Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom 4

And beyond the realm of government, Jefferson glimpsed, in these early, formative years, and never lost, a vision of human felicity—a romantic vision, of sensible, hard-working, independent folk secure in their possession of land, free of the corruptions of urban poverty and cynicism, free of dependence on a self-indulgent aristocracy of birth, responsible to the common good as well as to personal better¬ment, educated in the essentials of free government and committed to the principles of freedom—peaceful, self-reliant, self-respecting, and unintimidated people. Occasionally the sheer romanticism of this vision would break through. “Ours,” he informed Crevecoeur in 1787, “are the only farmers who can read Homer.” He was certain, after a year in France, that of the twenty million people in that coun¬try, “nineteen millions [are] more wretched, more accursed in every circumstance of human existence, than the most conspicuously wretched individual of the whole United States.” In France, as else¬where in Europe,
conjugal love having no existence among them, domestic happi¬ness, of which that is the basis, is utterly unknown … [ Their pur¬suits] offer only moments of extasy [sic] amidst days and months of restlessness and torment. Much, very much inferior this to the tranquil, permanent felicity with which domestic society in Amer¬ica blesses most of its inhabitants, leaving them to follow steadily those pursuits which health and reason approve, and rendering truly delicious the intervals of these pursuits.
These visions engrossed his mind and imagination. But he was never confident that these goals could be reached. It would, inevitably, he believed, be a constant struggle, and the outcome would always be in doubt. For along with the ideals of radical reform and the principles of freedom, he had inherited the belief, pervasive in radical thought in Britain for over a century, that freedom was in its nature a fragile plant that had been and would be, again and again, overwhelmed by the forces of power; that where freedom had survived it remained beset by those who lusted for domination. Even in Britain, its last bastion in Europe, Jefferson thought, freedom, overwhelmed by the corruption of Walpole’s government early in the century, had finally been destroyed by the autocracy of George III and his junto of ministers, whose depredations Jefferson itemized so fully in the Declaration.
But the evils that had overwhelmed Britain were not unique to those once-heroic people. They arose, Jefferson believed, from human nature itself, and would take whatever form immediate situa¬tions might require. And so, though Americans seemed free of the worst evils and had set out on a new path, he knew that the realiza¬tion of this vision was uncertain at best. Everything would depend on the sheer survival of the Revolutionary nation, and thereafter on its continued adherence to the principles of freedom as he had understood them in the early years of the struggle. Dangers from the inevitable counterforces were certain to appear on all sides, and in new and unexpected forms.
But if Jefferson had been only a radical and eloquent idealist, fearful that the achievement of freedom was precarious at best, for¬ever beset by dangers that could easily overwhelm it, he would never have played the powerful role in history that he did. Coupled— incongruously—with his soaring idealism was the realism and hard- headed pragmatism of an excellent “man of business.” Fantastically industrious, administratively efficient, with a true instinct for the moment to act and the moment to relent, Jefferson was a natural politician, as shrewd and calculating as the best and more effective than most.
He tackled the most complex political and economic problems with tireless zest. He was incapable of boredom. In a six-month period in Paris he finished a detailed consular treaty with the French government; wrote a technical treatise on the American whale fish¬ery based on data he had been methodically collecting for several years; drew up a proposal for funding the foreign debt of the United States; continued a long correspondence on outfitting American ves¬sels in the French fleet; wrote extensively, though surreptitiously, to Lafayette on how to manage the developing revolution in Paris; drafted cunning messages to keep the United States government from being blackmailed; and sent practical advice repeatedly to an unfortunate Virginian whose family affairs were falling to pieces.
The Paris years were crowded with business efficiently handled, but his work as ambassador was preparatory to his labors as secre¬tary of state and president. The leading student of his presidency concludes that “Jefferson brought to the presidency the most system in administration and the strongest leadership that the office had yet experienced.” Fie had all the qualities of a successful political execu¬tive. He balanced decisiveness with accountability; he relied on dis¬cussion and persuasion rather than authority; and he was tolerant of dissenting views. “The first President to make the Cabinet system work,” he established a close relationship with Congress. And beyond that, he kept in touch with the population at large, and made voters more conscious of, and involved in, the political process than they had ever been before.
All of this was the work of a natural politician and an industrious, efficient administrator—abilities not normally associated with radi¬cal idealism. But in Jefferson that unlikely association existed, and it is the key, I believe, to the complexities of his public career and to the strange oscillations of his fame. If he had been less responsive to the principles of freedom as they had emerged in the initial struggle with Britain, less committed to the vision of a golden age, and more cau¬tious in seeking it, he might, when in positions of power, have been less likely to have had to modify or complicate or contradict his prin¬ciples in attempting, in his efficient way, to effect them, and so in the end might have seemed more consistent and less likely to be thought hypocritical.

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