In his lifetime an unyielding critic of priestcraft and superstition, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) stands today at the heart of a cult which has been variously described as America’s ‘civil religion’, ‘the religion of the Republic’ and ‘American Shinto’. As individuals and families, Americans worship their own gods, or, more commonly, God in their own way: but collectively, as citizens, they learn the creed, and participate in the rituals of a sacralised American Way of Life. Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers and the reverence which attends the life and utterances of the atoning Christman, Abraham Lincoln, together represent a universal drama of exodus, freedom, inherited sin and deliverance which binds this ‘nation with the soul of a church’. A legion of commentators now wonders whether the American Way of Life will survive ethnic fragmentation. However, this sense of an impending crisis is itself integral to the civil religion, which wallows in the Puritan rhetoric of jeremiad and backsliding.
As a patriarch, Jefferson transcends politics, yet throughout the 19th and 20th centuries his name has been invoked to front a variety of causes across the political spectrum: popular democracy, limited government, agrarianism and state rights. From time to time, both Democrats and Republicans have claimed him as their own. In 1992, William Jefferson Clinton predictably played the Jefferson card, only to be trumped by Ronald Reagan in his speech to the Republican Convention. Parodying the rebuke which Lloyd Bentsen had delivered to Dan Quayle four years previously, Reagan mocked his own antiquity – ‘I knew Thomas Jefferson’ – the better to prick Clinton’s presumption. For once, the Great Communicator’s message was lost, as the Convention proceeded to ditch his sunny and relaxed promotion of the civil religion (which wins elections), and, to appease Pat Buchanan, launched a suicidal campaign on behalf of traditional American values.
Like Reagan, Jefferson enjoys a Teflon-coated reputation with the general public. In a nation inclined to anti-intellectualism, the polymathic Jefferson presents the officially respectable face of the academy. President Kennedy once informed an array of Nobel Prize-winners that they constituted ‘the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone’. Despite his esoteric interests in areas such as philology and palaeontology, and his heterodox concern to recover the authentic moral message of the human Jesus from beneath the polluting metaphysical ‘amphibologisms’ of the ‘Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics’, Jefferson remains the outstanding exception to the popular distrust of pointy heads. From the middle of this century, the people have paid tribute at the Jeffersonian holy places: what Merrill Peterson in his classic survey, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), calls the private Shrine and the public Temple: Monticello and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.
The ‘pacific’ Jefferson has even won new converts among the ranks of the hawks. In Secret and Sanctioned, Stephen Knott, aware of the difficulty of reconciling necessary covert government operations with an open democracy, invokes the history of clandestine activities from the Founding era through to 1882. Not only does he explode the legend of pre-Cold War innocence, he also demonstrates Congressional approval for Presidential intrigue in foreign affairs, from the establishment of a discretionary Contingency Fund in 1790. He makes substantial capital out of Jefferson’s scheme to combat Barbary piracy by deposing the Pasha of Tripoli. In retirement, moreover, Jefferson suggested that Madison’s government hire incendiaries to avenge the British burning of the White House during the War of 1812 with a similar atrocity at St Paul’s Cathedral. Knott, of course, does not seek to condemn Jefferson, but to obtain patriarchal endorsement for the statecraft of his modern successors.
Yet there is another side to the canonisation of Jefferson. There has always been a powerful undercurrent of criticism running counter to the main flow of public opinion. The Presidential election of 1800, in which Jefferson trounced the incumbent John Adams, witnessed an outpouring of newspaper and pamphlet comment directed against his religious indifferentism. Could he be so sure that an atheist would neither pick his pocket nor break his leg? Soon after his death, a fellow Virginian, ‘Black Horse Harry’ Lee, weighed in with his malicious Observations on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1832), which told a story of base deception focused on Jefferson’s betrayal of George Washington. In 1837, Francis Lister Hawks revived the charges of 1800, denouncing Jefferson for his importation from France of a noxious infidel philosophy. Fanatical and duplicitous, freethinking in religion yet dogmatically Jacobin in his politics, Jefferson emerged as the chief villain of the Federalist-Whig interpretation of history, whose unlikely, and apparently unconscious, present-day continuator is Conor Cruise O’Brien.
In The Long Affair O’Brien presents himself as an original and incorruptible outsider prepared not only to challenge the vested interests of Jeffersonian hagiography, but to exclude Jefferson from the American civil religion. O’Brien’s Jefferson presides as high priest of a reified ‘Cult of the French Revolution’. This approach turns out to be timely. O’Brien records that when Timothy McVeigh was arrested on the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, he wore a T-shirt bearing the words of Jefferson: ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.’ And yet the Jeffersonian cover-up continues. Asked about the slogan, McVeigh’s lawyer replied: ‘Well, if Thomas Jefferson said it, I shouldn’t think it would be incriminating at all.’
O’Brien has a point. In the teaching of early American history, civic indoctrination seems too often to drape illiberal indecencies. As a result, many Americans tend to be unaware of the unwholesome aspects of the Founding era. The anti-Catholic and anti-prelatic bigotries which reinforced fears about the Quebec Act (1774), and the campaign for an Anglican colonial bishopric, are long forgotten. Similarly, the fierce antagonisms of the 1790s, which split the Founders into Jeffersonian Republican and Federalist Parties, tend to be ascribed to differences about economic strategy or consolidation of the Union, rather than to issues of radicalism and religion. But O’Brien, too, has his own selective vision, which does not encompass the wider context of Jeffersonian politics during the 1790s. He fails to pick up the idiom of civic humanism, captured in Drew McCoy’s fine study, The Elusive Republic (or indeed the benign anti-élitist capitalism of Joyce Appleby’s alternative interpretation). As a result, there is no engagement with Jefferson’s well-founded anxiety that Alexander Hamilton and the ‘Anglican monarchical aristocratical party’ were bent on re-creating the fiscally driven corruption of the Walpolean system. For Jeffersonian Republicans the experience of 18th-century England proved as much a nightmare as the escalating Revolution in France, which pushed the Federalists towards reaction and xenophobia. Without this sense of the alternative trajectories of ruin which exercised the first generation of American politicians, Jefferson is reduced to a one-dimensional Jacobin fellow-traveller.
Moreover, by stopping in 1800, O’Brien misses the ideological latitude of Jefferson’s Presidency. In his inaugural address, he made a bid for reconciliation – ‘We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists’ – and he avoided an immediate purge of Federalist officeholders. Though he did implement his own policies, referring to his election as the ‘revolution of 1800’, his measures eventually alienated a group of purist Republicans, the Tertium Quids, led by John Randolph. Consider, too, his touching and dignified correspondence with his former Federalist rival, John Adams. By a miraculous providence, Adams and Jefferson both died on the same significant date, the Fourth of July 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The conservative Adams expired, comforted by the thought that ‘Thomas Jefferson survives,’ though Jefferson had, in fact, passed away. But is O’Brien – fixated on the provenance of modern Irish republicanism – thinking of this Adams, the one with whom there is a tangible Jeffersonian connection or Gerry?
O’Brien goes in for some outlandish speculation. He connects Jefferson’s sympathy for Jacobinism, not excluding the ‘genocide’ of the Terror, with his position as a slaveholder. By espousing the French Revolution wholeheartedly, by attacking Northern Federalists as crypto-monarchist anglophiles, and by articulating an unadulterated language of liberty, democracy and revolution, Southerners like Jefferson – ‘working, I think, instinctively’ – were able to turn the tables on Northern moralists, not only diverting attention from slavery, but winning the ideological high ground. No longer, however: for the racist, slaveholding Jefferson, according to O’Brien, has no place – ‘logically’ – in the civil religion of a ‘postracist’ America.
Myths have their own inner logic, their appeal not diminished but heightened by tragedy, poignancy and irony. Old and New Testaments of the civil religion meet in the commemoration of Jefferson, patriarchal patriot, ‘apostle of liberty’, and slaveholding author of the Declaration of Independence. Flawed in life and character, yet noble in his aspirations, Jefferson possesses a visceral appeal. If the first step towards authentic anti-racist awareness is confession of past sins, then the civil religion needs Jefferson more than ever, not least to avoid charges that white America is in denial.
Indeed, as Joseph Ellis notes, Jefferson has become ‘a contested prize in the ongoing culture wars’, a dead white male whose life and attitudes illuminate the dark side of the liberal tradition. A deep regard for ethical systems, notably the Epicurean and the Stoic, which arose in the slaveholding societies of classical antiquity, might be excused, were it not for the accusations of sexual exploitation which cloud Jefferson’s own possession of slaves. Allegations of a liaison with Sally Hemings, a mulatto slave at Monticello, emerged as a smear during Jefferson’s Presidency. The puzzle remains unresolved, and has become a prominent feature of modern Jeffersoniana, from Fawn Brodie’s psychobiography of 1974 to the recent Merchant-Ivory film, Jefferson in Paris. As author of the celebrated Virginia Bill for religious freedom and champion of ‘the wall of separation between church and state’, Jefferson has also been enlisted in the struggle, exacerbated during the Eighties by Reagan’s Attorney-General Edwin Meese III, to establish the – chimerical – ‘original intent’ which lies behind the religious provisions of the First Amendment. Even the non-academic, non-juridical laity has an opinion. The repairman who came to fix Ellis’s furnace buttonholed him ‘for a full hour’ to deny that Jefferson was an atheist. One can almost hear the refrain: if Thomas Jefferson believed it, I shouldn’t think it was atheism.
American Sphinx, which does not pretend to be a grand biography on the Dumas Malone scale, is an attempt to mediate between the modern icon and the time-bound Virginian by way of a ‘selective’ study of Jefferson’s character at ‘extended moments’ in his career. Ellis’s modesty belies his achievement. This book provides a subtle corrective to the thundered exaggerations of The Long Affair and presents a Jefferson too radical, with his theory of ‘generational sovereignty’, for the modern cult of the Founders: ‘the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.’ Indeed, might the leading intellects of the founding generation not risk flunking the most elementary class on the American Constitution? Ellis’s radical Jefferson, like the disoriented John Adams presented in Gordon Wood’s classic Creation of the American Republic, fails to appreciate the intricate machinery of the new Madisonian Republicanism.
Ellis carefully tracks Jefferson’s ‘tortured’ positions on slavery and the future of the races, accounting for the shifting equilibria of condemnation and procrastination, of fatuous optimism – that emancipated slaves would be ‘intermingled’ with imported German peasants on fifty-acre farms – and despair that cohabitation would ‘produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race’. Consider the Declaration of Independence, a document entrusted to the inexperienced Virginian, so Ellis believes, because his betters, aspiring to the role of ‘the American Cicero or Demosthenes’, found they ‘had more important things to do’ on the floor of the Continental Congress. Jefferson’s draft betrays an anxious, casuistical triangulation. Even as Congressmen prepared to cast off their allegiance to George III, they felt compelled to delete a passage which mixed together ‘an implicit moral condemnation of slavery with an explicit condemnation of the British monarch for both starting it and trying to end it’.
A further refinement to this rounded portrait is advanced by Philip Schwarz’s Slave Laws in Virginia, a collection which explores the legal underpinnings of slavery from their 17th-century beginnings through to the vestigial ‘slave’ laws which survived emancipation and Reconstruction. Schwarz integrates institutional, political and economic history with an anthropological approach to law as a product of interaction between slaveholders and bondsmen. Africans were ‘not legal tabulae rasae’: they brought to the New World the legal experiences, values and expectations of West African judicial institutions and an awareness of servitude as a criminal sanction.
In his nuanced and balanced account of Jefferson’s ambivalent relationship with the law of slavery, Schwarz tries to answer the classic conundrum of Revolutionary slaveholding in terms of a republican reverence for the rule of law. Conformity to the law, including the law of slavery, ‘constituted a civic duty’. Jefferson’s occasional criticisms of slavery are easily outweighed by his manifold activities as an ‘inheritor, manager, giver, capturer, purchaser, hirer and seller of human beings’. Moreover, unlike some of his fellow Virginians, he was reluctant to take advantage of opportunities to emancipate slaves either during his life or in his will; more energy was expended in recovering runaways. Yet he was not a despot. Schwarz presents him as a racist, but also as ‘an enlightened, limited monarch whom laws restricted as well as empowered’. The Virginia manumission law of 1782 circumscribed his freedom to emancipate. Slaves over the age of 45 or under the age of majority had to be maintained by the person liberating them, in order to prevent slaveholders dumping potential charges on poor relief. Thereafter, a law of 1806, amended in 1816, exiled, with exceptions, liberated bonds-people from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Jefferson’s sparing, but considered, manumissions took place within the tight constraints of these laws.
There are further dimensions to the vexed issue of Jefferson and race which touch on his status as an American totem. Eighteenth-century discussions of racial diversity were inseparable from the authority of Scripture. The heretical polygenesis of Isaac La Peyrère had convulsed the European clerisy in the second half of the 17th century, and the idea of a separate creation – whether for blacks or native Americans – remained a threatening proposition for the orthodox. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush, an enlightened Christian physician, stuck to a ‘safe’ monogenist explanation of African degeneration to blackness as a result of leprosy. The historicity of a single Eden was less secure in the hands of Jefferson, whose racial quandary defies analysis in exclusively secular terms.
Nonetheless, Jefferson’s interrogation of Christianity was honest and respectful. Notes on the State of Virginia cautiously advanced ‘a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites’, noting that it was ‘not against experience to suppose that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications’.
A similar precision is demanded when exploring the ethnocentrism of the patriot slaveholder. Not only did Jefferson wish to maintain America as a white democracy by exporting free blacks to Africa, he aimed to preserve in America the specific values and institutions of his Anglo-Saxon heritage. What sort of American was Jefferson? asks O’Brien, who answers lamely that he was a Virginian first and foremost. This is insufficient. Raised as a colonial Englishman, Jefferson remained imperfectly Americanised to the end. An influential cohort of historians, including John Murrin, Jack Greene and T.H. Breen, has established that anglicisation, the dominant trend in 18th-century colonial life, was a vital precondition of the American Revolution. Only in the 1770s did the notion that a corrupt motherland was excluding her overseas offspring from a full enjoyment of English liberties complete the transformation of loyal anglicised subjects into colonial nationalists. In fact, Britons labelled the colonists as ‘Americans’ a decade before the latter, out of frustration, turned to independence. In 1776, natural rights could scarcely be distinguished from the birthright of Englishmen to be governed by consent, to enjoy trial by jury, and to tax themselves through their own Parliamentary bodies.
Jefferson shared this heightened, but anglophobic, Englishness, and his political thought would continue to run for the next fifty years in the grooves of oppositional Whiggery. Not only did he want Hengist and Horsa to adorn the seal of the new nation, but a month after the Declaration of Independence, he continued to rehearse the Saxonist arguments of his Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), urging a restoration in a free America of ‘that happy system of our ancestors’, the Saxon constitution ‘as it stood in the eighth century’. As Vice-President in the late 1790s, Jefferson busied himself with researches in Anglo-Saxon grammar, and the study of the language would feature on the curriculum of his proudest creation, the University of Virginia.
Jefferson’s deeply-felt Saxonism and his theological heterodoxy meshed in his attitude to the common law. Was America bound by the common law? Were church and state legitimately separated? This was not the idle speculation of an antiquarian. In the Ruggles case of 1811, Chief Justice Kent of New York had pronounced blasphemy an offence at common law. By tracing American jurisprudence back to its earliest Saxon original, Jefferson rested his case. The early Anglo-Saxons, being pagans, could not have afforded the protection of the pristine common law to Christianity. This corruption had been ‘interpolated’ into the Anglo-Saxon tradition by priests and confirmed by judges. The aged and indignant Jefferson complained to Major John Cartwright, an old-time English radical and fellow Saxon: ‘What a conspiracy this, between Church and State! Sing Tantarara, rogues all, rogues all, Sing Tantarara, rogues all!’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.