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 …

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Letters

The Sally Hemings Case June 12, 1997