Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom 5

How different, in this, was he from his two younger contempo¬raries, who emerged on the scene after independence had been achieved and so inherited the Revolution, and took its principles for granted. Madison, Jefferson’s lifelong friend, collaborator, and polit¬ical ally, was quizzical and skeptical. His mind was less capacious and less elevated than Jefferson’s, but more close-grained, original, and instinctively contrary. Less learned than Jefferson, his verbal skills inferior, he was almost pedantically alert to inner complications, and so, though less adept a politician, he was more consistent. Jefferson would, if need be, jump out of a syllogism to save the major premise; Madison, less deductive, did not need such complicated gymnastics. And Hamilton, much younger in years and even younger in spirit, responded to different voices altogether—voices of a social and eco¬nomic world just emerging, whose relation to Jefferson’s ideals could be discordant.
So it was Jefferson—simultaneously a radical utopian idealist and a hardheaded, adroit, at times cunning politician; a rhetorician, whose elegant phrases had propulsive power, and a no-nonsense administrator—who, above all others, was fated to confront the ambiguities of the Enlightenment program. He had caught a vision, as a precocious leader of the American Revolution, of a comprehen¬sive Enlightenment ideal, a glimpse of what a wholly enlightened world might be, and strove to make it real, discovering as he did so the intractable dilemmas. Repeatedly he saw a pure vision, concep¬tualized and verbalized it brilliandy, and then struggled to relate it to reality, shifting, twisting, maneuvering backward and forward as he did so.
From the start, and unswervingly, he argued that government must be stripped of its self-justifying power and reduced to an instrument of the people, whose voice could only be that of the majority: “the will of the majority,” he said again and again, “ought to be the law.” Madison too hoped that the people, not the government as such, would ultimately rule, but he believed that legislative majoritarianism could quickly lead to the destruction of the rights of minorities. For Jefferson the solution was clear: a bill of rights, which he advo-cated from the moment he first saw the Constitution. “A bill of rights,” he wrote, “is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth … and what no just government should refuse or rest on inference.” But Madison—who in the end would write the national Bill of Rights—pointed out to Jefferson that a limited enu-meration of human rights would never prevent anyone from misus¬ing power. Only structural balances within a government, Madison thought, pitting one force against another, could keep the misuse of power in check and so protect minority rights. Ten years later, Jeffer¬son used the same idea in drafting the Kentucky Resolutions, which aimed to protect individual interests by pitting the states against the nation, almost to the point of nullification. But then, shordy there¬after, as president, he overrode the states’ rights he had earlier defended, in order to protect the nation, first from subversion, then from the dangers of foreign wars.
Why the inconsistency? There are times, he explained, when the rule of law itself must be suspended:
A strict observance of the written law is doubdess one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of neces¬sity, or self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation.
All men, he had written in his most famous pronouncement, are created equal -then why not black slaves? He agonized over the glaring, obvious inconsistency, came back again and again to the bizarre anomaly of slavery in a free state—anomaly in law, in ideol¬ogy, in simple justice and humanity. His loathing of slavery was sin¬cere, and he predicted that since “God is just [and] … his justice cannot sleep forever” it would one day, somehow, disappear from the face of the earth. What, besides his own personal interest, kept him, initially, from developing his early interest in abolition was what seemed to him to be the crippling paradox that freeing the slaves would imperil the survival of the nation’s freedom. The blacks, a majority of the population in parts of the South, lacked the qualities, Jefferson believed, that were needed to guarantee the survival of freedom: education, experience in self-government, economic inde¬pendence. Whether they would ever be able to acquire these requi-sites of republican citizenship—whether, if their present degraded circumstances were improved and if they were “equally cultivated for a few generations,” they would become the equals of any others— was a question that led him into a deeply troubling, unsure racism. What was clear in his mind was that the agrarian South—free of commercial, industrial, and urban corruption—was the bastion of the free republican nation. Black majority rule there would simply overwhelm the freedoms for which he struggled. ‘Justice is in one scale,” he wrote, “and self-preservation in the other.”

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