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Jefferson at Home

Jeffersonian Legacies

edited by Peter S. Onuf
University Press of Virginia, 478 pp., $18.95 (paper)

President William Jefferson Clinton began his administration by invoking the memory of Thomas Jefferson. Not only did he launch his inaugural week at Jefferson’s home, Monticello, but he followed Jefferson’s route to the White House and cited him in his inaugural address. It is not surprising that Clinton should have tried to use Jefferson as a symbol of his desire for change. Jefferson was after all the presumed founder of the Democratic Party and has long been seen as a champion of liberal causes. But Jefferson does not belong just to the Democratic Party. Republican Governor William Weld of Massachusetts calls himself a Jeffersonian. And President Reagan repeatedly called upon Jefferson in order to justify his attempts to reduce the size of the federal government; indeed, he urged us all to “pluck a flower from Thomas Jefferson’s life and wear it in our soul forever.”

And so it has gone almost from the beginning of our history. More than any other of our so-called “founding fathers” Jefferson has become a symbol, a touchstone, a measure of what we Americans are or where we are going. “Jeffersonian” is a word of general appeal. We are continually asking ourselves whether Jefferson still survives, or what is still living in the thought of Jefferson; and we quote him on every side of every major issue in our history. No figure in our history has embodied so much of our heritage and so many of our hopes. Most Americans think of Jefferson much as our first professional biographer James Parton did. “If Jefferson was wrong,” wrote Parton in 1874, “America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.”

As Merrill Peterson has shown us in his superb book published over thirty years ago, the image of Jefferson in American culture has always been “a sensitive reflector…of America’s troubled search for the image of itself.”1 And the symbolizing, the image-mongering, the identifying of Jefferson with America, has not changed a bit in the generation since Peterson’s book was published—even though the level of professional historical scholarship has never been higher. If anything, during these turbulent times the identification of Jefferson with America has become even greater—until at this moment in 1993 of the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth all our present anguish and turmoil seem to be embodied in the life of this single man.

Anniversaries of great men and great events are times for commemoration if not for celebration, and they are also times for historical reassessment. But they can be tricky affairs, as we found out last year during the commemoration of the quincentenary of Columbus’s discovery of America. It is not likely that Jefferson will become as politically incorrect this year as Columbus did last year, but he is getting there—as suggested by the book under review and the conference that spawned it, the first major historical and scholarly reassessment of this 250th anniversary. There is a likelihood that any present-day historical reassessment will prove Jefferson wrong at least on some issues. And, as Parton said, “if Jefferson was wrong, then America is wrong.”

This important scholarly reevaluation of Jefferson took place at a conference held in October 1992 at the institution he founded, the University of Virginia. The conference resulted six months later in the collection of fifteen essays entitled Jeffersonian Legacies, published to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday on April 13, 1993. Probably never before has a scholarly press moved so quickly from a set of conference papers to a finished book. It is a measure of how important Jefferson is to the University of Virginia and its press and perhaps to the rest of us as well.2

The six-day conference, as Daniel P. Jordan, director of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, declares in a foreword to the book, was designed to be “revisionist in spirit” and “innovative in format.” It brought together a wide variety of participants—academics from several disciplines and countries but also policy makers and members of the general public. Conspicuously absent, however, were the leading scholars with already established reputations as Jefferson experts, scholars such as Noel Cunningham, Jack McLaughlin, and Garrett Ward Sheldon, who were presumed to have already had their say. Even the role of the country’s preeminent Jefferson scholar, Merrill Peterson, was confined to a few brief remarks at the end of the conference. In order to promote fresh thinking about Jefferson and his legacy, the organizers of the conference sought to invite mostly people who were not considered part of the so-called “Jefferson establishment.”3 Even the present Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the chief organizer of the conference and editor of the volume, Peter S. Onuf, is different from the two preceding holders of the Jefferson chair, Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson, in that he has not previously written anything directly about Jefferson.

The conference sought to explore critically Jefferson’s ideas and actions in relation to certain central issues of rights, education, democracy, and race and slavery. It aimed to measure Jefferson’s life and values against the principal concerns of the present, an aim underlined in a major evening address given by the civil rights activist Julian Bond. Most of the commissioned papers, which make up the published volume, were available in advance but were not presented publicly.4 Instead, most of the conference was devoted to a series of discussions by panels composed not simply of scholars but also of businessmen, lawyers, civil rights activists, journalists, public officials, and museum professionals, together with a good deal of lively audience participation. “The result,” as Jordan says, “was an intellectual free-for-all, with polemical discourse, reasoned debates, brilliant insights, wild digressions, and even some egregious misinformation.”

On no issue were the discussions more free-wheeling, more polemical, more wild, and sometimes more misinformed than on the issue of race and slavery. There is no doubt that the conference and the fifteen essays that make up the subsequent volume present many new and fresh insights on various aspects of Jefferson’s life and works, from his views on religion to his attitudes toward foreign policy. But the issue that most provoked and dominated the conference and the one that permeates the subsequent volume and gives it its pungency is the issue of race and slavery.

Fifty years ago in 1943 at the 200th anniversary of his birth Jefferson was seen as the solution to all of America’s problems. This year at the 250th anniversary of his birth he has actually become a part of America’s problems. It is not that America has lost faith in democracy or equality or in individual rights. Far from it: Jefferson’s reputation as the author of the Declaration of Independence and its promotion of rights and equality remains supreme. So too does his position as the leading spokesman in our past for the importance of education, for the separation of church and state, and for the right of the people to rule. But it is Jefferson’s position on race and slavery that makes him a problem. In our present climate the fact that Jefferson was a racist slaveholder seems to defile and discredit all of his great liberal and democratic achievements.

Paul Finkelman, visiting associate professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, brought a prosecutor’s zeal to the conference, and his comments and paper on Jefferson and slavery pleased some, angered others, and bemused many. It was not that Finkelman said anything new in his paper or in his comments; it was rather the relentless earnestness of his attack on Jefferson—to the point where some scholars present wondered what he was hoping to accomplish. Yet there was no doubt that Finkelman’s attack on Jefferson struck a responsive chord among some journalists and some members of the general public.

Surely there is no greater irony in American history than the fact that America’s supreme spokesman for liberty and equality was a lifelong aristocratic owner of slaves. Jefferson hated slavery, it is true, but, unlike Washington and some of his fellow Virginians, during his lifetime he freed only eight of his nearly two hundred slaves. “In the fifty years from 1776 until his death in 1826, a period of extraordinary public service, he did little,” says Finkelman, “to end slavery or to dissociate himself from his role as the master of Monticello.” On the contrary: he bought, bred, and flogged his slaves and hunted down fugitives in much the same way his fellow Virginia planters did—all the while declaring that American slavery was not as bad as that of the ancient Romans. Even when some of his younger countrymen like Edward Coles sought his blessing in liberating their slaves, he refused to encourage them and offered only excuses for delay.

Most embarrassing in today’s climate are Jefferson’s views of blacks. Jefferson could never really imagine freed blacks living in a white man’s America, and throughout his life he insisted that any emancipation of the slaves had to be accompanied by their expulsion from the country. He wanted all blacks sent to the West Indies, or Africa, or anywhere out of the United States. He feared that former slaves would take revenge on their former masters for the “ten thousand…injuries they have sustained.” In 1797 he told a fellow Virginian and slaveholder that “if something is not done and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” “But,” says Finkelman, “he had no idea what that ‘something’ might be. A man who fearlessly pledged his life to fight the king of England and his mighty armies trembled at the idea of black slaves acting as free men.”

Jefferson’s remedy of expulsion was based on racial fear and antipathy. While he had no apprehensions about mingling white blood with that of the Indian, he never ceased expressing his “great aversion” to miscegenation between blacks and whites. When the Roman slave was freed, he “might mix with, without staining the blood of, his master.” When the black slave was freed, however, he had, said Jefferson, “to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.” Although Jefferson believed that the Indians were uncivilized, he always admired them and made all sorts of environmental explanations for their differences from whites. Yet he was never able to do the same for the African American. Instead, he continually suspected that the black man was inherently inferior to the white in both body and mind.

The only controversial issue that Finkelman avoided was that of Jefferson’s supposed relationship with his mulatto household slave Sally Hemings. Finkelman said he was agnostic on the Hemings affair and so spent little or no time or no it, but many others at the conference wanted to talk about little else. The charge that Jefferson maintained Hemings as his mistress for decades and fathered several children by her was first made by an unscrupulous newspaperman, James Callender, in 1802. Since then, historians and others have periodically resurrected the accusation. In fact, in the most recent study of Jefferson’s political thought scholar Garrett Ward Sheldon treats Jefferson’s “keeping of a black mistress” as an established fact, a “common transgression of his class.”5

  1. 1

    Merrill Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (Oxford University Press, 1960), pp. vii, 9.

  2. 2

    Two hour-long videotapes of the conference have been produced by Central Virginia Public Television and will be shown on PBS sometime this year.

  3. 3

    I was one of those invited to speak at the conference, and I contributed an essay to the published volume.

  4. 4

    Included in the volume, in addition to those essays mentioned in this piece and one by myself, are papers by Joyce Appleby, Paul K. Conkin, Douglas L. Wilson, Rhys Isaac, Jan Lewis, Jack P. Greene, Stephen A. Conrad, Herbert Sloan, Michael Lienesch, John Lauritz Larson, and Walter LaFeber.

  5. 5

    Garrett Ward Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 126.

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