Sing Tantarara

Colin Kidd

  • Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency by Stephen Knott
    Oxford, 258 pp, £19.50, November 1996, ISBN 0 19 510098 0
  • The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 by Conor Cruise O’Brien
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 367 pp, £25.00, December 1996, ISBN 1 85619 637 2
  • American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis
    Knopf, 365 pp, $26.00, February 1997, ISBN 0 679 44490 4
  • Slave Laws in Virginia by Philip Schwarz
    Georgia, 253 pp, $40.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 8203 1831 0

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.

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