The "Dualities" of Thomas Jefferson

George McKenna

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 104 (June/July 2000): 53-57.

Jefferson: Political Writings. Edited by Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball. Cambridge University Press. 623 pp. $59.95.

American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People. By Jean M. Yarbrough. University Press of Kansas. 256 pp. $35.

Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen. Edited by James Gilreath. Library of Congress. 383 pp. $41.

If, during his thirty years of service as revolutionary publicist, Governor, Congressman, diplomat, Secretary of State, Vice President, and two–term President, Thomas Jefferson had done nothing except acquire the Louisiana Territory—a piece of this continent larger than the whole United States at the time, purchased from Napoleon for $15 million—he would be remembered as a great statesman. But he did much more. With James Madison, he organized a new political party that bridged disparate regions and branches of government; he modernized the laws of his own state and set an example for other states with his Virginia statute of religious freedom; he was a force behind two political upheavals, one in 1776 and one in 1800, that renewed American political life without the orgies of bloodshed and recrimination that usually accompany such events; he broadened political participation and laid the groundwork for a democratized presidency; and in his retirement he founded the University of Virginia, supervising everything from its curriculum and hiring of faculty to the plan and architecture of its campus.

But it is Jefferson’s writings, which he continued to produce almost two decades after his retirement from government, for which he is still best remembered. John Adams said that Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence because of his "peculiar felicity of expression." It was a wise choice. The majestic phraseology of the Declaration—its opening invocation of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God," its assertion that "all men are created equal" and endowed by God with "unalienable Rights," its insistence that just governments derive their powers from "the consent of the governed"—has become an essential part of America’s moral grammar. Almost all of his writings, from his official pronouncements to his private letters, are infused with a gracefulness, a "felicity," that makes his pronouncements roll off the tongue. "The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of government." "I know of no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves." Jefferson was the great lyricist of American democracy, and at their best his words have inspired generations of Americans to love their country and sacrifice for its well–being.

The problem is that over the course of his long life Jefferson’s words went in so many different directions, so often at odds with his acts and even with themselves, that is hard to pin him down. He loved democracy, but he also agreed with John Adams that America should be led by a "natural aristoi," and he wanted public education to "rake from the rubble" an aristocracy of "talent and virtue." He hated political parties ("If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all"), but then founded a new party and declared that England’s "party division of Whig and Tory is the most wholesome which can exist in any government." He favored a strict construction of the Constitution and worried about excessive presidential power, yet as President he acquired Louisiana Territory without prior congressional authorization and ruled it like a monarch. He championed freedom of the press ("Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe"), but while President he suggested to the governor of Pennsylvania, a fellow Republican, that a few well–chosen prosecutions of Federalist newspapers would have a "wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the press."

He said things for the occasion, and when the occasion changed he said other things. He worked in epigrams. Some of these epigrams, like his assertion that "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs," are unquestionable; some are highly questionable; and some, such as his "Adam and Eve" defense of the French Revolution, are crazy. ("Rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.") It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to extract from all these pronouncements any final Jeffersonian synthesis.

Three recently published works may offer at least some threads of continuity. Last year historian Joyce Appleby and political scientist Terence Ball edited a useful paperback edition of selected political writings by Jefferson, one of a series of texts in the history of political thought published by Cambridge University Press. Of necessity it duplicates much of what was in the elegant and more complete edition of Jefferson’s writings published in 1984 by the Library of America, but this new compilation may be handier, especially for classroom use. Instead of printing the selections chronologically, as the Library of America edition did, it arranges them thematically under fourteen different headings, beginning with "A Private Man in Public Life" and ending with "Relations Between Generations." This can help students test Jefferson for consistency as they read through his various statements on these themes.

Jean M. Yarbrough, a professor of government at Bowdoin College, recently attempted just such a test in her ambitious work on Jefferson’s thought, American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People. In writing it, Yarbrough undertook a double challenge. The first was to find a theme large enough to contain the sprawling Jeffersonian oeuvre. The second was to write an appreciative, if not uncritical, conservative treatment of Jefferson. Here is a real challenge. Yarbrough is a social conservative, of the Leo Strauss–Allan Bloom school, and Thomas Jefferson was anything but. He hated the conservatives of his day, the old–school Federalists and Tories, and refused to let them teach, or even be read, at his beloved University of Virginia. Moreover, his whole mindset was one of hostility toward tradition, authority, and religion (or at least orthodox trinitarian Christianity), the three great pillars of conservatism.

Yarbrough’s way of meeting both these challenges was to make "virtue" the central theme of her book. Jefferson did indeed write a lot about virtue, so the theme ties together much of what he said during his long life. And virtue, as William Bennett has demonstrated, is very popular with conservatives. By focusing on Jefferson’s approach to virtue, then, Yarbrough is able to map out a conservative path into his thought.

What did Jefferson think about virtue? He was for it, of course, but not for the kind of self–sacrificing "republican virtue" embraced by the more severe patriots of antiquity. Jefferson’s view, derived from Scottish "common sense" philosophy, is that in the appropriate political framework the happiness of the individual and the happiness of society are entirely compatible. The argument goes like this. A benevolent Creator has endowed us with a moral sense and has so arranged our nature that we receive pleasure from doing good to others; the exercise of our social virtues is in our interest. Our happiness depends in part on the happiness of others. Yarbrough believes this argument is a good corrective to the present–day obsession with "rights," which threatens to dissolve society "into a mass of isolated and ever more powerless individuals and warring tribes." Jefferson rooted his approach to rights in a concept of man as a moral and rational being, subject to natural and divine law, "in contrast to contemporary liberals, who are often uneasy with the very idea of human nature because it serves as a limit on individual freedom."

But, as communitarians such as Mary Ann Glendon have complained, Jefferson’s remarks on rights say very little about limiting individual freedom. Far from putting a damper on irresponsible "rights talk," Jefferson’s much–quoted sayings may have encouraged it. Yarbrough acknowledges that Jefferson might have given some people the idea that they can interpret rights "in whatever manner they wish," but insists that the "deeper meaning" of his thought holds back such tendencies.

Yarbrough spends much of her book trying to ferret out this "deeper meaning." "At first sight," she will remark, Jefferson says this, but "it seems likely" that he really means that. To an objection raised by John Adams, Jefferson chose not to respond. "But he could have replied that . . ." These are Straussean dialectics, except that Strauss used them on philosophers who could bear their weight. Jefferson’s philosophy, pieced together from his occasional statements, tends to fall apart when subjected to that kind of analysis. It is hard, for example, to reconcile his declaration of unbounded faith in the people with his denunciation of the "swinish multitude." Or his call for legislative supremacy with his warning that "one hundred and seventy–three despots would surely be as oppressive as one." Unexplained contradictions sometimes pop up even in the same speech. In his First Inaugural Address he insisted that "though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; [and] the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect." If the majority’s will is in all cases to prevail, how can there be enforceable laws protecting minorities? There may be an answer to this paradox, but Jefferson supplies no clues.

Yarbrough is well aware of the discrepancies in Jefferson’s thought; she cites several examples herself, and gamely tries to resolve them. Indeed, she seems to think that their very existence is evidence that Jefferson wanted a "middle way" for America: between selfish individualism and hairshirt self–denial, between the impoverished republics of old and the soft commercial societies of Europe, between unbridled majority rule and (what she thinks is today’s extreme) excessive catering to minorities. In proper Straussean fashion, she is looking for syntheses. Her attempt to build a conservative argument out of the fragments of Jefferson’s liberalism is fascinating, but in the end it is not very convincing.

Another attempt to get a handle on Jefferson is a book published by the Library of Congress that ruminates on his approach to education. Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen, edited by James Gilreath, a former American history specialist at the Library, consists of papers delivered in 1993 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, along with commentaries by such luminaries as political scientist Benjamin Barber and the late historian C. Vann Woodward.

Though the compilation breaks little new ground on Jefferson’s thought, some of its contributors offer their own provocative interpretations. Historian Michael Grossberg thinks that Jefferson’s "most inspiring legacy" was his "utopian vision wherein each generation is able to create its own version of a just and fair society." This sounds a little like the famous "mystery" passage in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

Did Jefferson really think that way? Yes and no. It is true that he talked about the earth belonging "to the living" and each generation being "as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before." But it is not clear how much of this generational relativism he was ready to countenance in his own life. In his relationship with his children and grandchildren, he was constantly micromanaging their education. In this collection, Jennings Wagoner, Jr., an education professor at the University of Virginia, provides some revealing examples. In one of his typical letters to Martha, one of his two surviving daughters, Jefferson wrote: "I am anxious to know what books you read, what tunes you can play, and to receive specimens of your drawing." He even went to the length of telling his children and grandchildren that his continued love for them was conditional upon their progress in studies.

These demands for the "pursuit of knowledge" went beyond making sure that the children work hard at their studies; Jefferson was careful to shape the content of what they studied. As Wagoner reminds us, Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that histories, not Bibles, should be put into the hands of children, so that "their memories may be stored with the most useful facts" from ancient and modern times. In educational matters, Jefferson saw little use for "the fourth ‘r,’" religion. He expected that by the end of the nineteenth century most Americans would be Unitarians—like him. That was how he raised his children and how he wanted his grandchildren raised: to value Jesus as an ethical teacher but eschew any thoughts about miracles, dogma, or metaphysics. And he projected this vision beyond his own family: at the University of Virginia, he left no room for the study of metaphysics or theology, and explicitly banned the teaching of any principles that, "in the common opinion," were "incompatible" with the Constitution of the United States or the State of Virginia. This despite his lofty proclamations that the university "will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind," and that "we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead." Each generation was to be independent of the one preceding, but not until Jefferson got done with their minds.

Perhaps Jefferson’s strategy of control through education was of a piece with his distrust of government: the more internal controls there are through education, the less need for government control. This is an argument Horace Mann and other proponents of public education made in the early part of the nineteenth century. As external controls are lifted, Mann argued, reason and conscience need to be better trained so that "these nobler faculties can be elevated into dominion and supremacy over the appetites and passions."

In his comments, political scientist Benjamin Barber seems at first to be going this way in his interpretation of Jefferson. But then he veers off into strange territory. He offers the dubious proposition that Jefferson "preferred education to representation as democracy’s guarantor." (Jefferson was enthusiastic about local democracy, but I know of no evidence that he thought people should govern directly, without representatives, at the state or national level.) Then he compares Jefferson to Leon Trotsky as an advocate of "permanent revolution," and ends up with the conclusion that Jefferson was some kind of postmodernist. "Democrats and egalitarians owe him a debt less as a historical figure than as a devotee of an anti–foundationalist participatory politics of the present and the future." To the charge that Jefferson often contradicted his principles, Barber replies that such criticism misses the point; the real Jefferson was a man of political participation, not static principles. "Jefferson’s great utility to modern democrats was his recognition . . . that politics always trumps principle." We might think that in recent years our democracy has had enough of politics trumping principle, but Barber is convinced that that is what democracy is all about. "Democracy enjoins constant, permanent motion . . . a moveable feast that affords each generation room for new appetites and tastes."

Jefferson was often prodigal in his household expenditures, but his public style was austere, even puritanical. It is hard to imagine him associating popular government with the servicing of appetites or the provision of moveable feasts. And he certainly would not want politics to trump principle. Jefferson was a great believer in principle; it is just that his principles could go one way or the other depending on the situation.

The most famous or notorious of all the Jeffersonian contradictions is that the man who declared that "all men are created equal" kept slaves. Jefferson was well aware of the contradiction and agonized over it: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." His first draft of the Declaration of Independence contained a section condemning slavery (he blamed it on the British), and in his early years he entertained various schemes for compensated emancipation, though he later grew more passive and fatalistic about the South’s "peculiar institution."

Jefferson got entangled in the same historic tragedy that snared some of the best men of his generation, including George Washington. But there were differences. First, Washington freed all of his slaves in his will, while most of Jefferson’s remained in bondage at his death, held in partial payment of the mountainous debts he had accumulated. Second, and more importantly, Jefferson increased his burden of guilt by writing, and publishing, some of the ugliest remarks ever made about blacks.

There is a danger of presentism in characterizing as "racist" any comments made more than two hundred years ago. By today’s sensitive standards, nearly all whites of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Lincoln and the abolitionists, were racists; their attitudes toward blacks ranged from contemptuous to condescending. But, judging from what is left of the written record, Jefferson’s views on race went far beyond those of any of his contemporaries. In one section of his Notes on Virginia he tried out ideas that anticipated the most repellent features of what was later called "scientific" racism. He saw deep "natural" divisions between the races that condemned blacks to eternal inferiority in everything from brains to physical beauty. Whether their skin color came from their bile, their blood, "or from . . . some other secretion," it made them ugly. They smelled. The men were sexually attracted to white women over those of their own race just as "the Oranootan [is] for the black woman over those of his own species." Whatever their environment, blacks were incapable of ever attaining the intellectual or cultural level of whites.

What made Jefferson say such things? In his comments, humanities professor James Oakes suggests a motive at once political and psychological. Jefferson wanted to free the slaves, but then to deport them. At some point, though, his conscience must have bothered him. Isn’t it unjust to deport people who have lived in America for generations and have already suffered injustice? Why not free them and then educate them so that they could become coequals and fellow citizens? That was Jefferson’s approach to poor and uneducated whites; and it was the main motive behind his proposal to create a system of tax–supported public schools. But Jefferson, Oakes thinks, "recoiled in horror" at the thought of ever associating on equal terms with blacks. Jefferson’s very faith in the transformative power of education became threatening to him in their case. The purpose of Jefferson’s racist screed, then, was to reassure himself and others that blacks, no matter what their education, could never be brought to the level of whites.

Oakes could be reading more into Jefferson than is warranted. Jefferson may have had no motive beyond that of speculating about race; he advanced his notion of black inferiority "as a suspicion only." It may be that the causality went the other way, that it was Jefferson’s observations of racial differences, however distorted or prejudiced they were, that caused him to advocate black deportation. In any case, as C. Vann Woodward points out in his commentary, Jefferson later wrote to various French correspondents that blacks in their "moral sense" were the equals of people in every race, that in time they could become intellectually equal to whites, and that he hoped "to see a complete refutation of doubts I have myself entertained."

So there we have it: another Jeffersonian turnaround. Woodward attributes these "dualities," as he delicately puts it, to Jefferson’s busy life. "He was not a full–time closeted philosopher–scholar on a Virginia mountain but a fully engaged public figure up to his ears in politics . . . from the 1770s to the 1820s." Actually, from his retirement from the presidency on March 4, 1809 until his death in 1826, Jefferson was nearly a full–time philosopher. In any case, many of his colleagues were also busy politicians, without being quite so ambidextrous in their opinions.

There may be another contradiction in Jefferson, one that is more disturbing than anything purely verbal—a disjunction between Jefferson’s public persona and his real life. Down through the years the story had been told of children Jefferson had by Sally Hemings, the young slave who was the daughter of his father–in–law, John Wayles. The story was first published by James Callender, a venomous scandalmonger whom Jefferson once helped support financially when Callender was attacking Alexander Hamilton. In 1802, motivated by what he felt was Jefferson’s ingratitude, Callender turned on his patron, alleging that Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s concubine and had borne him several children. Until recently the allegation has been treated dismissively by most Jefferson scholars because of its questionable origins, because there was no solid proof for it, and because it seemed out of character, being, as Dumas Malone put it, "virtually unthinkable in a man of Jefferson’s moral standards and habitual conduct."

Fast forward to 1998, when a report in Nature magazine, based on DNA tests of Hemings’ descendants, concluded that Jefferson was probably the father of at least one of her children. Suddenly the media blazed with declarations—some by former Jefferson defenders—that Jefferson’s paternity was now a proven fact, a conclusion the principal researcher for the study went out of his way to deny. But the DNA study did add another piece to an already credible body of evidence that Jefferson had been sexually involved with Hemings. A year before the study was published, law professor Annette Gordon–Reed highlighted several other pieces, including the fact that on at least one occasion (more, if we believe the account of the victim) Jefferson had deviated from his "moral standards and habitual conduct" by trying to force his affections on the wife of one his friends. Gordon–Reed also noted the fact (first discovered by Dumas Malone) that Jefferson, who was often away from Monticello, was always there nine months before Sally gave birth.

If, added to the DNA study, this makes a strong case that Hemings was Jefferson’s mistress (and I think it does), how are we to reconcile this with Jefferson’s view of blacks as physically unattractive, foul–smelling, and mentally inferior? What did he see in this black woman? Contemporary accounts describe her as "almost white," so perhaps his comments about blacks don’t apply. But if she wasn’t black, then why, following Jefferson’s own racist logic, was she a slave? Or was that why he freed her and her children in his will? It seems we are left with this conclusion: having no further use for his wife’s half–sister, Jefferson let her go. These are harsh words, but they are not aimed at diminishing Jefferson’s status as a statesman or—what I have focused on here—his great power as a writer. What they should do is to remind us of the darker side of Jefferson, the reckless inconsistency in his life as well as his thought.

But perhaps this misses the point. To expect consistency from Jefferson is to expect something that was not in his line of work. He dealt in words, but he was neither a philosopher nor exactly a rhetorician. He was more like a poet, in love with the sound and feel of language. Historian Carl Becker once speculated that that was one reason Jefferson was such a poor speaker. He always wanted to get just the right tone in his sentences; a person like that "instinctively wishes to cross out what he has just said, and say it over again in a different way—and this is what he often does, to the confusion of his audience."

Jefferson himself offered a revealing glimpse of this tendency when, a year before his death, he said in a letter to Henry Lee that the Declaration of Independence was "intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion." Tone, spirit—when these were needed, Jefferson’s poetic style, his "peculiar felicity of expression," served his country well. It can still serve to inspire us. But to try to find in his writings any firm guidance for the future, any unambiguous markings that might get us started into this new century, is to seek something that simply isn’t there.

George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy.