m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Letters -- January 1997



The Jefferson Image

Home From Nowhere

Advice & Consent



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
Charlottesville, Va.


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."

Joyce Appleby
University of California
Los Angeles, Calif.

Terence Ball
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minn.


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
Greenwich, Conn.


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.

For those interested in the sources and not only the consequences of Jefferson's radical beliefs about white male freedom and black inferiority, Miller's book, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, is well worth reading.

LeRoy Martinson
Valparaiso, Ind.


Conor Cruise O'Brien replies:

Merrill D. Peterson claims that I misappropriate his work to argue my case. I have neither misappropriated nor appropriated Mr. Peterson's work. I quote from it, in several places, sometimes with agreement, sometimes with disagreement. I don't know which annoys Mr. Peterson more.

Mr. Peterson says that Jefferson's "life, thought, and purposes" survived various distortions, and "we have the Jefferson Memorial to prove it." Do we? I show in my book that the inscription on the Jefferson Memorial is itself a major and impudent distortion, since it quotes Jefferson's contention that the slaves "are to be free" while omitting the immediately following statement: "Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government." In short, the slaves, if freed, are to be deported. Very few indeed of the millions who have read the inscription on the memorial could be aware from it of the huge qualification that changes its apparent meaning.

Mr. Peterson says, "In portraying Jefferson as a wild and fanatical Jacobin, O'Brien is simply copying the Federalists. . . ." I am not. I am simply copying, often quite literally, the writings of Thomas Jefferson for the period 1789-1794. I don't know any writing from any non-French source that is more wildly and fanatically Jacobin than Jefferson's letter to William Short of January 3, 1793, in which he wrote, following the September massacres, about the French Revolution: "My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs of this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve, left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is."

Mr. Peterson depicts me as following "some obscure Burkean agenda antagonistic to the Enlightenment." Burke was not antagonistic to the Enlightenment. No, his writings on America, India, and Ireland plainly show that Burke was himself a child of the Enlightenment, whose values were, in his opinion, distorted and misapplied by the French revolutionaries.

Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball offer a curiously tentative discussion of Jefferson's views on race suggesting that Jefferson was really pretty liberal for his time. They leave out quite a lot, including Jefferson's proposals of 1776 for the amendment of the Slave Code: "A white woman having a child by a Negro would be required to leave the state within a year. The individual who violated these regulations would be placed 'out of the protection of the laws.'" This would have left her subject to enslavement or even to murder at the whim of her neighbors and was, therefore, a most severe punishment.

Too severe, indeed, for Jefferson's own slave-owning neighbors: the provision was dropped in a 1785 revision of the act, while Jefferson was in France.


Home From Nowhere

James Howard Kunstler ("Home From Nowhere," September Atlantic) does an excellent job of describing the problems of sprawl and the new-urbanist solution, based on urban neighborhoods and small towns of the nineteenth century. However, the new urbanism is less an antidote to sprawl than an improved model for suburban development which will make our decades-long trend of abandoning central cities more palatable to those who lament the loss of community in their placeless suburbs.

I live in a nineteenth-century neighborhood that in spite of decades of urban devolution is a great place to live. It is within walking distance of a transit stop and a neighborhood shopping center. It has a rich tapestry of housing styles, sizes, and types and a very diverse population. Its physical configuration is highly eccentric and could not be reproduced by any design code, no matter how fine-grained. I wish that half the energy that goes into debating the virtues of the new urbanism went into preserving the virtues of the old urbanism. This is less a matter of inventing a new design vocabulary than of recovering the memory of what we knew even before the automobile about how to make humane places.

In my view, this shift in emphasis can be accomplished only by changes in public policy and land-use regulation more fundamental than tinkering with Second World War-era zoning and subdivision codes. Urban growth boundaries, like those adopted in Seattle, are one such measure. More important, the private automobile enjoys enormous subsidies, many of them invisible, including publicly funded highway construction, desert wars to protect the availability of cheap oil, and public policy that allows automobile users to escape the cost of the air emissions they produce. As long as these subsidies are in place, there will continue to be compelling advantages to consuming new land (even if the rate of consumption is reduced by more-compact new-urbanist development) at the expense of existing neighborhoods.

Matthew J. Kiefer
Boston, Mass.


In his indictment of zoning, Kunstler sets up a villainous "they" (officials and planners) who have perpetrated zoning on an innocent, hoodwinked citizenry (you and me), who suffer the consequences. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The federal legislation of 1926 that enabled states to authorize towns to create zoning laws grew out of a body of legal cases precipitated by pioneering suburban homeowners nervously guarding their property values. Those homeowners sometimes found their new neighborhoods encroaching on pig farming, brickmaking, and gravel digging, to refer to a few of the landmark cases. Their angry suits ousted the pig farmers and gravel diggers who had long preceded them in these newly suburbanizing neighborhoods. In the later annals of planning law, one may even find cases in which neighbors sued each other over the length of their grass and the location of their clothesline. What chance do "accessory apartments" for lower-income renters stand in this climate? And will these homeowners permit the wholesale repeal of zoning? Not very likely.

Anne Mackin Krieger
Boston, Mass.


Advice & Consent

I feel compelled to respond to a letter in your October issue. Frances Elliott writes that although she is "not qualified to judge David Plotkin's article 'Good News and Bad News About Breast Cancer' (June Atlantic) from a medical standpoint," she is qualified to make a judgment as the mother of a cancer victim: "I am appalled at his lack of understanding, his brazen thoughtlessness, his disregard for the impact his words might have on those who are already suffering." Ms. Elliott is afraid that her daughter will forgo additional chemotherapy and radiation because Plotkin wrote that these treatments have little impact on aggressive cancers.

Ms. Elliott writes that her daughter "has suffered through breast removal, breast reconstruction, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments," and that "until she read Dr. Plotkin's article, she had high hopes that she would live. . . ." Every one of us hopes that we will live, but that is not sufficient reason to suppress the evidence. Perhaps because of Dr. Plotkin somebody with cancer will have the opportunity to make an informed decision about treatment; that is reason enough to justify the article. People who do not want to know what's really going on should stop reading reputable magazines.

Lance Stott
Austin, Texas



Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1997; Letters; Volume 279, No. 1; pages 6-9.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture