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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.”

  1. 1

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

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