Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom

The reputations of those who shape the fate of nations become historical forces in themselves. They are twisted and turned to fit the needs of those who follow, until, it seems, there is no actual person left, only a complex mirror in which suc¬cessive interests see aspects of themselves. Of Jefferson this is doubly—trebly—true. His reputation has had what has been called a “kaleidoscopic changeability.” For a century and a half it has been more fluid, more malleable than the reputation of any of the other great figures of the Revolutionary generation, or indeed of anyone else in American history.
The 450 crowded pages of Merrill Peterson’s The Jefferson Image in the American Mind show the fabulous complexity of the problem that faces those who wish to understand Jefferson and assess fairly his place in American history. Which Jefferson? The Jefferson image, Peterson writes, has been “an ill-arranged cluster of meanings, ran¬corous, mercurial, fertile … [It] was constantly evolving.” Endless “errors and legends and myths” have found their way into history— and not, it seems, accidentally. The “hysteria of denunciation and the hysteria of exaltation” that have followed him through the ages were there at the start—in his own lifetime.
Many of his contemporaries idolized him, but others—many oth¬ers—vilified him. Three generations of Adamses spoke of him venomously. John Adams, his lifelong friend and political opponent, in many ways venerated him, but he disagreed with him on basic prin¬ciples, and declared at one point that Jefferson was as ambitious as Oliver Cromwell and so “warped by prejudice and so blinded by ignorance as to be unfit for the office he holds… As a politician he is a child and the dupe of party!” John Quincy Adams improved on his father’s judgment. He conceded that Jefferson had an “ardent passion for liberty and the rights of man” but denounced him for infidelity, “pliability of principle,” and double dealing. And that Adams’s grandson Henry discounted Jefferson’s duplicity, but wrote at length, in his monumental history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, about what he took to be Jefferson’s failure as a statesman, his opportunistic abandonment of principles, his willing¬ness to “risk the fate of mankind” to justify his theories, and his fatal incapacity—so caught up was he, Adams said, in delusive visions of the present as a golden age—to recognize that he lived “in a world torn by wars and convulsions and drowned in blood.” But it was Hamilton who was Jefferson’s chief enemy in politics, and his feel¬ings were never in doubt. Hamilton feared what he called the Virgin¬ian’s fanaticism and believed he was “crafty” and a “contemptible hypocrite.” He worked feverishly for Jefferson’s election to the presi¬dency when the contest deadlocked in the House, in part because he was convinced that the alternative, Aaron Burr, would be even worse, and in part because he believed that such was Jefferson’s hypocrisy, he was unlikely ever “to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity, or his interest.” After two hundred years, while the panegyrics continue and Jef¬ferson still stands tall in the pantheon of the Enlightenment, the sav-agery of condemnation, increasingly embittered by the charge of racism compounded by the likelihood of his sexual relation with his slave Sally Hemings, exceeds anything seen before. Leonard Levy, reviewing Jefferson’s record on civil liberties, subtitled his remorse¬less case for the prosecution (1963) The Darker Side (“Jefferson never once risked career or reputation to champion free speech, fair trial, or any other libertarian value … The certainty that he was right, combined with his terrifying idealism, led him to risk the fate of the nation”). Michael Zuckerman (1989) declared him to be “a man intellectually undone by his negrophobia … he was ultimately pre-pared to abandon all else in which he believed-” and believed pas¬sionately—sooner than surrender his racial repugnances.” Michael Lind (1995) called Jefferson “in many ways the greatest southern reactionary” whose tradition’s “final miserable estuary” lies in the careers of Theodore Bilbo and Strom Thurmond. “Every major fea¬ture of the modern United States… represents a repudiation of Jef- fersonianism.” Pauline Maier (1997) argued that “what generations of Americans came to revere [as the Declaration of Independence] was not Jefferson’s but Congress’s Declaration, the work not of a sin¬gle man, or even of a committee, but of a larger body of men with the good sense to recognize a ‘pretty good’ draft [Jefferson’s] when they saw it, and who were able to identify and eliminate Jefferson’s more outlandish assertions and unnecessary words.” Joseph Ellis (1997), while conceding that almost alone among the founding gener¬ation Jefferson sought “prescriptions for government that at best pro¬tected individual rights and at worst minimized the impact of government… on individual lives,” concludes that “modern day invocations of Jefferson as the ‘apostle of freedom’ are invariably misleading and problematic.” But it was in Conor Cruise O’Brien’s foray into Jeffersoniana (1996) that the attacks on the Virginian reached their peak—or nadir. “It is difficult to resist the conclusion,” O’Brien wrote, “that the twentieth century statesman whom the Thomas Jefferson of January 1793 would have admired most is Pol Pot… We cannot even say categorically that Jefferson would have condemned the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the destruction of its occupants.” And in any case, “the Ku Klux Klan was ideologically descended from Thomas Jefferson.”

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