Mises Review

The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson And The French Revolution, by Conor O’Brien

The Mises Review

The Jefferson Revisionism Hoax

Mises Review 3, No. 1 (1997)

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 order.

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 executions:

“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 this document.

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 revolutionary ideology.

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. 145).

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 Burke?

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. 12).

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.



Gordon, David. “The Jefferson Revisionism Hoax.” Review of The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and The French Revolution, by Conor O’Brien. The Mises Review 3, No. 1 (1997).

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