The Jefferson Image
Conor Cruise O'Brien ( "Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist," October Atlantic) misappropriates my work, specifically The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, to argue his case. Scholars who stick to their knitting live in dread of political pundits who distort, oversimplify, and wrench from context the intricate analysis of complex subjects. Unfortunately, O'Brien has not read my biography, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, or perhaps any other, which might have imparted some historical understanding to what is really, to pick up his Burkean phrase, "wild gas." Jefferson is a huge subject, of course. His legacy in America has been winding, confused, and controversial, and has often been used in causes he would not have approved; yet he -- or rather his life, thought, and purposes -- survived all that, and we have the Jefferson Memorial to prove it. It will survive O'Brien's assault as well.
The central idea that Jefferson was the prophet of a "civil religion" is mistaken. He never used that concept, nor did it have any existence in his mind. He had a civil creed, of course -- the one encapsulated in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. But it was purely secular and not to be confused with religion as he understood it. Anyone who reads the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, along with Jefferson's other writings on the subject, must understand his aversion to the idea. Curiously, O'Brien makes no reference to the Virginia Statute or its ramifications in Jefferson's thought; indeed, he even omits it in his allusion to Jefferson's epitaph. The slipperiness of the concept as a historical tool is suggested by O'Brien's interjection of Alexander Hamilton, of all people, into the center of American civil religion.
In portraying Jefferson as a wild and fanatical Jacobin, O'Brien is simply copying the Federalists -- Hamilton in the lead -- who fought him politically in the 1790s and whose dark image was dispelled in the course of history. Now O'Brien seeks to revive it as part of some obscure Burkean agenda antagonistic to the Enlightenment and the democratic revolution that Jefferson represented and that have individually or together always found in Jefferson a powerful and inspiring historic symbol.
The idea that Jefferson was a racist (a theme beaten to a pulp during the past forty years) -- that his democracy has no place for American blacks and that the Ku Klux Klan along with South African apartheid are ideologically descended from him -- is part of the agenda. O'Brien's discussion of this matter is intemperate, uninformed, and deaf to historical realities. What Jefferson was capable of doing about slavery in his time and what he would do about blacks in ours, given his mandate to "keep pace with the progress of the human mind" and his fundamental values and goals, are altogether different things. As Lincoln said of Jefferson and the Founders generally,
They meant [in the Declaration of Independence] to set up a standard maxim for free society, which would be familiar to all, and revered by all, constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
Merrill D. Peterson
Was Jefferson a racist? Several remarks in his Notes on the State of Virginia suggest that he held views that we would today term racist, and rightly condemn. These views he advanced "as a suspicion only," and not as a settled conviction. In a letter to Benjamin Banneker -- a black astronomer and mathematician much admired by Jefferson, who had him appointed official surveyor of the District of Columbia -- Jefferson wrote,
No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America [August 30, 1791].
In a letter to Henri Gregoire (February 25, 1809) Jefferson expressed further doubts about his earlier views on race:
No person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature. . . . My doubts [in the Notes] were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own state [Virginia] where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable.
Jefferson added that even if one individual or race were more intelligent or talented than another, that fact would carry no moral or political weight: "Their degree of talent . . . is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others."
Two hundred years from now historians will be writing about Gandhi and Mother Teresa. If they approach their subjects as O'Brien did Jefferson, Gandhi will be characterized as shiftless and seldom employed, and Mother Teresa will be remembered as a self-serving social irritant.
Alfred C. Viebranz
I strongly empathize with Conor Cruise O'Brien's attack on the Jefferson cult and applaud his way of assembling the evidence. But I believe he erred in accepting the common belief that Jefferson probably fathered the children of his slave Sally Hemings. In a 1977 deconstruction of the Jefferson legend, John Chester Miller convincingly assembled evidence pointing to the conclusion that one or both of Jefferson's visiting nephews sired the children whom Jefferson manumitted in his will.