Virginia Weepers

Judith Shklar

  • The Pursuit of Happiness by Jan Lewis
    Cambridge, 290 pp, £20.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 521 25306 3
  • Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels: ‘The Philosophy of Jesus’ and ‘The Life and Morals of Jesus’ edited by Dickinson Adams
    Princeton, 438 pp, £28.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 691 04699 9

When Thomas Jefferson left the Presidency he wrote to Dupont de Nemours: ‘Never did a prisoner released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power. Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the time in which I have lived, have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself to the boisterous ocean of political passion.’ ‘The pursuit of happiness’, which in the Declaration of Independence he had insisted was one of man’s inalienable rights, was at last open to him. To the end of his life he remembered his political career as a perilous voyage and rejoiced in the expectation that his descendants would enjoy ‘the Halcyon calms succeeding the storm’, as he put it to his old fellow-sailor John Adams. Why should the new generation not flourish? To be sure, Jefferson did not believe that we could all be entirely happy, but ‘the deity’ had kindly ‘put it in our powers’ to come quite close to it. All of us have moreover been created in such a way that we are not only compelled to seek our happiness but are bound to look for it in different ways. Because we cannot help having dissimilar beliefs and desires, it was self-evident that nature and nature’s God meant us to pursue our happiness in our own, unique manner. That was the reason for our inalienable right to search or not to search for our salvation here or hereafter as we saw fit. There was much confidence in the future in this, even if the securing of the right could not assure a successful pursuit. One cannot help feeling therefore that Jefferson’s labours were poorly rewarded when one reads about the sad lives of the Virginian gentry to whom he returned so gladly.

The art of life was not the avoidance of pain for these people. On the contrary, they enjoyed contemplating their suffering. At any rate, the stay-at-homes whose domestic life Jan Lewis describes in The Pursuit of Happiness were ‘awash with self-pity’. There were, of course, other gentry Virginians who pursued active and successful political careers in Washington. Virginians had supplied most of the Presidents and many Congressional leaders in the first decades of the Republic. Others went North to go into business, or to get rid of their slaves, and not a few moved West to set up new plantations. Those who remained in the Old Dominion had to settle for an exhausted soil, a depressed tobacco market and slavery, which, as they well knew, the rest of the civilised world regarded as an unacceptable institution. Jefferson’s own children and grandchildren were not able to leave, even though their life was difficult, because he had saddled them with an enormous debt, a fate which they shared with many of their neighbours. Debt and thoroughly unprofitable farming made slaves the most valuable commodity that the gentry possessed, and slave-breeding and selling was one of their very few paying enterprises. That, even though it worked, did not raise their spirits. They knew as well as Tocqueville that they ‘had abolished the principle of slavery’ but did ‘not set their slaves free’. The memory of the Revolution with its limited but vivid rejection of slavery was always there to haunt them. No wonder they had come down with a massive case of post-revolutionary depression.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in