Subversive of What?

Historian and editor who has been at the head of the Princeton University Library since 1940, JULIAN P. BOYD is a Southerner whose firm conviction it is that Americans have enough strength of mind to resist subversive doctrine when they see it in print. His avocation for the next decade is to edit in some fifty volumes the definitive edition of Thomas Jefferson’s papers, a work to be published by the Princeton University Press under a grant of $200,000 from the New York Times Company. Mr. Boyd has written several historical works, among them a volume on the evolution of the text of the Declaration of Independence.


IN 1813 a native of France by the name of Regnault de Bécourt published a book entitled Sur la Création du Monde, ou Système d’Organisation Primitive. He and his book would have been forgotten long since if he had not written a letter to the one person in America who, more than any other, was in the habit of buying, reading, and appraising the literature of the past and presentThomas Jefferson. The title of the forthcoming work intrigued Jefferson. A book on the creation of the world seemed to the great scholar-statesman at Monticello to give promise of being either a geological or an astronomical treatise. He thereupon subscribed for the work, received it in due course, and authorized payment of the two dollars that the book cost.

Authorization of payment involved another Frenchman, a well-known bookseller of Philadelphia by the name of Nicholas Dufief, an ardent bibliophile who had been selling books to Jefferson for more than a decade. Dufief promptly paid Bécourt the two dollars. The transaction was apparently at an end, save only for the fact that Jefferson could not avoid being disappointed in so trivial a work as that of Bécourt, which turned out to be neither a geological nor an astronomical work, but merely an infantile attack on the system of philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton.

But this simple book purchase was very far from being at an end. A few months after Dufief had paid Bécourt the two dollars, the Philadelphia constabulary visited the bookshop and hailed him into court on the charge of vending subversive if not blasphemous literature. Whereupon Dufief in great anxiety and distress appealed to Jefferson, urging him to set the minions of the law right by informing them that he, Dufief, had not actually sold the book but had merely acted as Jefferson’s agent in a financial transaction.

Jefferson of course immediately complied with the urgent request of the bookseller. He stated the facts succinctly and accurately, no doubt satisfying both Dufief and the Philadelphia magistrates. But while this may have been enough for Mr. Dufief, who was interested only in keeping out of the toils of the law, or for the Philadelphia magistrates, who were determined only to safeguard American institutions, it was very far from being enough to satisfy the author of the American philosophy of government.

Jefferson thereupon stated in his own incomparable way the true nature of the issue involved. The issue, as he presented it, was one that made the fact of Dufief’s arrest a trivial and irrelevant circumstance. It was an issue as great as the cause of America itself, involving one of the fundamental precepts upon which the philosophy of Jefferson and of his country rested. It was the same issue, indeed, that had earlier called forth the unforgettable declaration that now stands carved upon one of the three great monuments of our national capital: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” It was the issue to which Jefferson devoted his entire life, invariably upholding the oath he had taken in defense of free inquiry.

Copyright 1948, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

“I really am mortified,” he declared in his letter to Dufief, “to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offense against religion: that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? And are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor? Or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe?

“It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not; and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand a test of truth and reason. If M. de Bécourt’s book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God’s sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose. I know little of its contents, having barely glanced over here and there a passage and over the table of contents. From this the Newtonian philosophy seemed the chief object of attack, the issue of which might be trusted to the strength of the two combatants; Newton certainly not needing the auxiliary arm of the government, and still less the holy author of our religion as to what in it concerns him. I thought the work would be very innocent and one which might be confided to the reason of any man; not likely to be much read, if let alone, but if persecuted it will be generally read. Every man in the United States will think it a duty to buy a copy, in vindication of his right to buy, and to read what he pleases. . . .

“But,” Jefferson concluded, “it is impossible that the laws of Pennsylvania, which set us the first example of the wholesome and happy effects of religious freedom, can permit these inquisitorial functions to be proposed to their courts. Under them you are surely safe.”

Impossible? Dufief was safe, for he had a stalwart champion and the generation that had fought for the great cause of American liberties in the Revolution was still on the scene, still determined to admit no failure of the proposition to which they had dedicated their lives and sacred honor. That proposition was grounded upon the belief that man was innately good rather than evil; that he was endowed by nature with certain indefeasible rights; that, if the yoke of tyranny in every form were removed, man’s natural reason and humane instincts would lead him to prefer justice to injustice, equality to privilege, independence of mind to servile obedience to authority, rational judgments to superstition, ignorance, and bigotry; and that, finally, in order to achieve this end and to give mankind full freedom to pursue this course and to govern himself in accordance with its high ideals, it was absolutely essential that every man should have free access to knowledge, unopposed by any barriers that might be erected by any authority.

This was not a new ideal or a new faith. It was what Milton called “the good old cause” and its lineage could be traced through many countries and many ages. But old as it was as an ideal, no government in history had adopted it as a philosophy until Jefferson and his compatriots brought forth a union indissolubly linked with the cause of liberty.

This philosophy sustained and informed all of Jefferson’s private thinking and public acts. But he was too much a realist not to know that mankind had a peculiar susceptibility to folly, superstition, and the easy and comfortable inclination of yielding obedience to authority. He believed mankind capable of progress, but only if men were free to know their rights and privileges. The people must be free to form their own opinions and to exercise their native reason untrammeled by authority.

Jefferson’s devotion to the Union and his belief in the people required courage as well as faith. For the issue of liberty versus authority arbitrarily exercised was one that he was obliged to face in the arena of practical politics. In 1798 the party in power, fearful of the threat of foreign ideas and their subversive tendencies, enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts which made it a criminal offense for “brawlers against government” to voice opinions considered dangerous or revolutionary.

Jefferson declared these acts to be as palpably unconstitutional in their infringement of the right of free speech as if Congress had ordered the citizens of the United States to bow down and worship a golden calf. More, he brought forth the VirginiaKentucky Resolutions, a weapon that he used reluctantly and with caution, for the doctrine of nullification on which these resolutions rested pointed straight toward disunion. But, he must have reasoned, since liberty and the Union were one cause, of what value was the Union if its powers were used to destroy those liberties guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights?

Fortunately, the ultimate recourse to disunion was not necessary. The verdict of the people whose rights Jefferson was defending was an overwhelming verdict. In 1800 those who had attempted to suppress dissent were dispossessed of their offices and their legislative authority. Aiming their blows directly at Jefferson and his supposedly dangerous following, the Federalists succeeded only in committing political suicide and in elevating their most conspicuous enemy to the chief magistracy. A selfconfident nation, inspired by the steadfast faith of one who had not separated himself by fear or distrust from the bulk of his countrymen, had taken heart from his example.

Jefferson recognized the implications of this verdict in his First Inaugural. Many, he knew, had doubted the permanence of the Union and had questioned the ability of the nation to survive such a political revolution as it had just experienced. “I know indeed,” he declared, “that some honest men have feared that a republican government cannot be strong; that this government is not strong enough. ... I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest government on earth.” It was strongest, Jefferson meant, in its reliance upon a great ideal lying in the hearts and minds of its people, without which armies and economic power and even constitutions would be valueless.

Nowhere in American annals has this spirit of tolerance of dissent received a more transcendent expression than in these words from Jefferson’s great First Inaugural; “If there be any among us who wish to dissolve this union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”


THE discoveries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have made it philosophically and historically impossible for us to cling to the absolutes that Jefferson accepted as self-evident. There are no absolutes in the twentieth century — at least we think there are none — and the concept of natural law is no longer accepted as fixed and unchallengeable. Yet, even though we think ourselves justified in discarding as untenable the basic assumption upon which the Jeffersonian philosophy rested, the gravest question that we can ask ourselves is whether we are justified in discarding the system along with its premises. Do we dare discard the rights of man along with the concept of natural law?

The least we can do in attempting to answer this grave question, reaching to the roots of all organized society and its institutions, is to know what it is that we propose to do if we discard both the premise and the conclusion. The least we can do if we engage now in what Jefferson would have regarded as a palpable violation of individual rights of opinion and conscience is to be conscious of what we are doing and to do it with a full realization of the consequences that may flow from our actions. Have we done this much?

Have we consciously and deliberately come to the conclusion that Jefferson’s tolerance of subversive ideas and of disloyal dissent can no longer be justified? If so, on what grounds have we reached that conclusion? Are we doing it in the name of liberty if not of natural law? If so, what kind of liberty? Jefferson would scarcely have understood our use of the term liberty if in its name we attempt to control the way in which men speak or the thoughts which they express or the intellectual investigations which they undertake. He would have called it tyranny and he would have fought it with every resource at his command.

Let us return to Dufief, the bookseller who was anxious to keep out of jail. Jefferson, you will recall, felt that Dufief had nothing to fear under the liberal laws of Pennsylvania. He felt that it was impossible that in the United States of America, founded upon confidence in man’s reason and ability to choose the truth, a citizen could be denied the right to purchase a book because of its ideas or arguments, however erroneous, or that a bookseller could be hailed before the magistrates because he had sold such a book. But is it impossible for us?

It is not only not impossible or improbable but is indeed an actual and sickening fact. Today, at this moment, both civil and criminal causes are being tried in the city in which Dufief lived. These causes arise largely because of the instigation of an ecclesiastical hierarchy and also of some of those who are supposed to be the direct heirs of that Reformation which established the right of men to judge for themselves in matters of conscience. At this instigation police officers arrested booksellers and seized not one book but two thousand, without compensation, because in the opinion of these selfappointed censors some books were subversive of morals or institutions or were dangerous for other men to read.

The seizure of books, some of them used in college instruction, is only one incident in a mounting demand for conformity. The House of Representatives passed by an overwhelming majority a bill which would have made Thomas Jefferson liable to imprisonment and fine if he had voiced the opinion in the First Inaugural that I have just quoted — a bill establishing so firmly the dangerous principle of “guilt by association” that it may limit the right to publish books because of the author’s politics or because of the political views expressed.

The preamble of this so-called Subversive Activities Control Act declares its justification to be that of protecting American institutions and the nation itself from infiltration by those who would establish a totalitarian dictatorship. How can we justify so far-reaching a piece of legislation except on the fundamental assumption that the people cannot be trusted to distinguish truth and error?

This bill was sponsored by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Though it pays lip service to the First Amendment, it is comparable only to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, acts which Thomas Jefferson regarded as so subversive, so destructive of everything that the American Union stood for, that he was driven along the pathway toward disunion in his attempt to defeat so gross a violation of individual right.

But this bill and its sponsoring committee are only the larger symptoms of a disease that is epidemic throughout the country. The public press, the great instrument for the protection of our liberties which Jefferson preferred to government itself, has shamefully acquiesced. Not only acquiesced; but, shaken by the fear of a common foe, distrustful of the ability of the people to distinguish between right and wrong, has actually helped to produce the hysteria that would compel uniformity.

Editors have approved tacitly or explicitly the withdrawal of textbooks and the expulsion of teachers whose ideas do not conform to the established economic or political views; they have aided in compelling educators, school boards, trustees, and others to yield to the pressures of unofficial groups that object to dissenting opinion in the realm of economics, politics, or religion. They have committed the ultimate disloyalty to their trust by attempting to command loyalty, overlooking the simple fact that loyalty cannot be commanded but can only be deserved. Educators, editors, librarians, even those scholars who hold, or at least have the responsibility of defending, the last citadel of civil rights, have all but capitulated to the wave of fear and distrust that is now sweeping over us. Too many have acted the part of Dufief, putting themselves first; too few the part of Jefferson, defending his country’s principles at all costs.


JUST where will this demand for conformity, for unquestioning loyalty, lead? Thomas Jefferson, for one, was certain that it would not lead to human enlightenment, to progress, or to the fullest expressions of reason, justice, and equity toward which our nation directed its early course.

“I join you therefore,” he wrote to one of his young protégés after the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, “in branding as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advances. This is precisely the doctrine that the present despots of the earth are inculcating, and their friends are re-echoing: and applying especially to religion and politics; that it is not probable anything better will be discovered than what was known to our fathers. We are to look backward then and not forward for the improvement of science, and to find it amidst feudal barbarisms and the fires of Spitalfields. But thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened, to listen to these impostures; and while the art of printing is left to us, science can never be retrograde; what is once acquired of real knowledge can never be lost.”

But to what advantage, we may ask Jefferson, is the art of printing if what is printed must conform to the established pattern? Of what value is the vaunted public press or our institutions of higher learning, dedicated to the progress of the mind in all fields, when the trustees of the University of Wyoming appoint a committee to examine textbooks for “subversive” material? Of what value is our professed ideal of free education, of the untrammeled pursuit of knowledge, when we acquiesce in the action of the Newark Board of Education which removed certain periodicals from school libraries? What precisely do we mean by liberty as we contemplate the magnates of Hollywood who, in trembling haste, toss sacrifices to a clamoring committee of Congress and beat their breasts in loud protestation of their innocence of a charge that none but the Un-American Activities Committee could bring against them with a straight face — the charge that they employ revolutionists to prepare their mediocre art?

These are only a few specific incidents and they are taken at random. Every day’s news adds to the list and the most thoughtful educators are becoming increasingly concerned with this growing threat to a basic concept of American institutions. It is not without significance that large numbers of professors in our institutions of higher learning have signed petition after petition throughout the country, protesting against the proposed Act of Congress sponsored by the Committee on Un-American Activities. Their petitions have uniformly condemned both the bill and the activities of the committee itself as being subversive of the ideals for which this country has traditionally stood.

I think such testimonials cannot be dismissed as the statements of paid hirelings of a foreign totalitarianism. These men have fought Milton’s “good old cause" on too many fronts and they have sacrificed too much in the cause of education to be charged with such a calumny. Nor can they be dismissed as theorists, visionaries, and crackpots, unrealistic in their views and out of touch with the world of affairs: for these are the men — some of them at least — who formed the chief reliance of this nation in the scientific knowledge which shortened World War II and brought success to American arms.

Responsible heads of the public press who point in commendation to the Committee on Un-American Activities in its shameless pillorying of American citizens and in its flagrant disregard of rights and liberties are either ignorant of the nature and the extent of the protest that is beginning to swell or they value suppression more than they value our freedom or they are deliberately misleading their public. In any event, history has proved time and again that the cause they espouse is a shameful and a futile cause. They lack the vision and the courage that led Jefferson in the infancy of our nation to defy any threat in the realm of ideas, not by suppression but by tolerance. They have little faith and in its place they offer what Jefferson declared to be an insult to the American citizenry — the insult of saying in effect that Americans cannot be trusted to read or to understand or to discriminate. They fear a foreign ideology, unaware of the fact that here at home the liberty that they profess to cherish is in danger of being done to death in the house of friends and with their aid.

I do not impugn the motives of those legislators, editors, educators, and others who have adopted this mistaken course. I do not doubt their devotion to this nation. I do not question their loyalty to the high ideals of a free press. But I do affirm that the methods they have supported in this present issue put them on the side of the enemies of the “good old cause” of Milton and of Jefferson. Those who have adopted this course of compulsory loyalty, though they might disagree with me on everything else, would I think join me in saying that Thomas Jefferson, more than any other single American, can rightfully be regarded as the great spokesman for our ideals and our liberties.


ALL this, it may very properly be said, is beside the point. Jefferson’s agricultural economy, for this nation at least, is a thing of the past, however realistic his philosophy may have been for such an economy at the time he lived. The twentieth century is a century of science and industry and technological power. Under such circumstances, is it not likely that Jefferson would have changed his views, would have given up his eternal values and absolutes as we have given them up, would have recognized the necessity of opposing evil to the utmost limits, however much an individual here and there might suffer?

I think it is undoubtedly true that Jefferson, always a realist and a man of practical statesmanship, would have viewed our problems in the light of our knowledge. Since he was a relativist in a world of absolutes, he would probably be more so in a relativistic world. Though he knew history as few in his generation did, he looked to it for perspective, not for dogmatic authority. He would very likely have regarded it as cowardly of us to look to him as our sole guidance. The earth, he declared, belongs to the living. “Can one generation bind another and all others in succession forever?” he asked. “I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living not the dead. . . . A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.” But he also declared that justice is the fundamental law of society and that “ the majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society.”

It may be that today, because we have achieved such an excess of power and knowledge beyond our ability to manage, we cannot afford the tolerance and the free flow and interchange and clash of ideas that he advocated. I do not think so. At least, if this is so, the alternative evil to which we must turn in our dilemma is worse than the evil from which we fly, simply because of the vast power now in our hands. But even if this were true, let us be honest. Let us not exercise this power of the majority to suppress the rights of individuals and call it the honored name by which our liberties have come down to us. Let us not call it a free republic whose principles we deny while we commit acts that desecrate its name. Let us frankly, solemnly, and with a full realization of what we are doing and what consequences we may draw from our actions, admit that we no longer believe in the ideals that made us great.

I for one do not fear the outcome. The verdict in the twentieth century will, I believe, be what it was in 1800 and what it was in the Age of the Reformation. I believe with Jefferson that “in every country where man is free to think and speak, differences of opinion will arise from differences of perception, and the imperfection of reason; that these differences when permitted, as in this happy country, to purify themselves by free discussion, are but as passing clouds overspreading our land transiently and leaving our horizon more bright and serene.”

But I believe also that we cannot wait complacently on the calm assumption that this will come about through acquiescence or through temporary yielding to pressures of authority or through letting the storm spend itself. It will come about only when, as Jefferson said, “to preserve the freedom of the human mind and freedom of the press every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”

The alternative that he implied was obvious: deny this freedom, acquiesce in this abridgment of our liberties — and the promise of improvement of the human race would diminish or cease. If, then, the power that we have achieved in the twentieth century, which is nothing less than the power of planetary destruction, is so great as to deny us the rights that have been achieved over the centuries, let us frankly acknowledge that the price of this denial is the loss of our promise of moral and intellectual improvement. It is a price so fearfully exacting as to make man’s future one of mere existence and not of destiny. It is a price that mankind has steadfastly refused to pay.