u_topn picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Sidebar -- Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist, October 1996

Counter Points:
Jefferson scholar Douglas L. Wilson
responds to Conor Cruise O'Brien

Conor Cruise O'Brien, in "Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist" (October, 1996, Atlantic), apparently believes that Jefferson deserves to be demonized and disavowed by the American people because of "two major factors": "challenges to the authority of the federal government and the race issue."

See "Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue" by Douglas L. Wilson, from the November, 1992, Atlantic.

Mr. O'Brien seems to believe that Jefferson is the inspiration for, and therefore somehow ultimately responsible for, contemporary acts of lawlessness and terrorism, a perception that was apparently confirmed for him when the news media reported last winter that a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing wore, at the time of his arrest, a T-shirt emblazoned with a Jefferson quotation: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." But it also seems clear that Mr. O'Brien's grievance against Jefferson is much deeper and of longer standing.

Jefferson's besetting sin, by Mr. O'Brien's lights, is that he was not a "Burkean." Mr. O'Brien is said to have been deeply affected by the life and example of the eighteenth-century statesman Edmund Burke, whose biography he regards as his crowning achievement. He quotes admiringly Burke's cautionary words on the early phase of the French Revolution: "the wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgement until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface." In other words, the proof will be in the pudding, and unless the Revolution produces order and good government, it will not be a blessing. Mr. O'Brien assures us that George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, the other great American founders, "were all spiritually Burkeans; so was Madison, while he worked with Hamilton on the Federalist papers and before he fell under the Jeffersonian spell." Jefferson, he says, is different, because "the liberty that Jefferson adored is not a liberty 'combined' with all those tedious Burkean things, as in the Constitution, but a wild liberty, absolute, untrammeled, universal. . . ." "The other Founders saw the Declaration as embodying generalities that would at a later stage need to be combined with and confined by practical considerations. But Jefferson saw the principles of the Declaration as transcendent truths of which he himself, as author of the Declaration, was also the destined and authoritative interpreter." He was, in Mr. O'Brien's view, intoxicated with the wild gas of liberty.

But what is the evidence for this view of Jefferson? Mr. O'Brien would have us conclude that because Jefferson defended a band of farmers in western Massachusetts -- who, a few years after the Revolution, armed themselves and defied the state government -- he therefore sanctioned armed rebellion against the federal government. But of course he did not. In the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 he secretly tried to promote the idea of defeating unconstitutional laws, such as the Alien and Sedition acts, by having the individual states nullify and refuse to enforce them. If he believed that the answer to unconstitutional laws and other betrayals of the Constitution was armed rebellion, he missed a perfect occasion for saying so.

The "Tree of Liberty" Letter

The key text for Mr. O'Brien's case is the provocative "tree of liberty" letter, but he offers no analysis or extensive look at it -- for good reason. Mr. O'Brien knows that, particularly where a provocative passage is concerned, context is all-important; he himself complains that the designers of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., "wrenched" a "resounding sentence from the Autobiography out of the context that so drastically qualifies its meaning."

Jefferson wrote the "tree of liberty" letter to acknowledge the receipt of a copy of the newly drafted Constitution. His first impression, he tells his correspondent, William Smith, is that "There are very good articles in it: & very bad. I do not know which preponderate." He cites as a bad thing the provision that would make "a chief magistrate eligible for a long duration," presumably deemed necessary to combat the supposed anarchy prevailing in the American states. But this, Jefferson says, is simply a British lie propounded on the basis of a single incident in Massachusetts, which was not representative of what was happening in America generally. Even this one instance of rebellion, he argues, was not ignoble: "And can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it's motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion." Clearly Jefferson was persuaded that the rebellious farmers had real grievances and were not simply high on the wild gas of liberty, a judgment that subsequent historical scholarship has roundly confirmed.

People who are aggrieved have a right to protest, but do they have a right to rebel? The "tree of liberty" letter is presumably Jefferson's moment to say so, but he does not. He speaks rather to the question of ignorance. "The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty." The part of the population that is wrong, in this case the farmers in western Massachusetts, can be expected to act on their misconceptions, and that, says Jefferson, is a good sign, for to be silent about your grievances is a portent of true calamity, "death to the public liberty." Mr. O'Brien would have us believe that Jefferson was not interested in "public liberty," which is the general freedom enjoyed by all, but only the wild gas of liberty, where everybody is free to do whatever they want. But Mr. O'Brien is clearly wrong. Public liberty is what is lost when tyranny takes over.

Jefferson next calculates, in his characteristic way, the true rate of rebellion in America in order to put Shay's isolated affair into mathematical perspective. "We have had 13. states independant 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?" Here again Jefferson's concern is public liberty -- the preservation of the liberties of the country at large -- which he says in turn depends on "the spirit of resistance," the continued willingness of aggrieved citizens to resist.

What, then, is to be done about instances such as the isolated one in Massachusetts? Jefferson is direct: "Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure." What follows immediately after this famous passage is intended to remind his correspondent of its context: "Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen-yard in order. I hope in God this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted."

In assessing the "tree of liberty" passage, we need to take full account of the context that governs its meaning. The overriding context is clearly the issue of the new Constitution's giving the President an unlimited tenure in office. Jefferson attacked this provision as an expedient measure adopted in the face of a prevailing misconception that anarchy was a serious threat to the new government. That presumed anarchy, Jefferson argued, came down to just one rebellion that had been "honourably conducted" by citizens with real grievances. They were wrong to rebel, but they were not wicked, only ignorant. We need to bear in mind that the spirit of resistance is essential to the preservation of public liberty. If Jefferson had stopped here, Mr. O'Brien would have no case, but fortunately for him (and for Jefferson's detractors generally), Jefferson very often followed his analysis of a problem by proposing a remedy. Let them rebel, Jefferson says, and then educate them. But won't this entail the spilling of blood and the loss of life? His answer is yes, but the American example thus far suggests that this will be infinitesimal. Besides, the preservation of the public good requires it. "The tree of liberty" -- which the context has defined as "public liberty," the thing that is lost when tyranny takes over -- "must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Readers of The Atlantic are capable of judging for themselves whether the layered context of this letter justifies O'Brien's interpretation of it. But it is astonishing that the same writer who criticized the designers of the Jefferson Memorial for quoting Jefferson's Autobiography out of the context goes on to argue that, in wrenching the resounding sentence about the "tree of liberty" out of the context that so drastically qualifies its meaning, murderous militiamen are somehow following the true import and spirit of Jefferson's thought.

The "Adam and Eve" Letter

Had Mr. O'Brien cited Jefferson's defense of the French Revolution in any greater detail, it would have been very difficult to contend, as he does, that Jefferson "condoned French revolutionary atrocities." Here is the passage that immediately precedes the two sentences O'Brien quotes.

In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, & shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue & embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?

It was at this point that Jefferson wrote the lines Mr. O'Brien cites: "My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & an Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than it now is."

To most students of this letter, and presumably most casual readers, Jefferson seems to be trying to frame support for the Revolution in a way that would rally the sagging spirits of his friend William Short, who was in Paris as the American chargé d'affaires and was rapidly losing friends, as well as his own faith in the Revolution. The message was rounded off with the Adam-and-Eve image as an arresting trope, exaggerated to make the point that the cause of liberty was worth great sacrifices. One can understand the criticism that Jefferson is here understating the full extent of the violence and papering over the unsavory aspects of the Terror, but Mr. O'Brien's view that this passage gives voice to the bloodthirsty "doctrine" of a dangerous fanatic, which puts him in league with the Oklahoma City bombers, is frankly bizarre. If the Adam-and-Eve image doesn't count as hyperbole, one wonders what Mr. O'Brien would allow.

The Race Question

Mr. O'Brien's second great objection to Jefferson as a member of the American pantheon boils down to the fact that he was a racial separatist. Like almost everyone else in America in his day, Jefferson could see no future for a multiracial society, something which had no precedent in history, particularly in a society made up of former masters and slaves. His reasons for doubting that former masters and slaves could live peacefully together are remarkably like those of black separatists: "deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; [and] the real distinctions which nature has made." These, he believed, were insurmountable difficulties, and he drew his proposals for emancipation accordingly. All of his schemes for ending slavery in America included "colonization," the resettlement of blacks outside of the country. Although colonization now appears a futile and uncharitable scheme, it was the staple of anti-slavery reformers who favored peaceful and constitutional solutions up to the time of the Civil War. Those who advocated an integrated society with political and social equality for blacks were a tiny minority.

There is a silent and insidious assumption in much of Mr. O'Brien's discussion to the effect that Jefferson's racial views were less enlightened than those of his contemporaries in general, and the other Founders in particular. Washington, according to Mr. O'Brien, was not a racist because Mr. O'Brien isn't aware that Washington was the author of any racist remarks. On this basis there were very few racists in Jefferson's America.

But was Jefferson, compared to others of his time, a "particularly aggressive and vindictive" racist? All indications are that the reverse is true. Whereas most whites of that day apparently regarded the inferiority of blacks as virtually self-evident, Jefferson pointedly reserved judgment. The discussion of race in Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia that is so painful and insensitive by today's standards insists that the question of racial parity is not a moral but a scientific one, and that it could not be decided by comparing African slaves with free whites. Jefferson allowed, for example, that people held in slavery would necessarily compare unfavorably because of their degraded condition and lack of education, and he insisted that blacks were not inferior in morality or in their natural rights. The "crime" of which Jefferson has been found guilty by Mr. O'Brien was not so much in having eighteenth-century racial views, which were not illiberal by the standards of his time, but in writing them down.

Jefferson in a Post-Racist World

What Mr. O'Brien does not take into account when he argues that Jefferson's importance and relevance will wane as his views go out of date is that this has already happened many times in our history. Jefferson's strongest political beliefs included a weak central government, strong states rights, and a Supreme Court that had no jurisdiction over the constitutionality of legislative or executive actions. Moreover, he was opposed to large cities, with concentrations of workers dependent on wages, and favored self-sufficient farming as the principal means of employment. In the major developments of our national history, these are big losers. Many of Jefferson's views have been so marginalized from the beginning that the wonder has always been that his stature endures.

Mr. O'Brien seems unaware that Jefferson's status as a slave owner and racial separatist is very well known, and that he has been taking his lumps with a good deal of regularity for over a generation. He seems either not to realize or to be unwilling to admit that Jefferson holds his place in the American pantheon despite his racial views, not because of them or because of ignorance of them. He survives because he was a truly remarkable man and because of the importance to all Americans, and to people around the world, of something of far greater importance than his time-bound racial separatism -- the Declaration of Independence.

When Jefferson wrote, "All men are created equal," he did mean (despite what Mr. O'Brien mistakenly claims) all human beings -- men and women, black and white. This is clear from the spirited language referring to the slave trade that Congress deleted from Jefferson's draft of the Declaration.

He [the king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. . . . Determined to keep open a market where MEN [male and female] should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

It is, of course, true that Jefferson was here speaking only of black people's natural, God-given rights, as opposed to their legally defined rights as citizens. The latter, in Jefferson's celebrated democratic polity, are always defined by the majority. Ironically, what prompts Mr. O'Brien's assault on Jefferson is that in our time, at long last, a majority of Americans have come around to the acceptance of an integrated society in which civil rights are guaranteed regardless of race.

Douglas L. Wilson has been the director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello since 1994 and has worked in the field of Jefferson scholarship since 1979. He has written on Thomas Jefferson twice for The Atlantic Monthly, in "What Jefferson and Lincoln Read" (January, 1991) and "Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue" (1992). Since working on Lincoln for The Atlantic, he has written primarily on Abraham Lincoln; a collection of his Lincoln essays, Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years, is being published by the University of Illinois Press next year, as is Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, an edition of the letters and interviews about Lincoln collected by his law partner and biographer, William H. Herndon (co-edited by Wilson and Rodney O. Davis).

  • Return to "Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist" (October, 1996, Atlantic)

    Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
  • Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search