The Jefferson Nobody Knows
Following up on his successful and highly regarded James Madison and the Making of America (St. Martin’s, 2012), Kevin Gutzman has returned with a fresh look at Jefferson in Thomas Jefferson, Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America. It could well have been called The Jefferson Nobody Knows.
Jefferson, Gutzman reminds us, had such a fertile mind that he would devote himself to the study of a subject and become the leading figure of his day in that area. Architecture may be the most obvious example — at the time of the bicentennial, the American Institute of Architects declared Jefferson’s work on the University of Virginia to be America’s outstanding architectural achievement. But he was also learned in numerous other fields, including ethnography and ethnohistory, and in fact he carried out the first archaeological excavation in North America.
Thankfully, Gutzman has not given us another conventional Jefferson biography, complete with soporific discussions of the man’s relationships with his family members and other antiquarian trivia. Chances are, Gutzman has said, the average person who’s curious about Jefferson is unlikely to read more than 300 pages about him over the course of a lifetime. So those 300 pages ought to be laser focused on principles, ideas, and areas of work that can be traced throughout Jefferson’s career and that made him who he was.
So Gutzman focuses on five significant areas of Jefferson’s thought and work that are central to his place in American history: federalism; freedom of conscience; slavery, race, and colonization; the Indians; and the University of Virginia (and his thoughts on education more broadly).
The Jefferson who emerges from these pages is fascinating yes, but more importantly, a radical. His positions on federalism, freedom of conscience, and the like consistently put him at odds with established practice going back many centuries throughout the Western world.
Federalism is the aspect of Jefferson’s thought that most irritates historians, and prominent scholars have gone out of their way to minimize Jefferson’s commitment to it. The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, a radical statement in support of state nullification against unconstitutional federal laws, is portrayed instead as a defense of civil liberties against the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson’s draft resolutions of 1825, which revived the spirit of ’98, are often not mentioned at all; Merrill Peterson excluded them from the Library of Virginia edition of the writings of Jefferson.
Other historians have tried to portray the Kentucky Resolutions as nothing more than a struggle for civil liberties, ignoring the federalism aspect altogether.
But Jefferson’s point, there as always, was that political decisions should be made at the local level, and certainly at no higher than the state level in cases where the power in question had not been delegated to the federal government. And despite efforts ever since to obscure the point (James Madison himself tried to deny it), Jefferson did favor the power of a state to nullify an unconstitutional federal law.
The usual claim about Jefferson and slavery, meanwhile, is that while he may have talked a good game about human liberty, he scarcely lifted a finger against slavery, its very antithesis. Gutzman is having none of it. He notes that after Richard Bland was savaged for proposing the abolition of slavery before the Virginia General Assembly, Jefferson came to the conclusion that Virginians were not prepared to put an end to the institution.
Until that time, Jefferson would have to do what he could against it short of an all-out assault that would surely fail. Thus as president, Jefferson kept slavery out of the Northwest Territory, and abolished the slave trade at the first moment (the year 1808) that the Constitution authorized him to. Gutzman’s sympathetic discussion of these and other anti-slavery initiatives by Jefferson, not to mention a detailed look at Jefferson’s overall outlook on slavery and how best to undermine it, amounts to a persuasive corrective to recent historians who castigate Jefferson for his alleged inaction.
As for the University of Virginia, Americans today tend to miss why Jefferson’s work here mattered. One university is just like any other, they think, and since universities are such a commonplace these days, Jefferson’s university seems like little more than a quaint footnote to the man’s primary work.
Among many other things, Jefferson introduced revolutionary changes to the curriculum, such that education was no longer just a matter of rote memorization (it was Jefferson you can blame for the essay examination, incidentally). Although Jefferson himself loved Latin and ancient Greek — he took books of the ancient authors in the original languages wherever he went, and delighted in reading Plutarch in the original Greek — he thought such pursuits were impractical for anyone other than members of society’s elite. Far better for students to learn modern languages. In general, he sought a university whose priorities and commitments were shaped by the Enlightenment.
Then there’s freedom of conscience, which is such a commonplace today that we’re apt to overlook how revolutionary Jefferson’s work in this area really was. Tendentious right-wing propaganda tracts to the contrary notwithstanding, Jefferson was not conventionally religious, and believed persecution or political disabilities for religious reasons were cruel and intolerable. Hence his drafting of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was approved by the legislature in 1786. A great many people who were themselves religious agreed with Jefferson’s reasoning, and thereby made Virginia possibly the first-ever secular society. If that isn’t radical, what is?
According to Jefferson, state violations of freedom of conscience led to no genuine conversions, and served no good purpose. Placing religious restrictions on officeholders, furthermore, “tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it.” That is to say, someone elected to office who does not hold the requisite religious views will simply lie, and thereby make himself not a Christian but a hypocrite.
At the same time, since Jefferson’s federalism is the part of his thought that so many historians want to run away from (Merrill Peterson called it the “saddest” aspect of Jefferson’s legacy), they cannot understand, or they simply conceal, his view that while secularism was the system he preferred for Virginia, it was up to other states to decide what if anything to do with their own state churches. Local self-government is consistently the driving force behind Jefferson’s political thought.
For those of you interested in American history, particularly the unvarnished, non-p.c. kind, you’ll want to pass by the gaggle of historians who want to present you a tame, sleep-inducing Jefferson, and instead discover the real thing in Thomas Jefferson, Revolutionary.