Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

First from the Right: Massive Resistance and the Image of Thomas Jefferson in the 1950s

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

First from the Right: Massive Resistance and the Image of Thomas Jefferson in the 1950s

Article excerpt

Historians' debates on Thomas Jefferson in the last half of the twentieth century are well known. According to received wisdom, Jefferson historiography followed this trajectory: in the years after World War II, an academic consensus developed that accentuated the more liberal and heroic sides of the Virginian's life, character, and ideas. Presenting a scholarly face to the interpretation of him presented in the newly completed Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., works by Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson, Julian Boyd, Adrienne Koch, and Bernard Mayo celebrated the "Apostle of Liberty." Taking their cues from the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, these writers portrayed Jefferson as a symbol of freedom, equality, progress, universal rights, Enlightenment science, and cultivated taste, as well as someone deeply disturbed by slavery. Promises that their projects would be more rigorously complete, clear, and objective than past attempts-Malone pledged in the first of what would be a six-volume biography that he sought "the whole of a many-sided man"-also differentiated this postwar surge. In short, as one historian exclaimed in 1946, "from now on professional scholars who discuss the great Virginian . . . will write on a 'new' Thomas Jefferson subtly changed in stature and quality from the Jefferson known to their fathers."1

Before long, however, critics began to have doubts about the Apostle of Liberty. Questioning Jefferson's views and influence, historians Leonard Levy and Winthrop Jordan first challenged the postwar scholarly consensus in the 1960s, a burgeoning fight that-with the added question of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings-soon escaped the ivory tower and captured the public's attention in the 1970s and 1980s.2 Critics of the Apostle, moreover, increasingly directed their fire not only at Jefferson but at his interpreters as well. Malone, Peterson, and Boyd themselves came under attack, accused of failing to live up to their promises of comprehensiveness and clarity. Radical scholars and black power intellectuals contended that scholars in the Charlottesville-centered "Jefferson establishment" had ignored a significant section of the Virginian's less-than-heroic record, especially on racial issues. In order to preserve his reputation, they argued, the biographers had made some questionable choices of evidence and explanation. Instead of taking Jefferson on his own terms, critics in the 1960s and afterward argued, postwar historians had transferred their own values onto him. In short, leftist critics maintained that what Americans thought they knew when they celebrated the Apostle of Liberty was actually the product of a dangerous exercise in cultural hegemony. By the 1990s, the Apostle had fallen into such disfavor that some voices, including those of Conor Cruise O'Brien and Paul Finkelman, called for Jefferson to be banished from America's pantheon altogether.3

But 1960s leftists were not the first to make these claims. A decade earlier, criticism of the Jefferson establishment and its claims of the Virginian as a heroic symbol of racial equality, energetic government, and universal rights was audible not in the academy, but in newspapers, political campaigns, and halls of government all across the South. Led by Richmond News Leader editor James Jackson Kilpatrick, southerners trying to stave off threats to Jim Crow made from the right many of the same claims later attributed to leftist scholars and black power activists. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, segregationists vigorously proclaimed Thomas Jefferson the patron saint of white supremacy and states' rights. Defenders of Jim Crow turned to Jefferson as a figure of paramount authority who gave their embattled culture legitimacy and respectability. In their estimation, close examination of Jefferson's "true" views and fundamental principles revealed the founding father to be in accord with white reactionaries in their massive resistance to the expansion of civil rights. …

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