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.