Liberty’s Wild Man

The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800

by Conor Cruise O’Brien
University of Chicago Press, 367 pp., $29.95

In today’s cultural climate it is perhaps necessary at the outset to point out that “the long affair” referred to in the title of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s strange and remarkable book on Thomas Jefferson has no sexual connotation. Jefferson, says O’Brien, had a long affair, but it was not with a woman; it was with the French Revolution. Not that O’Brien is uninterested in Jefferson’s sexual exploits. Quite the contrary. He devotes a chapter or so to Jefferson’s putative sexual and emotional relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. But O’Brien’s main desire—and this accounts for the extraordinary passion of his book—is to use what he repeatedly refers to as Jefferson’s “almost manic enthusiasm for the French Revolution” to show multicultural Americans that this historical figure has nothing whatsoever to say to them.

O’Brien realizes only too keenly that Jefferson is no ordinary historical figure in American culture. Jefferson, he says, is “a prophet,…a being whose imagination is ablaze with a vision.” But he is no ordinary prophet either. “He is the prophet of the American Revolution, the author of the American Holy Book, the Declaration of Independence.” He is the principal figure in America’s civil religion, who saw “his own life as dedicated to what the Declaration calls ‘the holy cause of freedom.”’

Because Jefferson the prophet has become so important to America’s civil religion, traditional historians, O’Brien says, have sought to make a sacred icon of the man and have blurred and distorted the real, historical Jefferson. Not only was Jefferson a slaveholding racist who wished to send all blacks out of the country, but he was an extreme fanatic who believed that any number of people could be killed for the sake of a cause. Although O’Brien admits that Jefferson didn’t often say fanatical things, he said enough to be a prophet. Besides, “the fact that the prophet is mostly silent does not mean that he is not always there. He is a brooding presence, possessor of the standard of Liberty, by which all things are to be measured. And the prophet in Jefferson, as in so many others of his kind, is a ruthless prophet.”

Jefferson, it turns out, is responsible for most of what O’Brien dislikes about modern America. Its racism, of course, but more than that. Jefferson is ideologically responsible for the Ku Klux Klan and for lynching and maybe even for the South African doctrine of apartheid. “Someone,” O’Brien suggests, “should write a thesis on ‘The Influence of Thomas Jefferson on Hendrik Verwoerd.”’

But this is not the worst of Jefferson’s influence. All those militia rebels in “the wilder parts of the American Middle West and Northwest”—those “tens of thousands of Americans ready to fight the Federal Government in the cause of liberty”—are the modern heirs of Jeffersonian ideals. After all, didn’t Jefferson say that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” thus setting forth “something very like a Jeffersonian charter for the most militant section of the modern American militias”? Since Jefferson set no limits to “the holy cause of freedom”—“neither geographical boundaries, nor limits assigned by conventional ideas of morality and compassion”—apparently anything goes if it is done in the name of liberty. If Jefferson had accepted that the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was “perpetrated in the cause of liberty—as its perpetrators and their admirers appear sincerely to believe that it was—then he would have condoned that act.”

Jefferson, in O’Brien’s account, was a wild man when it came to liberty. In January 1793 he wrote a letter to William Short upbraiding him for his criticism of the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. Jefferson conceded to Short that he too had been upset to learn of deaths in the cause of liberty, “but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.” O’Brien takes this letter literally and concludes that no atrocity the French revolutionaries could commit could shake Jefferson’s faith in the Revolution. “Anything the French revolutionaries might choose to do—up to massacring the entire French population, minus two—would ipso facto represent Freedom.” But then O’Brien, as is his wont, is quick to show us the implications of this statement for our own time. “It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the twentieth-century statesman whom the Thomas Jefferson of January 1793 would have admired most is Pol Pot,” the brutal leader of the Khmer Rouge that killed an estimated two million people in Cambodia in the 1970s.

So it goes, one outrageous statement after another, all designed to remove Jefferson from America’s civil religion and the pantheon of American heroes. One would like to believe that much of this book is written tongue in cheek, with some sense of irony and compassion for a country that has as its principal spokesman for its beliefs in democracy and equality a slaveholding racist aristocrat. But no: O’Brien is too enraged and engaged for any humor or ironic lightness of touch. Because he takes ideas seriously and considers them the equivalent of action, he puts more emphasis on what Jefferson said than on what he actually did. And he pays no attention whatever to James Madison’s warning of allowing “for a habit in Mr. Jefferson as in others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment.”

Of course O’Brien himself is not beyond an occasional extreme expression of his own, as when he says that a “multiracial version of the American civil religion must eventually prevail—at whatever cost.” “At whatever cost”? Isn’t that what Jefferson said about liberty’s prevailing? Some ruthlessness may be necessary, for O’Brien wants all liberal Jeffersonians eliminated, “of course,” he concedes, not physically, but culturally; “for ‘liberal Jeffersonian’ is a contradiction in terms.” Although as a writer O’Brien can be very funny at times, he is, as his biographer says, “a writer-with-an-attitude.”1 In this book O’Brien has a serious attitude indeed: he is truly frightened for the future of a post-racist, multicultural America saddled with the wild and archaic ideas of Thomas Jefferson.

This may be a legitimate concern, but O’Brien has allowed his zealous passion for immediate change to get the better of him. Confronted with a popular religious-like faith in a Jeffersonian liberalism he does not like and wants desperately to transform, he is like the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer smashing icons with his ax, or like the nineteenth-century village atheist wandering the streets noisily decrying the community’s beliefs. He can’t wait for the popular faith to be subverted slowly and gradually, so slowly and so gradually in fact that Americans will scarcely realize what has happened to it. Instead of writing his exaggerated overstated polemic, which reads more like a legal brief than a work of history, O’Brien might have been more patient. He might have waited and allowed all the plodding workaday historians to do what they have been doing, slowly, gradually, over the past several decades, in their multitudes of monographs and books—changing America’s perspective and understanding of its past, including its image of Jefferson. But no, O’Brien is impatient and he can’t wait, and consequently he has ended up being provocative without being persuasive. But then O’Brien would not be himself if he were not provocative.

Most of us know O’Brien as an eminent and pugnacious Irishman who over the past half-century seems to have been everywhere and done everything at one time or another—as a civil servant and politician in the Irish government, as a diplomat working for the UN, and as a gadfly and political activist; but mostly we have known him as a journalist and scholar, indeed as perhaps Ireland’s most distinguished man of letters, writing on an astonishing variety of subjects, from Africa to Israel, from French intellectuals to Edmund Burke. This is the first time, however, that he has tackled a large and important subject in American history.

He begins his book by telling us why it is so long. It is long, he says, because unlike other historians and biographers of Jefferson, he prefers direct and lengthy quotations to paraphrase and summary. Others, particularly Jefferson’s great biographer Dumas Malone, have paraphrased and summarized Jefferson’s words so often that they have blurred and softened the image of Jefferson. In their hands Jefferson has become “an unusually, almost morbidly, sensitive person, shrinking from the hurly-burly of politics and especially controversy.” O’Brien wants to cut through these distortions and reveal the real Jefferson, and he believes that the best way to do that is to describe in detail Jefferson’s involvement with the French Revolution. Not only is the French Revolution a matter of primary concern for O’Brien, but he believes that that is the subject about which other historians and biographers have most distorted Jefferson’s views.

There is a great deal of truth in O’Brien’s charge that other historians and biographers have tended to soften the image of Jefferson and turn him into “a fictional construct.” Malone especially has created in his six-volume biography the image that Jefferson himself would probably have liked—temperate, rational, and balanced, a man who was “one of the most notable champions of freedom and enlightenment in recorded history.” Malone designed his Jefferson not to provoke passions but to calm them. He treated Jefferson as one gentleman to another, with respect but with honesty. He did not actually hide Jefferson’s faults, but he went out of his way to place them in proper perspective and to judge the man not by his lapses but by the general tenor of his life. In the soothing prose of his majestic work Malone created a Jefferson who was a monument to American reasonableness and humane tolerance.

O’Brien will have none of this. He wants to provoke passions, not calm them. He thus begins his book with an angry attack on Malone, the most pious of those he calls the “pious Jeffersonians,” who have managed to obscure Jefferson’s actual views on the French Revolution. He uses as his principal evidence—indeed, what he calls “the most drastic example I know of the filtering out of ‘Jefferson on the French Revolution’ by pious Jeffersonians”—Malone’s treatment of Jefferson’s famous 1793 Adam and Eve letter to William Short. Malone, he says, glides over “the bloodthirsty effusion” of this letter by merely noting that “this private letter contains as fervid comments as Jefferson ever made on the French Revolution and it has been widely quoted by later writers for just that reason.” O’Brien goes on to say that “Malone refrains from quoting any part of the letter in question, and that single sentence is as near as his readers get to even a paraphrase.”

Unfortunately, this is untrue: Malone quotes at length the relevant portions of the letter on page 48 of the third volume of his biography, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty. Making a conspicuous factual error like this is not the best way for O’Brien to begin a book that purports to correct the mistakes that others have made. Apparently O’Brien merely looked up in Malone’s index under “Short” and saw a single entry for the Adam and Eve letter on page 45 where Malone makes his “fervid comments” statement. But O’Brien did not read on, for three pages later Malone has a long block quotation from the Short letter, but he or his publisher failed to note that fact in the index. O’Brien’s mistake suggests that he has not always read carefully the authors he is so fiercely attacking; this is bound to make a reader uneasy about his methods of research.

O’Brien goes on to describe in detail Jefferson’s involvement with France and the French Revolution, from his service in Paris as minister to the government of Louis XVI in the late 1780s to his reactions to the developing French Revolution after he returned to the United States in 1789 and became secretary of state, and later vice-president and leader of the Republican Party during the 1790s. But before we get to the French Revolution O’Brien has to deal with Jefferson’s relationship with his household slave Sally Hemings. By now the story that Sally was Jefferson’s concubine in Paris and later too in America has been repeated so often, and reinforced by the 1995 Merchant and Ivory film Jefferson in Paris, that almost everyone believes it. O’Brien says he does. It is clear that Jefferson knew about the ways his fellow Virginia planters exploited their female slaves. He knew too that his father-in-law, John Wayles, had slept with his slaves and sired several Hemings, including Sally. Consequently, O’Brien concludes, “there is no valid reason to suppose that he disdained the sexual perquisites available to his caste, any more than his father-in-law had disdained these.”

But there are valid reasons, the main one being Jefferson’s puritan and extremely repressed temperament and another being Sally’s age when she went to Paris. If Jefferson did in fact sleep with Sally in Paris he ought to be charged with child abuse: the girl was only about fourteen and not much more mature than Jefferson’s seven-year-old daughter, whom she was supposed to be taking care of. She certainly was anything but the nubile flirt portrayed by Merchant and Ivory. Abigail Adams thought she was still very much “a child” and reported that the ship captain who had brought her and Jefferson’s daughter across the Atlantic believed that she would “be of so little Service that he had better carry her back with him.” O’Brien goes on to guess, in one of the many such guesses he makes about Jefferson in the book, that Jefferson did not go to England to collect his daughter when she arrived from America in 1787 because he would have been embarrassed by the presence of Sally Hemings in front of Abigail Adams. It’s distressing to note that O’Brien’s principal citation for this conjecture is the questionable account in the novel Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase-Riboud.

What does the Hemings relationship have to do with Jefferson and the French Revolution? We have to wait until the last chapter of the book to find out, and the explanation is quite remarkable. According to O’Brien, Jefferson’s putative sexual and emotional relationship with his slave Sally Hemings was the real psychological source of his long affair with the French Revolution. Even if it cannot be proved that Jefferson slept with Sally, he had to feel guilty about her presence in his family; and that guilt lay behind Jefferson’s fanatical enthusiasm for the French Revolution. Indeed, O’Brien goes on to suggest that the Jeffersonian Republican Party’s “Cult of the French Revolution” in the 1790s was the means by which white Southern slaveholders in general dealt with their presumed deep feelings of guilt over slavery: it enabled them to project “the burden of Southern guilt, over slavery, onto the North, for defection from the ideals of the American Revolution, as revealed anew, and purified, in the French Revolution.” This analysis of course doesn’t help much in accounting for the enthusiastic “Cult of the French Revolution” among Northern non-slaveholding members of the Republican Party.

O’Brien often resorts to this sort of guesswork, something he also did in his 1992 biography of Edmund Burke, The Great Melody. In the absence of solid evidence he tends to pile conjecture upon conjecture until he has built what he believes is a satisfactory explanation for some action or event. Sometimes these conjectures are shrewd and persuasive. His interpretation of Washington’s response to the French National Assembly’s mourning of the death of Franklin in 1790, for example, is much more credible than Julian Boyd’s. Where Boyd had Washington in 1790 still clinging to his secretary of state as a close confidant in French matters, O’Brien argues convincingly that by the end of that year the President had lost confidence in Jefferson on issues pertaining to the French Revolution and its relation to the internal politics of the United States.

At other times, however, O’Brien’s conjectures seem to miss the mark entirely. In trying to demonstrate that Jefferson did not really care about the French people but only the abstract idea of the French “nation,” O’Brien maintains that Jefferson “did not have any French friends.” Since evidence for this curious statement is hard to come by, O’Brien offers as proof the “courteous formality” of Jefferson’s letters to his French correspondents. The problem, however, is that Jefferson was courteously formal with all of his correspondents: even his lifelong friend James Madison was always addressed as “Dear Sir.” If the lack of French friends doesn’t clinch O’Brien’s argument, then maybe the fact that in five years in France Jefferson never learned to speak French will do. Since Jefferson was a smart fellow, if he had wanted to speak French, O’Brien contends, he would have learned to speak it; therefore “one has to conclude that he did not want to learn to speak French, or to become familiar with French people.” But this conclusion does not seem very convincing. It is true that Jefferson never learned to speak French fluently, but he eventually did make himself understood in the language. Moreover, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were smart fellows too, but they never became fluent in French either; and no one has concluded that they did not have French friends or care much about the France they were living in.

O’Brien goes through these convoluted discussions of Jefferson’s thinking, with the aim of assessing the degrees of his “psychic disturbance,” because he wants ultimately to show us that Jefferson was something of a maniac about liberty, someone so bewitched by the abstract idea of the French Revolution that he could ignore all the mobbing, killing, and savage realities of the event. The French Revolution became for Jefferson “a sacred and static abstraction, an angelic auxiliary for the cause of freedom in America.” It was America that Jefferson and the other Republican leaders in the 1790s thought about when they thought about the French Revolution. Although this focus on America seems quite understandable and unremarkable, O’Brien seems to expect Jefferson and the other Republican leaders to have thought and behaved differently. Didn’t Jefferson and the other Republican leaders realize that real people were being butchered in France? No, O’Brien says, they were too caught up in their illusions and their false fears of monarchy in America to appreciate the realities of the French Revolution in the way Edmund Burke did.

Edmund Burke! He is the source of O’Brien’s perspective on the French Revolution and the hovering presence in this study of Jefferson. Burke is more than O’Brien’s hero, he is his alter ego: O’Brien identifies with this fellow Irishman and wrote his extraordinary biography of Burke in 1992 to pay homage to this great opponent of the French Revolution. The book was, as O’Brien’s own biographer has said, “a summation of himself.”2 At every opportunity in The Long Affair O’Brien contrasts Burke’s insight into the nature of the French Revolution with Jefferson’s illusions. No one saw the direction of events in France as quickly or as clearly as Burke—not the other British Whigs, not most Americans, and certainly not Thomas Jefferson. Where Burke concentrated on facts and saw through frauds, Jefferson remained hopelessly mesmerized by his “mystical vision of the French Revolution.”

Because Burke hated the French Revolution, O’Brien is suspicious of anyone who is an enthusiast for it. O’Brien has written extensively about the French Revolution and has very decided views about what was good and what was bad about it. Insofar as the Revolution was liberating and pluralist it may have accomplished some good things; but insofar as it was totalitarian and absolutist, especially in celebrating the suppression of individual rights in the name of a Rousseauist “general will”—and this, according to O’Brien, was the French Revolution’s central tendency—it was all that Burke said it was. Although O’Brien can find no explicit references to Rousseau in Jefferson’s writing, he believes that there existed “a general intellectual affinity between the two eighteenth-century thinkers,” not only in their common notion that people might have to be forced to be free but also “in the style of the two men, the frequent recourse to peremptory certitude and application, in a secular context, of concepts derived from dogmatic religion.” O’Brien thinks that Jefferson was this sort of Rousseau-like zealot on behalf of liberty, even though Jefferson’s conception of liberty was much more individualistic than Rousseau’s. O’Brien seems to have forgotten that Jefferson was a principal supporter of the Bill of Rights, which was designed to protect individual liberties against the power of government.

O’Brien has no sympathy for Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution and his fears of monarchy. Washington and the other Federalist leaders saw through the false pretensions of the Revolution in the way Burke did, and Jefferson should have, too. Shouldn’t he have appreciated his sacred cause of liberty less and the bloody excesses of the Revolution more? Shouldn’t he have known that liberty and republican government were not really in danger in the 1790s? Shouldn’t he have realized that his and his fellow Republicans’ fear of monarchy arising in America was erroneous and unfounded? Because Jefferson was elected president in 1800, O’Brien assumes that there could never have been a real monarchical threat from the Federalists in the 1790s.

All of this reasoning, O’Brien’s entire argument about Jefferson and the French Revolution, simply does not ring true. In this book, at least, O’Brien does not seem to possess what should be the basic instinct of a historian—the realization that the past is fundamentally different from the present, with different assumptions, different expectations, different feelings. O’Brien does not seem able to accept the fact that the people of the past did not know what the future was going to be like. Because he also believes that “rational people are generally assumed to intend the consequences of their acts,” he has difficulty in accepting that many of Jefferson’s actions had unanticipated consequences. Finally, he does not know enough about America in the late eighteenth century to develop a full context for understanding Jefferson’s beliefs and actions. Although he has consulted a variety of historians on the period, and quotes liberally from them, he appears not to have used the one work exclusively devoted to his subject, Lawrence S. Kaplan’s Jefferson and France.3

Because of his lack of a close knowledge of the American background, O’Brien creates problems for himself. For example, he makes much of Jefferson’s reluctance in 1789 to become secretary of state in Washington’s administration, even though expressing such reluctance was the dominant convention of the day for virtually all respectable gentlemen. He thinks that Jefferson in 1789 already foresaw Hamilton’s financial program and that he knew in advance that Washington’s administration would be unpopular in Virginia; and thus his coyness about accepting the office came from his fear that participation in the federal government would undermine his position in Virginia and consequently “rule him out as a future President of the United States.” No matter that Virginians, coming from the largest state in the union, were bound to be present throughout the federal government, with Washington as president, Madison as the leader of the House, Edmund Randolph as attorney general, and eventually even the rabid anti-Federalist Patrick Henry as a Federalist senator. Jefferson, devious fellow that he was, knew better and thus hesitated to hurt his chances with his power base.

Above all, O’Brien misunderstands the 1790s in America. Because he knows how it all turned out, with Jefferson’s election as president in 1800, he can’t take seriously the uncertainty and fearfulness of Jefferson and the Republicans over the fate of republicanism in the world; he especially is unable to appreciate their apprehension that the Federalists were bent on bringing monarchy back to America. But Jefferson’s fears were real and not fanciful. Many Federalists did harbor monarchical tendencies and they did what they could to surround the new national government with the trappings of monarchy—urging royal-sounding titles on the president, creating the semblance of a “court” in the capital, seeking to place the president’s head on the country’s coins, making the president’s birthday celebrations rival those of the Fourth of July, and sending the president on royal tours of the country.

Why should we think that Jefferson’s fear that the president could turn into an elected monarch who served for life was odd or ill-founded? Many Americans thought that Washington would serve for life, and John Adams told Jefferson that it was a good thing that the president could be perpetually re-elected. Because republicanism in the 1790s seemed so precarious in a monarchical world, it was natural, and not at all irrational or fanatical, for Jefferson and other Republicans to admire the French Revolution and hope for its success. They saw it as an extension of their own American Revolution and the beginning of the expansion of liberty and republicanism throughout the monarchy-dominated world. Have we all become such Burkeans now that we can no longer even entertain the idea that the French Revolution may have been a largely worthwhile event?

Although O’Brien still considers himself “a child of the Enlightenment,” albeit “a somewhat battered and chastened child,” 4 his impassioned assault on Jefferson may come to be regarded as just another shot in the current intellectual campaign to discredit the Enlightenment and its universalist ideals. We certainly don’t seem to be as confident in those ideals as we used to be. It seems just yesterday that President Kennedy told the world that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Not for the survival of our oil supply, or even of the nation, but of liberty itself! O’Brien doesn’t quote these words from Kennedy’s inaugu-ral address, but he might well have. After all, they harked back to the eighteenth-century Jeffersonian revolutionary ideology that O’Brien so disparages. We can’t imagine today any president saying what Kennedy said in 1961, and our inability to imagine such rhetoric is a measure of the decline we are experiencing in our two-hundred-year-old revolutionary tradition of being the supreme spokesman for liberty in the world.

Beyond this, O’Brien has a point about Jefferson’s irrelevance for the multiracial, multicultural American society of the twenty-first century. He isn’t the first to make this point, and he won’t be the last. In his book The Next American Nation, Michael Lind attacks Jefferson as “the great-est southern reactionary” in Amer-ican history. “Jefferson,” Lind writes, “was obsessed, in particular, by the fear that his precious Anglo-Saxon nation would be corrupted by intermarriage with nonwhites…. Every major feature of the modern United States—from racial equality to Social Security, from the Pentagon to the suburb—represents a repudiation of Jeffersonianism.” 5

Against these sorts of angry assaults, what is the poor historian to say?6 Pathetic as it may seem to present-minded people, he must suggest that Jefferson was a man of the eighteenth century and not our age, that he was not the best of his time perhaps but he was better than most, that on most matters he did not and could not share our ideas, that in fact he could not even imagine our world at all. Jefferson belongs in the eighteenth century, but he did make many ringing statements in celebration of liberty and equality that have resounded throughout our culture, indeed the world’s culture, for the past two hundred years. It is these transcendent statements that we need to honor, not the eighteenth-century slaveholder who remains inextricably enmeshed in a lost and distant past.


The Sally Hemings Case June 12, 1997

  1. 1

    Donald Harman Akenson, Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O’Brien: an Anthology (Cornell University Press, 1994), p. xii.

  2. 2

    Akenson, Conor, p. 481.

  3. 3

    Yale University Press, 1967.

  4. 4

    Scott Huler, “Profile: Conor Cruise O’Brien,” Ideas: From the National Humanities Center 2 (Winter 1994), p. 19.

  5. 5

    Free Press, 1995, pp. 369-371.

  6. 6

    For a sensitive account of the problems contextual history poses for present-day moral judgments, see Bernard Bailyn, “Context in History,” North American Studies Symposium (La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, 1995).