Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom 2

The condemnations, from Hamilton to O’Brien, are intemperate, impassioned, remorseless—peculiarly venomous. Yet Jefferson remains a brilliant star in the firmament of American ideals and aspirations. Why the contradictions? Why the anomalies in his image and his reputation?
To some extent they reflect inconsistencies in Jefferson’s policies, behavior, and character, which are striking. He said he sincerely loathed slavery, condemned it as “an abominable crime,” a “hideous blot” on civilization which must somehow be eliminated, but he did not free his own slaves (except a few, probably related to him, in his will); and at the end of his life he advocated the expansion of slavery into the southwestern states. Was he not the ultimate libertarian, the passionate defender of freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of protection against illegal searches and seizures, of the sanctity of habeas corpus? His passion for civil liberties radiates through his most profound state paper, the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. There is nothing to compare with the elegant, emotive lyricism that lies within the formal cadences of that extraordinary document. One must read it aloud to appreciate the perfection of the rhythms and the immaculate choice of words. But when he came to design the cur¬riculum for the University of Virginia’s law school he deliberately omitted books whose political and moral views he disapproved of, and the only professors he proposed were those whose political opinions agreed with his own. In the early Revolutionary years he endorsed loyalty oaths; in suppressing the Burr conspiracy he tolerated lapses in habeas corpus; and in attempting to enforce his ill-fated embargo he ignored the Fourth Amendment and ruled, in certain areas and at cer¬tain times, by executive decree and the threat of armed force.
The anomalies and apparent inconsistencies seem endless. He avoided partisan debates in public, but urged others to do the oppo¬site, and he helped support a partisan press. He was a pacifist in prin¬ciple, but he argued for a retributive war against the piratical Barbary states, on the ground that if America meant to be an effec¬tive naval power “can we begin it on a more honourable occasion or with a weaker foe?” He said that a little rebellion against oppressive conditions, every now and then, would be a good thing; “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” were his famous words. But when the Haitian people rose against their French masters, he declined, as president, to help them. He was a fervent constitutionalist, indeed a strict and narrow constructionist, especially in fighting the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798; but five years later, in arranging for the purchase of Louisiana, he deliberately exceeded the bounds of the Constitution. “The less we say about the constitutional difficulties respecting Louisiana,” he told Madison, his secretary of state, “the better,” and he added that if some political maneuvers were necessary to overcome constitu¬tional impediments, they should be done “sub silentio.”
So much about Jefferson seemed to contemporaries, as to many historians, contradictory and incongruous. His appearance surprised those who came to pay their respects to the famous statesman, know¬ing him to be a learned savant, the friend of major figures of the French Enlightenment. Tall, red-headed, and freckled, dressed in ordinary, rather dowdy clothes (yarn stockings, a British official reported with surprise, “and slippers down at the heels”), he sat casu¬ally, “in a lounging manner,” perched on one hip. There was nothing, one visitor said, “of that firm collected deportment which I expected would dignify the presence of a secretary or minister.” Yet everyone recognized that his conversation was wonderfully informed and often brilliant. And why would it not be? Though he was no orator in pub¬lic forums, he conversed easily, and he was a fabulous polymath: politician, diplomat, architect, draftsman, connoisseur of painting, anthropologist, bibliophile, classicist, musician, lawyer, educator, oenologist, farm manager, agronomist, theologian (or rather, antithe¬ologian), and amateur of almost every branch of science from astronomy to zoology, with special emphasis on paleontology.
Jefferson slipped easily from role to role. His election to the vice¬presidency of the United States coincided with his election to the presidency of the American Philosophical Society, a position he enjoyed far more than he did the nation’s vice-presidency and which he proudly and actively held for the next eighteen years. In the midst of the ferocious struggle, in 1801, to settle the tie vote in the Electoral College—a vote, resolved only on the thirty-sixth ballot, that would elevate Jefferson to the presidency, transform the American govern¬ment, and alter the course of American history—he calmly contin¬ued his correspondence with a professor of anatomy about the disposal of some recently discovered fossil bones that bore on dis¬puted points of animal life in North America.

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