What Jefferson Helps to Explain

A recent article in these pages argued that Thomas Jefferson was so deeply racist that he should be expelled from the American pantheon. But examining the problems this ambiguous figure poses for Americans reveals how the American principles of democracy and equality were entwined with the country's practice of slavery and racism, and helps to explain why America has had such difficulty creating an interracial society.

Off of his Pedestal!

ADMIRERS of Thomas Jefferson have long quoted his statement about black men and women that is inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial: "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free." But they and the inscription, as Conor Cruise O'Brien pointed out in Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist"(October, 1996, Atlantic), omit Jefferson's subsequent clause: "Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government." Those who write about the troubling aspects of the Jeffersonian heritage are often criticized as naively applying today's standards to the past. But critics of O'Brien's assessment of Jefferson should remember the deceptive inscription on the memorial. O'Brien is to a large extent reacting to a history of distortion by Jefferson hagiographers who have created a Jefferson to suit their purposes, applying their own contemporary standards while picking and choosing among Jefferson's words. Still, it is important to ask why the hagiographers have tried at best to excuse or at worst to sanitize Jefferson. The answer, of course, is that he is too valuable to lose. They want to enlist the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence on the side of racial tolerance -- a value that, we believe, springs from the Declaration itself. What would it mean for America if its very inventor stood for the things that O'Brien reports?
As the controversy surrounding Jefferson shows, the most admirable and the most repulsive tendencies in our country are often rooted in the same soil. But the study of America's past shuns ambiguity. Most of those who write about American history can be divided into two camps. Those who follow the orthodox line tend toward the panegyric, celebrating America's past, while revisionists excoriate it and condemn its exploitation of minorities and women. Neither approach leads to a subtle understanding of history. Both groups suppress interpretations that would undermine their own positions, and both have used Jefferson for their purposes. As O'Brien points out, panegyrists ignore or make lame excuses for those of Jefferson's utterances and acts that today seem racist. Revisionists just as avidly disregard evidence that would make Jefferson more complicated than the hypocritical racist they often present.

Surprisingly, O'Brien, in his article and in the book, , from which it was derived, combines the two approaches in his assessment of Jefferson. Like the revisionists, he attacks Jefferson for his racial views. But unlike the revisionists, who assert that America's racism and hypocrisy are Jefferson's writ large, O'Brien seems to perceive Jefferson virtually alone as embodying all that is unappealing in the nation's founding, and suggests that Jefferson be expelled from what he defines as the otherwise largely tolerant and liberal "official version" of the American civil religion, which encompasses the other Founding Fathers, the Declaration (which O'Brien would divorce from its author), and the Constitution. Thus, like the panegyrists, whom he justifiably faults for removing Jefferson's troublesome racial views from their assessment of the man, O'Brien would sever America's inventor from his invention. With Jefferson removed, O'Brien's view of America's civil religion resembles the rosy picture painted by the panegyrists O'Brien criticizes.

 

Jefferson: Egalitarian and
Anti-Capitalist

O'BRIEN'S call to eject Jefferson from the American pantheon is bad on two counts. First, O'Brien seems to assume that the worst parts of America's past are unconnected to the others. Second, he would deprive the United States of the figure central to what is singular and most admirable about the promise of American life -- a promise that is already largely forgotten.

Although O'Brien is more accurate than not concerning Jefferson's racial views, he misinterprets Jefferson's alarm over the power of the federal government. O'Brien's mistake threatens to vitiate the very aspects of the Jeffersonian heritage that Americans most sorely need. Jefferson's opinions on the authority of the federal government and on race, O'Brien maintains, are "the two major factors" that warrant his expulsion from his "place . . . in the American civil religion." But O'Brien mistakenly conflates these issues, assuming that because the South opposed federal power in the Civil War and during the civil-rights crisis of the 1960s, there is a necessary connection between what is often called "states' rights" and those unsavory institutions slavery and segregation. He even argues that slavery was the real issue dividing Alexander Hamilton and his fellow Federalists from Jefferson and his allies, who were suspicious of growing federal strength.

Far from being an exclusively southern doctrine, however, states' rights also flourished in New England, and two U.S. Supreme Court justices from Pennsylvania were among its strongest constitutional defenders. Northern anti-slavery radicals used the doctrine to oppose the federal Fugitive Slave Law by arguing that returning slaves to the South was contrary to the moral norms of northern communities. In contrast, many slaveowners in the early nineteenth century defended a strong national government as the best bulwark against both slave revolts and the "leveling tendencies" of non-slaveholders.

Jefferson opposed the Federalist program not to support slavery but because he was a democrat. Indeed, as the historian Frank Owsley has argued, "Any believer . . . in the right of a people to govern themselves would naturally adhere in the early days of our history to the doctrine of State rights." Some seventy years ago the progressive literary historian Vernon Parrington, in lamenting the association of localism with the support of slavery in the period leading up to the Civil War, explained that the preservation of democracy itself lay at the heart of anti-federalism.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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