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Thomas Jefferson: Champion of Liberty or Dangerous Radical?

Think Tank Transcripts:Thomas Jefferson

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I'm Ben Wattenberg. On July 4, 1776, ourfounding fathers cut America's ties with England by adopting theDeclaration of Independence. The author of their manifesto was only33 years old: Thomas Jefferson, philosopher, diplomat, president,slaveholder, and sometime radical. Who was Thomas Jefferson and whatwould he think of our nation today?

Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus areJudge Robert Bork of the American Enterprise Institute and author of'The Tempting of America'; Professor Peter Onuf, the holder of theThomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation chair at the University ofVirginia and editor of 'Jefferson Legacie'; James Oliver Horton, ascholar of the Jeffersonian era, professor of history and Americanstudies at George Washington University, and author of 'Free Peopleof Color: Inside the African-American Community'; and Jan Lewis ofRutgers University and author of 'The Pursuit of Happiness: Familyand Values in Jefferson's Virginia.'

The question before this house: What about Jefferson? This week on'Think Tank.'

In 1962, at a dinner honoring Nobel prize winners, President JohnF. Kennedy said, 'I think this is the most extraordinary collectionof talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered togetherat the White House with the possible exception of when ThomasJefferson dined alone.'

Some historians say that Thomas Jefferson was the last Renaissanceman. The author of the Declaration of Independence and thirdpresident of the United States spoke six languages and was anaccomplished inventor, naturalist, mathematician, and architect.Jefferson personally designed his home, Monticello, as well as theUniversity of Virginia.

Jefferson's greatest legacy, of course, is the Declaration ofIndependence. It is probably the single most recognized and copiedpolitical document in the world. Its powerful words still resonateeverywhere: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all menare created equal, that they are endowed by their creator withcertain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and thepursuit of happiness.'

Now, how could the man who wrote those stirring words own 150slaves? And unlike George Washington, who freed all of his slavesupon his death, Jefferson freed only five. But he thought slaverywould not last, declaring, 'Nothing is more certainly written in theBook of Faith than that these people are to be free.' Political lifewas not easy for Jefferson. His hatred of aristocracy made him astrong supporter of the French Revolution. His enemies charged thathe was too fond of popular uprisings, calling him 'Mad Tom' and 'theRobespierre of the American mob.'

But supporters hailed him as 'the mammoth of democracy' and as'the man of the people.'

He died on July 4, 1826. On his tomb, he asked to be remembered as'the author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of theUniversity of Virginia, and author of the Virginia Statute ofReligious Freedom.'

Professor Onuf, Peter Onuf, let's start out, what kind of a manwas he?

MR. ONUF: Jefferson was an extraordinary man, as your list of hisachievements indicates. We still don't know what to make of him,though. I think the notion of Renaissance man is a kind of fudge.He's everything, which means that we don't really know what he is.

What's most remarkable about Jefferson the democrat is that ifanybody represents the aristocratic impulses in America before theRevolution, it's Jefferson and his class in Virginia. In effect, he'sthe cream of the Virginia aristocracy, and it's remarkable that hecould embrace these ideas that we now take to be the defining ideasof democracy.


MR. HORTON: Jefferson is an extraordinary man, was anextraordinary man. He was also a very complicated man. In thatregard, I think he becomes the personification, really, of Americansociety. He is a person of great principle, but a person who cannotalways achieve that which his principles would dictate. I think thesame can be said of our society -- great principles, but we don'talways live up to them.


MS. LEWIS: I'd like to go back to a point that Peter made and talkabout this conundrum or paradox that Jefferson is the exponent ofdemocracy, yet in many ways he comes from an aristocratic background.Historians I don't think have ever been able to explain fully thatparadox, how a man of such privilege -- and he in many waysmaintained privilege in that beautiful setting at Monticello -- howhe was able to go beyond his background and come up with ideas thatare supposed to apply to all people and that all people have chosenas their banner.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob Bork, Judge Bork, lawyer Bork, and you aresurrounded by historians here, what do you make of Jefferson as alawgiver, law writer? I mean that's what he is principally known as,I guess.

MR. BORK: Well, if you mean the Declaration of Independence, ofcourse that is really in part a propaganda document; it's arhetorical document. It's not really part of our law. I suppose tothe Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom was a great achievement,but I don't think of Jefferson primarily as a lawgiver.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why not? I mean he

MR. BORK: Well, for one thing, you know, if Jefferson's principleshad prevailed, they would have destroyed the United States. The Unionwould have been gone.

He thought, for example, that the states could nullify acts ofCongress if they thought they were -- if each state thought it wasunconstitutional. He didn't believe in judicial review. He thoughteach branch of government could decide constitutionality for itself.

MR. WATTENBERG: That was the great fight with Chief JusticeMarshall?

MR. BORK: Yes, that was part of the fight with Marshall. He wanteda new Constitutional Convention every 20 years. James Madison talkedhim out of that one.

But obviously, if these principles had prevailed, we would have --the states would have fragmented and the Union would have beendestroyed.

MR. ONUF: I think it's only fair to say, Bob, that if Hamilton'sprinciples had prevailed, the same thing would have happened.

MR. BORK: Well, that could well be.

MR. WATTENBERG: Was Jefferson a radical? Is that fair to say? Imean all this stuff about 'watering the tree of liberty with humanblood every 20 years,' that sort of stuff?

MR. ONUF: Well, I think some of his rhetoric was radical. And justto get back to the point you were making here, his notions aboutbeing able to review -- each state being able to review and to decidecongressional rulings for themselves, I mean that comes in thecontext of the fear that he had that the Federalists at the time ofthe Sedition Act -- were really concentrating power in the hands ofthe federal government to a dangerous extent.

So in some ways, that was a reaction. I'm not sure that if thecontext had been different, he would have held to that belief.

MR. BORK: Well, certainly when he interpreted the Constitution, heinterpreted federal power very narrowly, and this would have been avery different nation if he had prevailed.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask you a question. If Thomas Jeffersonwere alive today, would he be a Democrat or a Republican, Jan?

MS. LEWIS: My son -- I have to introduce this by saying, my son,who is 16 and was attending many of the festivities aroundJefferson's 250th birthday last year, got so frustrated with thisquestion that he insisted, if Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he'dbe 250 years old. [Laughter.]

And I think I have to resist that sort of question because thetimes were so extraordinarily different. That much said, I will saythat we can follow different parts of the Jeffersonian legacy andthey go in very different directions.

As Bob has suggested, there is a states' rights Jefferson thatleads to nullification and to the Southern side of the Civil War, andyou can see those ideas developing.

At the same time, there is Jefferson the rights giver, and wholeads to the sort of rights consciousness that we associate withliberal Democrats.

So there are different parts of his legacy that lead in verydifferent directions.

MR. WATTENBERG: How could a man who -- I mean at times when youread about him, he sounds like sort of an agrarian nut. I mean hehates cities, he hates mobs, he hates people in cities. How could aman like that be a member of the Democratic Party today?

MR. HORTON: He distrusts cities.

MR. ONUF: I think that's misleading, in any case, that notion ofhis hating cities. He's a very urbane man. He loves urbanity andcivility, that is, the good things that cities bring.

His political project is in opposition to the metropolis, theconcentration of power that he resisted in the patriotic resistancemovement before the Revolution, and the danger that suchconcentrations would be emerge in America under the aegis of aHamiltonian system.

MR. HORTON: And to show you how complex and how contradictory hewas, you're absolutely right that he feared the concentration offederal power, but he used federal power when he was in the federaloffice, when he was president of the United States -- for example,the Louisiana Purchase, which expanded the size of the United Statesseveral times.

MR. WATTENBERG: And which was unconstitutional.

MR. HORTON: Which was -- at least he was not sure that it wasconstitutional, and said that, that he was not sure it wasconstitutional.

MR. WATTENBERG: Judge Bork, was it unconstitutional?

MR. BORK: Probably was, probably was, but there was a greatdisconnect between Jefferson's words and his actions as president. Infact, when he was president, he had to evade all of the principlesthat he had laid down before he became president, not only theLouisiana Purchase, but he sent out the Navy and the Marine Corps toTripoli to attack the Barbary pirates.

MR. WATTENBERG: Without getting congressional approval.

MR. BORK: That's right. One of the earliest precedents for apresident initiating hostilities without a declaration of war.

MR. WATTENBERG: What about his attitude toward race and slavery?How do we deal with that now?

MR. HORTON: Jefferson -- well, he was obviously a slaveholder,obviously a man who was uncomfortable with the institution ofslavery, who thought the institution of slavery was wrong, and evenso, could not bring himself to free his own slaves. He only freedeight slaves his entire -- well, three during his lifetime, five inhis will. A man with some 200 slaves who never moved to the positionof liberalism on the question of slavery that many in his own time,in his own region did.

So that although he was in some ways a leader in terms ofdemocratic thinking, he was -- he lagged behind more progressivethinking on the question of slavery, even for his time period.

MR. BORK: Well, I think early on he proposed a measure that noslavery would be allowed in new states, and he lost that by one votein the Congress.

MR. HORTON: Sure, but when the new states were actually openingup, 1820s, he went exactly in the opposite direction. He denouncedall that, said that slavery ought to be allowed wherever it wouldexpand.

MR. ONUF: I think we have to understand the limits of the notionof equality, and to some extent, we have to accept that whenJefferson articulates universal principles, he comes up against adifference which he can't accommodate in his scheme.

That is, it's one of the aspects of liberalism to generalize anduniversalize rights that we define ever more clearly the boundarybetween those who are capable of bearing rights and those who arenot. This is where Jefferson's racism comes to the fore, what wewould call his racism.

He naturalized difference. He couldn't accept artificialdifference, that is, aristocracy, where privileged families wouldrule over others. But there were differences, for instance, in thefamily, between men and women, parents and children, between races --he believed that African-Americans were naturally inferior.

MS. LEWIS: Yeah, I think when we read his statement in the 'Notesfrom the State of Virginia' about blacks, they make us extremelyuncomfortable today, and that this is a paradox with Jefferson. Imean he knows, he absolutely knows that slavery is wrong. Everyone atthe time knows that Jefferson is opposed to slavery, particularly atthe time of the Revolution. There is no question where theDeclaration of Independence leads, that it will lead to theelimination of slavery.

At the same time, Jefferson plays around with and creates a racismtoday that makes us, I think, very uncomfortable when we read thosewords.

MR. WATTENBERG: Did Thomas Jefferson have an affair with SallyHemings, a slave on his plantation?

MR. HORTON: Obviously, we don't know the answer to that question.There is lots of circumstantial evidence that he did, but there is nosmoking gun. I don't know of anybody who could testify, yes, I knowfor sure that he did.

MR. ONUF: The only argument I would make against the relationship,and I don't like to put myself in the position of defending Jeffersonon this, but I think the main reason why it's not likely to havehappened is that he was such a racist. And for him, miscegenation,mixing the races, blurring the line between black and white createdthis unbearable dissonance and tension. Many of the people in theHemings connection were light-skinned; they could have passed forwhite. And to perpetuate that confusion of the races while you'reclaiming that the races are so distinct in their capabilities is tomake an unbearable situation for

MR. HORTON: Yes, but it would have been very much in keeping withthe kind of ethical dilemmas and inconsistency that we know Jeffersonhad routinely in his life. MR. WATTENBERG: Jan, you have writtenabout family life of Jefferson and his times. Where do you come outon the great Sally Hemings mystery?

MS. LEWIS: Oh, I blame the nephews.

MR. WATTENBERG: You blame the nephews.

MS. LEWIS: The family, in fact.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, wasn't there one child that was born exactlynine months after he returns as ambassador to France?

MS. LEWIS: Well, the timing is thought that Jefferson might havebeen the father, that he was in the vicinity nine months before thebirth of each of Sally Hemings' children. MR. WATTENBERG: But so werethe nephews, you're saying?

MS. LEWIS: No one's done the research on the nephews. The familythought that it was the nephews, and in fact, many years afterwards,they would say, well, we know it was Uncle Peter, it was Uncle Sam.And what I found significant about that is that even if ThomasJefferson himself were not the father of Sally Hemings' children,which I think I would agree with Peter -- not likely; could be, butnot likely -- even if he weren't, by the family's own admission,these children would have been Jefferson's great nephews and nieces.They were family.

And I think that this is a metaphor for race relations in thiscountry in that we're all in some way family, and we should allacknowledge that we are all related, that all of us are thedescendants of Thomas Jefferson, if not literally, metaphorically.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask a question here. Here you have -- aswe're talking here, you have a man who certainly on the race issuedoes not seem like the great exemplar and trumpeter of human liberty,and yet around the world -- forget about America for a minute --Jefferson, not Washington, not Hamilton, is -- every revolutionary inthe world, the good guys as well as the totalitarians, waves theDeclaration of Independence and says, 'All men are created equal,''self-determination.'

Where -- is that hypocrisy? I mean

MR. BORK: Well, Forrest McDonald [sp], who was an historian, saidthat Jefferson combined deviousness, slipperiness, hypocrisy withcharm and grace and a sure sense of his own purposes, which arepriceless assets in a politician. So that he did say a lot of

MR. WATTENBERG: Does that remind you of anybody? [Laughter.]

MR. HORTON: Well, you know, here you have the difference betweenhis actions and his words. There is a great reverence within 19thcentury black society for his words. The conventions of blacks thatwere held throughout the 1830s and the 1840s started off everymeeting with the reading of the Declaration of Independence.

So that in terms of his words, they were revered within the blackcommunity because, after all, those black people did believe all menwere created equal, and so on. Actions

MR. BORK: He was a great rhetorician and he got off a lot ofphrases that today we would identify with the new left, which is whyI think a lot of his rhetoric is so popular in an egalitarian age.

But he was not an egalitarian. He referred to the people -- whenhe opposed the idea of direct election of senators, he referred tothe people as 'the swinish multitude.'

MR. WATTENBERG: 'The swinish multitude.' That's a pretty goodbumper sticker for a politician.

MR. ONUF: I think the problem is not formulated properly when wetalk about the disjunction between words and actions. I think we'relooking at the outside in. We're say, what the boundaries? How far doyou go, Jefferson? Aha, we've found you, we've caught you out, theseare the limits. You can't be serious. This is just nonsense.

But if we start with Jefferson's own experience of his world andtalk about what his aspirations were, then it looks differently.

Take the whole idea of equality. Equality is the buzzword of therevolutionary period. Now we have appropriated it for our ownmultifarious purposes now, but for Jefferson and his fellow patriotleaders, equality refers specifically to their status and the statusof their colonies in the British empire.

It was grounded in the notion of English rights. It was veryspecific. And what Jefferson did was try to reach beyond that, not asfar as we would like him to, perhaps, but the idea that you couldform even a union of liberty-loving, free Americans was itself an actof faith, an intellectual leap.

So if we look at it from Jefferson's perspective, inside out, thenI think we have rather a different view than if we take thisperspective of why isn't he good enough for us today? Why doesn't hedo what we do, we politically correct moderns?

MR. HORTON: But let's not judge him by the standards of our time.Let's judge him by the standards of his own time. There are people inhis own time who risked their careers, who risked their fortunes inways that are far more egalitarian than Jefferson was willing to do.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's move on for a moment to the legacy ofJefferson. There is this big argument between Jefferson and Hamiltonabout what kind of America are we going to have, Jefferson sort oftaking his rural, agrarian view, and Hamilton writing the -- what isit called about manufacturers, 'The Report on Manufacturers,' lookingtoward a booming, muscular sort of industrial society.

Is it fair, then, to say, given what America is today, that thetrue father of this America is Hamilton, not Jefferson?

MS. LEWIS: It seems to me that they both are. I mean what we getout of the Hamiltonian legacy is a strong, active, huge federalgovernment, a centralized government. But we still have also theJefferson suspicion of a strong government. And it's in the spacebetween those two, the actuality of a centralized state and anAmerican suspicion of a centralized state, that's where Americanhistory is made.

MR. BORK: And I think it's wrong to think of either of them as thefather of the country. This country would have developed as it did ifJefferson and Hamilton had never existed. Jefferson's idea of anagrarian society was doomed from the beginning. You couldn't succeedand live in this world as an agrarian society. I mean we'd be overrunby other powers.

And the growth of the central government was a naturaldevelopment. People wanted it. George Washington immediately beganproposing projects that were well outside the federal power in theConstitution.

MR. WATTENBERG: So your current argument that you make these days,you would have been making that in 1790, that these guys are usingtoo much federal power, more than the Constitution gave them?

MR. BORK: Well, the Constitution certainly doesn't give thefederal government the power it now has. But the Constitution couldnot stop the federal power from growing. There is no way it couldstop it. I think the strong central government was in the cardswhatever the Constitution said.

MR. ONUF: I think we misunderstand Jefferson's legacy if we thinkof him simply as an agrarian, this quaint figure who's attached to aromanticized past, who resists modernity and all the ills associatedwith it. I think Jefferson instead, his impact on American historyhas been to authorize and license private initiative, a release ofenergy.

His preference for agriculture is a preference for commercialagriculture and the initiatives of individual farmers and thentraders as well. He believed that the force to develop manufacturers,as Hamilton was going to do, would in fact be retrograde; it wouldnot contribute to the wealth of the nation or its future prosperity.

You could argue that through much of the 19th century, until thegreat concentrations of capital that emerged in the Civil War andafterwards, that this was the prescription, this was the formula thatwas going to make America the way it was.

So I think there was a choice early on, and it is significant thatthe Jeffersonians emerged in power with the so-called revolution of1800.

MR. WATTENBERG: What about Jefferson and the world? I mean whatwould this -- what did that piece of paper mean, that Declaration ofIndependence? Forget America for a minute. It's complicated and wejust

MR. ONUF: Forget America. [Laughter.]

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, forget America. Bob, is that therevolutionary document of the world?

MR. BORK: Well, I think as the world becomes increasinglyegalitarian, the Declaration becomes an inspiration to people. Andthat's true I think throughout Western civilization. MR. WATTENBERG:And it's been used by good guys and bad guys?

MR. BORK: Oh, sure.

MR. HORTON: But I think that probably the most important thinghere is that it provides the touchstone for those people who areoppressed. It is a document to which they can turn, to which they canappeal. It becomes a way of appealing to the conscience of thenation.

And without that document, without us saying to the world, this iswhat we believe, it becomes very difficult for oppressed peoplewithin the country to appeal to a conscience, to say, if you say youbelieve that, you must act in that way. And it seems to me thatthat's the importance of the Declaration. Jefferson didn't always doit, but the fact that he put this declaration there makes it possiblefor us to have a touchstone.

MR. ONUF: I think there's another dimension of Jeffersonianthought having to do with equality that relates to this, and that is,the equality that Jefferson hoped to achieve, as I mentioned before,was the equality of the American colonies. And that notion ofequality applied to states and to nations is I think probably themost significant Jeffersonian legacy. On the level of rhetoric, it'shuman equality that we refer to. But it's really nationalself-determination, nation-making, the independence of states that'sbeen, I think, the great legacy of the American Revolution and ofJefferson's Declaration.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Professor Peter Onuf, ProfessorJames Horton, Professor Jan Ellen Lewis, Judge Robert Bork. And thankyou.

We have appreciated hearing from you very much. Please send anycomments or questions to the address on the screen.

For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.

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