Jefferson Reconstructed

Jefferson & Civil Liberties: The Darker Side

by Leonard W. Levy
Harvard, The Belknap Press, 240 pp., $4.50

Mr. Levy believes that “a strong pattern of unlibertarian, even anti-libertarian thought and behavior” extended throughout Jefferson’s life, and he condemns him for it with vigor and severity. His indictment is impressive.

The unfamiliar Jefferson at one time or another supported loyalty oaths; countenanced internment camps for political suspects; drafted a bill of attainder; urged prosecutions for seditions libel; trampled on the Fourth Amendment; condoned military despotism; used the Army to enforce laws in time of peace; censored reading; chose professors for their political opinions; and endorsed the doctrine that the means, however odious, were justified by the ends.

The bulk of the book consists of an attempt to document these and other specific charges, and to construct a general portrait of Jefferson’s character and personality, the lineaments of which may be suggested by such phrases as “stupendous ego,” “incapacity for self-criticism,” and “a spirit rarely capable of disinterestedness.”

Mr. Levy admits he has made no attempt to present a comprehensive and balanced study of the record of Thomas Jefferson in the field of civil liberties. He has written an intentionally one-sided book, and this one side is a “dark” one. Although one may have reservations about such a project, one must accept with some equanimity the author’s definition of his task and resist the temptation to supply evidence on the positive side. Mr. Levy is well aware of this “other” Jefferson and pays dutiful tribute to him. Somewhat confusingly, he describes the book as a study of “libertarian leadership,” and in the final chapter states that Jefferson “was, to be sure, a libertarian…” Indeed, in a curious way, it is this other Jefferson who dominates Mr. Levy’s argument. There is a peculiar ferocity in his attack, a tendency to strain and stretch the evidence, as if the case were not strong enough to rest on the dispassionate presentation of the facts.

Much of the evidence put together in this volume will be familiar to the student of American history. The trial of Aaron Burr has been related many times, and it would require a revisionist tour de force to upset the conventional view that Jefferson was out to get Burr, and that he was not over-scrupulous with respect to the judicial procedures to be used in doing so. Similarly with the Embargo Acts of 1807-1809 and their enforcement: In his great desire to avoid war with either France or Britain. Jefferson played fast and loose with the Constitution, and especially with the guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure. The general tendency has been to regard these and a few other instances as aberrations in what was otherwise a long record of devotion to the principles of individual liberty, and to conclude that actual achievement in this field far outweighed these deviations. Mr. Levy insists that what others have regarded as aberrations were instead ingredients in an unlibertarian, even antilibertarian pattern.

His case would be a stronger one if the evidence were presented with more meticulous …

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Letters

Letters January 9, 1964