of Virginia. The last sentence is taken from Jefferson's Autobiography. …

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