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The Trials and Tribulations of Thomas Jefferson by Gordon S. Wood
Gordon S. Wood is a professor of history at Brown University. He is the author of numerous books, including The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Excerpted from Jeffersonian Legacies. Ed. P.S. Onuf. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 395-401. Reprinted with permission of University Press of Virginia.

Jefferson scarcely seems to exist as a real historical person. Almost from the beginning he has been a symbol, a touchstone, of what we as a people are, someone invented, manipulated, turned into something we Americans like or dislike, fear or yearn for, within ourselves--whether it is populism or elitism, agrarianism or racism, atheism or liberalism. We are continually asking ourselves whether Jefferson still survives, or what is still living in the thought of Jefferson; and we quote him on every side of every major question in our history. No figure in our history has embodied so much of our heritage and so many of our hopes. Most Americans think of Jefferson much as our first professional biographer James Parton did. "If Jefferson was wrong," wrote Parton in 1874, "America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right."

As Merrill Peterson has shown us in his superb book published over thirty years ago, the image of Jefferson in American culture has always been "a sensitive reflector . . . of America's troubled search for the image of itself." And the symbolizing, the image-mongering, the identifying of Jefferson with America, has not changed a bit in the generation since Peterson's book was published--even though the level of professional historical scholarship has never been higher. If anything, during these turbulent times the association of Jefferson with America has become more complete. During the past three decades or so many people, including some historians, have concluded that something was seriously wrong with America. And if something is wrong with America, then something has to be wrong with Jefferson.

Probably the opening blast in this modern criticism of Jefferson was Leonard Levy's Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side ( 1963). This was no subtle satire, no gentle mocking of the ironies of Jefferson's inconsistencies and hypocrisies; Levy's book was a prosecutor's indictment. Levy ripped off Jefferson's mantle of libertarianism to expose his "darker side": his passion for partisan persecution, his lack of concern for basic civil liberties, and a self-righteousness that became at times out-and-out ruthlessness. Far from being the skeptical enlightened intellectual, allowing all ideas their free play, Jefferson was portrayed by Levy and other historians as something of an ideologue, eager to fill the young with his political orthodoxy while censoring all those books he did not like. He did not have an open or questioning mind after all.

Not only did Jefferson not have an original or skeptical mind, he could in fact be downright doctrinaire, an early version of a "knee-jerk liberal." His reaction to European society and culture, says Bernard Bailyn, was "an eighteenth-century stereotype--a boldly liberal, high-minded, enlightened stereotype, but a stereotype nonetheless--a configuration of liberal attitudes and ideas which he accepted uncritically, embellishing them with his beautifully wrought prose but questioning little and adding little." In this respect he was very different from his more skeptical and inquisitive friend James Madison. Jefferson could, for example, only understand the opening struggles of the French Revolution in terms of a traditional liberal antagonism to an arrogant and overgrown monarchy. And he supported the addition of a bill of rights to the federal Constitution not because he had thought through the issue the way Madison had, but largely because a bill of rights was what good governments were supposed to have. All his liberal aristocratic French friends said so; indeed, as he told his fellow Americans, "The enlightened part of Europe have given us the greatest credit for inventing this instrument of security for the rights of the people, and have been not a little surprised to see us so soon give it up. One almost has the feeling that Jefferson advocated a bill of rights out of embarrassment over what his liberal French associates would think. One sometimes has the same feeling about his antislavery statements, many of which seem to have been shaped to the expectations of enlightened foreigners.

It is in fact his views on black Americans and slavery that have made Jefferson most vulnerable to modern censure. If America has turned out to be wrong in its race relations, then Jefferson had to be wrong too. Samuel Johnson with his quip, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?" had nothing on modern critics. Who could not find the contrast between Jefferson's great declarations of liberty and equality and his lifelong ownership of slaves glaringly embarrassing? Jefferson hated slavery, it is true, but, unlike Washington, he was never able to free all his slaves. More than that, as recent historians have emphasized, he bought, bred, and flogged his slaves, and hunted down fugitives in much the same way his fellow Virginia planters did--all the while declaring that American slavery was not as bad as that of the ancient Romans.

"Jefferson's attitudes and actions towards blacks are so repugnant these days," says historian William W. Freehling, that identifying the Sage of Monticello with antislavery actually discredits the reform movement. Jefferson could never really imagine freed blacks living in a white man's America, and throughout his life he insisted that the emancipation of the slaves had to be accompanied by their expulsion from the country. He wanted all blacks sent to the West Indies, or Africa, or anywhere out of the United States. In the end, it has been said, Jefferson loaded such conditions on the abolition of slavery that the antislavery movement could scarcely get off the ground. In response to the pleas of younger men that he speak out against slavery, he offered only excuses for delay.

His remedy of expulsion was based on racial fear and antipathy. While he had no apprehensions about mingling white blood with that of the Indian, he never ceased expressing his "great aversion" to miscegenation between blacks and whites. When the Roman slave was freed, he "might mix with, without staining the blood of his master." When the black slave was freed, however, he had "to be removed beyond the reach of mixture." Although Jefferson believed that the Indians were uncivilized, he always admired them and made all sorts of environmental explanations for their differences from whites. Yet he was never able to do the same for the African-American. Instead, he continually suspected that the black man was inherently inferior to the white in both body and mind.

It has even been suggested that Jefferson's obsession with black sensuality shared by so many other Americans was largely a projection of his own repressed--and perhaps in the case of his attractive mulatto slave Sally Hemings--not-so-repressed libidinal desires. The charge that Jefferson maintained Hemings as his mistress for decades and fathered several children by her was first made by an unscrupulous newspaperman, James Callender, in 1802. Since then, historians and others have periodically resurrected the accusation. In fact, in the most recent study of Jefferson's political thought, his "keeping of a black mistress" is treated as an established fact, a "common transgression of his class."'

In her 1974 psychobiography of Jefferson, the late Fawn Brodie made the most ingenious and notorious use of Callender's accusation, building up her case for the passionate liaison between Jefferson and his mulatto slave largely through contrived readings of evidence and even the absence of evidence. Brodie, for example, makes much of the fact that Jefferson in his journal of his travels in southern France in 1787 used the word "mullato" only twice in describing the soil. Then the fourteen- or fifteen-year old Sally joined the Jefferson household in Paris, and the result, says Brodie, was that the love-stricken Jefferson in his journal for a trip through northern Europe in 1788 mentions the word "mullato" eight times! Did Jefferson write to his supposed mistress during his trips? No letters have been found, but Brodie finds it significant that the letter-index volume for this year, 1788, has disappeared, the only volume missing in the whole forty-three-year record. " Having Jefferson's love affair be a secret one, of course, made it difficult for Brodie to find proof, but it did make it more exciting for our modern soap-opera sensibilities. That Jefferson dutifully recorded in his Farm Book the births of the offspring of this presumed love affair, along with all other slave births on his plantation, does, however, take the edge off the romance. Brodie's suggestion of a love match aroused a great deal of controversy, perhaps because a lot of people believed it or at least were titillated by it. A novel based on Brodie's concoctions has been written, and there was even talk of a TV production.

These may seem like small and silly matters, but they are not--not where Jefferson is involved; for the nature of American society itself is at stake. The relationship with Sally Hemings may be implausible to those who know Jefferson's character intimately. He was after all a man who never indulged his passions but continually suppressed them. But whether the Hemings relationship was true or not, there is no denying that Jefferson presided over a household in which miscegenation was taking place, a miscegenation that he believed was morally repugnant. Thus any attempt to make Jefferson's Monticello a model patriarchal plantation is fatally compromised at the outset.

Everyone, it seems, sees America in Jefferson. So the shame and guilt that white Americans feel in their tortured relations with blacks can be best expressed in the shame and guilt that Jefferson must have suffered from his involvement in slavery and racial mixing. Where Jefferson for Vernon Louis Parrington and his generation had been the solution, for this recent generation he became the problem. The Jefferson that emerges out of much recent scholarship therefore resembles the America many critics have visualized in the past three decades--self-righteous, guilt-ridden, racist, doctrinaire, and filled with liberal pieties that under stress are easily sacrificed.

Wherever we Americans have a struggle over what kind of people we are, there we will find Jefferson. Jefferson stood for the rights of individuals, and the rights of individuals have been carried to extremes in recent years. So Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence are at fault. Actually Jefferson's Federalist critics in the eighteenth century were even more harsh on Jefferson's obsession with rights. He talked endlessly of rights, said one typical Federalist satirist, and loved them so much that he even promoted the rights of weeds to flourish. And why not? Doesn't each plant have "an equal right to live?" "And why should wheat and barley thrive / Despotic tyrants of the field?" (It's not so funny today, where many people are very serious about the rights of plants.)

But then others have raised the possibility that America was not always a liberal capitalistic society devoted to individual rights. If so, then our image of Jefferson as the representative American would have to change Thus in the historiographical upheaval that has taken place over the past two decades, involving the recovery in Revolutionary America of a classical republican culture that emphasized virtue, corruption, and the public good rather than private rights and profit-making, Jefferson necessarily became a central bone of contention. In light of this classical republican tradition Jefferson lost his reputation for being a simple follower of Locke concerned only with individual rights. Instead he became a stoical classicist frightened by cities, money-making, and corruption and obsessed with inculcating the proper social and moral conditions to sustain an agrarian republic of independent yeomen farmers who were free of the marketplace.

Some historians, namely J. G. A. Pocock, in their excitement over this discovery of a tradition of classical republicanism in early America, got carried away and declared that the American Revolution, far from being a progressive event moving America into a new liberal, capitalistic world, was in fact "the last great act of the Renaissance." Since America had been born in a "dread of modernity," its spokesman Jefferson had to be backward- looking and opposed to the great economic changes sweeping through the Atlantic world.

This was too much for other historians who were eager to recover what was still living and progressive in the thought of Thomas Jefferson. When Garry Wills in his Inventing America (1978) argued that Jefferson's Declaration of Independence owed less to the possessive individualism of John Locke and more to the communitarian sentiments of the Scottish moralist Francis Hutcheson, scholars were quick to reassert the influence of Locke. After all, it was the character of America that was at stake. One critic even accused Wills, in emphasizing Jefferson's communitarianism, of aiming "to supply the history of the Republic with as pink a dawn as possible." Several historians, especially Joyce Appleby, set about restoring some needed balance to our understanding of the Revolution and, of course, Thomas Jefferson. Others of the founding fathers may have been elitist, backward-looking, and pessimistic about the loss of virtue, but, said Appleby, certainly not Jefferson. Jefferson may have been a student of the classics, but he never accepted the antique notion that men achieved fulfillment only in the public arena. And he may have been an agrarian, but he was a modern one who accepted commerce. "More than any other figure in his generation," said Appleby, "Jefferson integrated a program of economic development and a policy for nation-building into a radical moral theory." He was "not the heroic loser in a battle against modernity," but the liberal progressive winner, confident of the future and eager to promote the individual's right to pursue happiness and further the commercial prosperity of America free from the deadening hand of government. The American people, argued Appleby, were less concerned with virtue, corruption, and community than with equality, private rights, and the selling of their produce all over the Atlantic world; in the 1790s they saw in Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican party the proper agency for their optimistic hopes and dreams. "Jefferson," wrote Appleby, "rallied his countrymen with a vision of the future that joined their materialism to a new morality" built on his sublime faith in the self-governing capacities of free individuals.

So Jefferson was back leading Americans into their democratic commercial future--a symbol once again of liberal America. But if this means that Jefferson becomes too much a supporter of capitalism, then we have the work of Richard K. Matthews as an antidote. Matthews has discovered "a different, alternative Jefferson" for a different, alternative America: "a Jefferson who not only presents a radical critique of American market society but also provides an image for--if not a road map to--a consciously made, legitimately democratic American future." Matthews's Jefferson believed in permanent revolution, a kind of communitarian anarchism, and widespread political participation by the people. He was, concludes Matthews, an authentic American democratic radical.

And so it has gone for much of our history--Jefferson standing for America and carrying the moral character of the country on his back. No historical figure can bear this kind of symbolic burden and still remain real person. Beneath all the images, beneath all the allegorical Jeffersons, there once was a human being with every human frailty and foible. Certainly Jefferson's words and ideas transcended his time, but he himself did not.

The human Jefferson was essentially a man of the eighteenth century, a very intelligent and bookish slaveholding southern planter, enlightened and progressive no doubt, but possessing as many weaknesses as strengths, as much folly as wisdom, as much blindness as foresight. Like most people caught up in fast-moving events and complicated changing circumstances, the human Jefferson was as much a victim as he was a protagonist. Despite all his achievements in the Revolution and in the subsequent decades, he was never in control of the popular forces he was ostensibly leading; indeed, he never even fully comprehended these forces. It is the ultimate irony of Jefferson's life, a life filled with ironies, that he should not have understood the democratic revolution that he himself supremely spoke for.

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