The Jefferson Revisionism Hoax
THE LONG AFFAIR: THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, 1785-1800
Conor Cruise O' Brien
University of Chicago Press, 1996, xvii + 367 pgs.
Conor Cruise O'Brien lets the mask drop on p. 274 of his
deplorable new book. Praising another writer on Jefferson,
O'Brien remarks: "What is most impressive in Miller's book to my
mind is his intuitive capacity to penetrate through Jefferson's
verbiage into Jefferson's mind. This is the kind of capacity that
tends to be held in low esteem by academic historians and indeed
there are obvious reasons for a degree of skepticism concerning
such a capacity" (p. 274).
Our author here perfectly epitomizes his own method. In this long
tirade against Thomas Jefferson, O'Brien follows a simple course.
He first dredges up a passage from Jefferson that he believes
suitable for his intuitive powers. Disregarding what the text
says, he enters Jefferson's mind. Not content with enjoying his
mystic powers, O'Brien feels impelled to communicate his findings
to those less psychically gifted than he.
To what end? Jefferson must be expelled from the pantheon of the
American civil religion. O'Brien's indictment is twofold:
Jefferson defended uncritically the French Revolution, down to
its bloodiest atrocities; and he held racist views about blacks.
The multicultural society of today cannot tolerate so brazen a
miscreant. Away with him!
Before we consider O'Brien's case in detail, a preliminary
question confronts us. Why must we have a civil religion at all?
As O'Brien rightly notes, the phrase "civil religion" stems from
Rousseau. In his opinion, Christianity had wrongly diverted men
from politics to pursuit of salvation in another world.
Additionally, conflicting sects threaten the state with disorder.
To avert this danger, and to restore the civic virtue of old
Rome, citizens must profess common articles of belief that
promote the good of the state.
This bizarre view is utterly alien to the American political
tradition, whatever Robert Bellah and similar worthies may assure
us. The First Amendment forbids a national establishment of
religion; surely this applies to Rousseau's witch's brew as well
as to the more conventional faiths.
For O'Brien this seeming commonplace is false. He assumes without
argument that we have, and must have, a civil religion. In a way
that our author neglects to specify, we need this for a cohesive
society. "Among the sacred beliefs, a cult of liberty has been
important from very early on.... In the American civil religion,
liberty, nationalism, and faith are fused" (p. 301). Oddly,
O'Brien at one point condemns Jefferson for allegedly adopting
the slogan "forced to be free" from Rousseau; but it is O'Brien
himself who has been intoxicated by Rousseau's fantasies. So far
as civil religion is concerned, a profession of atheism is in
If we reject civil religion, the question of Jefferson's place in
that concoction loses its importance. Nevertheless, O'Brien's
book merits attention, since his bill of indictment can easily be
translated into secular terms. Jefferson is a much admired
figure: does he deserve to be?
The chief exhibit in O'Brien's case that Jefferson fanatically
supported French Revolutionary atrocities is a letter written by
Jefferson to William Short, the American Chargé d'Affaires at
Paris. The missive in question is the famous "Adam and Eve"
letter of January 3, 1793. In it, Jefferson rejects Short's
criticism of the French revolutionaries for their numerous
"In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell
without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I
deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to
the day of my death." But the "liberty of the whole earth was
depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize
won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been
deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather
than it should have failed, I would have seen half of the earth
desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every
country, and left free, it would be better than it now is" (p.
145, quoting Jefferson).
If Jefferson's letter is taken literally, O'Brien would have a
point. Is it not the very midsummer of madness to endorse the
revolution at the cost of depopulating the world? But Jefferson
often wrote in purple prose, and surely he cannot be taken
literally. The letter was written well before the Reign of
Terror, usually dated from the onset of the second Committee of
Public Safety in July, 1793; and it displays considerable unease
over the executions that had then already taken place. O'Brien
himself admits that Jefferson condemned "the atrocities of
Robespierre" in a later letter (p. 310).
O'Brien of course rejects my contention. The Adam-and-Eve letter
should be taken literally. Why? Because another document,
Jefferson's notes of a conversation with George Washington,
reveals his total commitment to the revolutionary cause.
Unfortunately for O'Brien's argument, he completely misconstrues
According to O'Brien, Jefferson's phrase "the very doctrine that
had been my polar star" is "illuminating." "It is clear," writes
O'Brien, "that Jefferson regarded as meritorious the fixity of
his doctrinal attitude to the French Revolution, irrespective of
what might be happening in and around France and as a
metaphorical instrument for conferring grandeur on an idée fixe,
there is nothing to beat the polar star" (p. 144).
It is not Jefferson, but O'Brien, who is here dominated by an
idée fixe. As the context of the notes makes unmistakable, the
"polar star" is the view that France is an effective American
ally: the phrase has nothing to do with revolutionary doctrine.
Jefferson writes that Washington "went into the circumstances of
dissatisfaction between Spain, Gr. Brit. and us, and observed
that there was no nation on whom we could rely at all times but
France." Jefferson is "much pleased with the tone of these
observations. It was the very doctrine which had been my polar
star" (p. 144, quoting Jefferson).
Remember, it is Washington to whom Jefferson ascribes these
remarks. O'Brien's interpretation of "polar star" nonsensically
requires that Washington be a fanatical partisan of French
This, I regret to say, is not the only instance of O'Brien's
ineptitude. Let us return to the Adam-and-Eve letter. Please note
carefully what O'Brien places in brackets in this citation from
the letter: "The Jacobins saw this, and expunging that officer
[in English, executing the King] was of absolute necessity" (p.
I fear that our author has neglected to note the date, January 3,
1793, of Jefferson's letter. The King was not executed until
January 21. And in any case news in those days did not travel
fast. Had O'Brien read the letter with focused attention, he
would have seen that the sentence he wrongly construes refers to
abolition of the monarchy, not the King's execution. "The
Jacobins...tried the experiment of retaining their hereditary
Executive. The experiment failed completely," then follows the
sentence quoted earlier. (p. 145).
When our author is in hot pursuit of his quarry, the conventions
of scholarly discourse depart. He states: "Jefferson is a
prophet, but not in the predictive sense of that term. He is a
prophet in the spiritual sense, a being whose imagination is
ablaze with a vision. Specifically, he is the author of the
American Holy Book, the Declaration of Independence. He sees his
own life as dedicated to what the Declaration calls 'the holy
cause of freedom'" (p. 66).
An eloquent passage, if a bit perfervid in rhetoric; but this
"quotation" from the Declaration does not appear there, but comes
from a speech 14 years later. This will not do.
Let us return once more to Adam and Eve. O'Brien's attempt to
shore up his interpretation of the letter by the "polar star"
conversation fails utterly, as we have seen. But how does he deal
with counterevidence? Why, by his intuitive power to enter
Jefferson's mind, of course.
Did Jefferson condemn the "atrocities of Robespierre?" Yes,
writes O'Brien, but what Jefferson meant was that the
revolutionaries emancipated the slaves. "The emancipating Act of
February 1794 was probably not the least of 'the atrocities of
Robespierre' in the eyes of Virginia slaveowners, including
Thomas Jefferson" (p. 312). There is no need for textual
evidence, when that great mentalist the Amazing Conor is at work.
O'Brien's argument now takes a surprising turn. He has so far
condemned Jefferson as an ideologue, a precursor of totalitarian
terror, for his favorable remarks about the French Revolution.
But Jefferson did at some point in 1794-95 abate in his
enthusiasm for the revolution, as our author readily
acknowledges. Should he now receive credit for acquiring, however
belatedly, a little of the wisdom of O'Brien's hero, Edmund
Not at all. For O'Brien, Jefferson cannot win. As I have
suggested already, our author thinks that for Jefferson, the
preservation of slavery outweighed zeal for revolution. Jefferson
was, first and foremost, a Virginia planter. "He continued to
speak of Virginia as 'my country' even when he was representing
the United States abroad. Nor was this an isolated trick of
speech. The United States was not an object that engaged his
emotions; Virginia was" (p. 304).
If Jefferson admires the French Revolution, O'Brien condemns him
as ideologue; if he prefers the values of his local culture to
the revolutionary ones, O'Brien denounces him as a hidebound
provincial. O'Brien fails to see that to reject ideology
characteristically leads to the embrace of tradition. Does
O'Brien have some third alternative in mind? He neglects to tell
us what it is.
No doubt O'Brien would respond in this way. Even if most
opposition to the French Revolution came from traditionalists,
not all traditions are good. In particular, Jefferson's Virginia
was a slaveholding society, and Jefferson entertained a low view
of blacks. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he questioned
the intellectual capacity of blacks; and he did not think that
free blacks could live side-by-side with whites.
But to condemn Jefferson for these views is anachronistic. His
opinions of blacks did not differ from those of Hume and Kant.
Should these philosophers join the author of the Declaration of
Independence in O'Brien's Book of Heroes With Feet of Clay? In
September 1858, a well-known American politician declared: "There
is a physical difference between the white and black races which
I believe will forever forbid the two races living on terms of
social and political equality." The author of these sentiments
was Abraham Lincoln. Does he too have to go?
To list O'Brien's misunderstandings in extensive detail threatens
tedium. I shall thus conclude with only two more howlers. He
cites this passage from Jefferson: "I do not indeed wish to see
any nation have a form of government forced upon them; but if it
is to be done, I should rejoice at its being a free one" (p. 12).
About this, O'Brien observes: "The basic concept here is taken
from Du contract social and is the most audacious of Rousseau's
paradoxes: the notion that people may be 'forced to be free'" (p.
What Jefferson says has nothing to do with Rousseau. According to
Rousseau, those not in accord with the general will are forced to
be free by acting as it dictates, since by definition the general
will realizes freedom. What has this murky metaphysics to do with
Jefferson's commonsense point that a free government is better
than an unfree one? Jefferson does not say that free governments
should be forced on unwilling people; has O'Brien read the first
sentence of the passage he cites?
Even worse is O'Brien's explanation of Jefferson's failure to
meet his young daughter, Polly, in London in 1787. Jefferson,
then the American Minister in France, sent someone else to bring
her to Paris. Our author comes up with a characteristically
fatuous explanation for Jefferson's behavior.
Polly was accompanied by a teenage slave girl who was a half-
sister of Jefferson's wife. Had Jefferson gone to London, he
would have had to meet John Adams, the American Minister, and his
wife Abigail. "New Englanders were aware in general that such
relations between families of masters and slaves [as that between
Jefferson's father-in-law and the slave girl] were not uncommon
in the South." But Abigail Adams "detested such arrangements." So
it is understandable that Jefferson "did not want to meet Abigail
in the presence of his daughter, and of the young slave who was
Polly's aunt" (p. 24).
Once again the mind of our mystic is at work. His account of
Jefferson's thought is pure conjecture, and he presents not the
slightest evidence in its support. How, by the way, was Abigail
Adams supposed to know the slave girl's ancestry?
I once asked my great teacher, Walter Starkie, what he thought of
O'Brien. He replied: "I found him a rather self-opinionated young
man when he was a pupil of mine." After a long career, O'Brien
has wound up a self-opinionated old man. Such is progress.