The Sage of Monticello Volume Six of "Jefferson and His Time"
Thomas Jefferson as a person scarcely seems to exist. He seems to be mainly a symbol, a touchstone, of what we as a people are, someone invented, manipulated, turned into something revealing about ourselves. Surely no figure in our history embodies so much of our democratic heritage and so many of our democratic hopes. Jefferson has virtually become America itself. “If Jefferson was wrong,” wrote James Parton, our first professional biographer, “America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.”
Given this identification of Jefferson with America, it is not surprising that Jefferson during the past couple of decades has been given a rough going-over by historians. In the 1960s and 1970s many people, including some historians, concluded that something was wrong with America. And if something was wrong with America, then something had to be wrong with Jefferson.
Consequently in these years Jefferson was subjected to a series of sometimes quite bitter attacks by historians and biographers. All of the criticism involved in one way or another an unmasking of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that apparently lay hidden in the heart of Jefferson and thus our democratic heritage. Or was it the other way round?
In Jefferson and Civil Liberties (1963) Leonard Levy ripped off Jefferson’s mantle of libertarianism to expose his “darker side”: a passion for partisan persecution, a lack of concern for basic civil liberties, and a self-righteousness that became at times out-and-out ruthlessness. Far from being the skeptical enlightened intellectual, allowing all ideas their free play, Jefferson was portrayed by Levy and other historians as something of an ideologue, a doctrinaire thinker eager to fill the young with his political orthodoxy while censoring all those books he did not like. He did not have an open or questioning mind after all. He uncritically accepted a conventional Whig liberalism, which, to the consternation of his more thoughtful and inquisitive friend James Madison, repeatedly framed his intellectual response to events. He seemed to be, as some might say today, nothing but “a knee-jerk liberal.”
But exposing the weakness and hypocrisy of Jefferson’s liberalism was only part of the critique. Just as America has wrestled with the problems of race-relations during the past few decades, so inevitably historians have explored Jefferson’s attitudes toward slavery and blacks. Some, such as Winthrop Jordan and David Brion Davis, have done this sensitively but nonetheless critically. Others, such as William Cohen, have been more brutal. All have found the contrast between Jefferson’s great declarations of liberty and equality and his lifelong ownership of slaves glaringly embarrassing. Jefferson hated slavery, it is true, but he never freed his slaves. Moreover, as historians in the 1960s pointed out, he bought, sold, bred, and flogged his slaves, and hunted for fugitives in much the same way his fellow Virginia planters did.
Jefferson could never really imagine freed blacks living in a white man’s America, and throughout…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.