American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
For most of his life he believed in the property qualification. Women and blacks of course remained forever beyond the pale. Nor did he ever believe that ordinary Americans should hold public office at the national level. He went to his death, for example, regarding Andrew Jackson and his followers as a band of barbarians who contaminated the original intention of the Revolution. The term democracy accumulated a multiple set of sacred meanings in the course of the 19th century. Jefferson would have rejected most of them. Seeing Jefferson as America's primal democrat is in truth a classic example of what Herbert Butterfield called "the Whig fallacy," which entails the imposition of a subsequent story line on an earlier ear, discovering the seeds of subsequently triumphant political movements in persons or places where they did not yet exist. Jefferson ... Jefferson certainly put his mark on American politics, but the democratic imprint misconstrues his legacy by making Jefferson the originator of a movement that really came after him. The world that de Toqueville described and Jackson symbolized not ... was not what Jefferson had in mind for America. Suppose instead we said that Jefferson was the founding father of American liberalism. Not democracy but liberalism. Now we're edging a little bit closer to the truth, and no one less than Dumas(?) Malone(?), Jefferson's greatest biographer, made that the central theme of his six-volume Jefferson and His Time. But just when we seem to be on to an historically trustworthy track, it splits and goes off in two opposite directions. The defining feature of 19th century American liberalism was the belief in individual freedom unimpeded by government. The defining feature of 20th century liberalism was and is the belief in government as an essential presence in the management of social and economic policy. Although Franklin Roosevelt tried to claim Jefferson for modern liberalism, his effort constitutes one of the most inspired acts of political thievery in the whole sage of the Jeffersonian legacy. The New Deal, and later, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, represented the consolidation of political power at the federal level that Jefferson would have considered a conspiracy against the fondest hopes of mankind. The 19th century version of liberalism represents a much closer fit with Jefferson's values, since an aversion to government was the central feature of this political faith. This conclusion then forces us to make a tough choice between two rather unpalatable options. We can retreat to our earlier insight and argue that Jefferson's version of liberalism became anachronistic with the urbanization and industrialization of American society, as Herbert Crowley(?) in effect argued in his classic, The Promise of American Life, or we can project Jeffersonian values into the 20th century vocabulary where, lo and behold, they become transformed into the core convictions of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and what is now labeled American conservatism. In this latter formulation, a modern conservative is not just a liberal who has been mugged; he or she is a Jeffersonian who has been reincarnated. Somehow that choice does not seem fair either to the core meaning of liberalism or to the historical integrity of Jefferson. Where does that lead us? Well, with a sharper sense of how slippery all the political language and the terrain truly is; with a keener appreciation of how facile and misguided are all efforts to conjure up Jefferson in our time, which is rather like trying to plant cut flowers; with a fuller recognition of how even those political truths which claim to be self evident and universal only achieve their distinctive meaning and coloration in specific contexts; with an intensified desire to insure that any projection of the Jeffersonian legacy into our world remains faithful to the time of his time. We need to penetrate the core of Jefferson's 18th century mentality, discover the seminal impulses -- uncontaminated by reading it through the lens of democracy or liberalism -- that still speak to us in our admittedly post-Jeffersonian America. Two such seminal ideas come to mind. The first, hinted at in our earlier conversation about liberalism, is Jefferson's deep-rooted and almost visceral hostility toward discernible concentrations of political power. Now, re-read the Declaration of Independence some time with a fresh eye --which is not an easy thing to do, given its entrenched familiarity -- and notice the relentless and somewhat unfair characterization of George III and the British monarchy. Or read his multiple castigations of Hamilton as the diabolical source of federalist conspiracy in the 1790s. The overheated and historically questionable character of Jefferson's accusations need not detain us here. The distinctive feature is Jefferson's almost throbbing suspicion of concentrated government power. The term he tended to use was consolidation, which he ... which was bad. And the good thing was what he called diffusion. Diffusion is good. This instinctive Jeffersonian posture towards the dangerous implications of accumulated political power probably came from two intellectual traditions. The first was the so-called oppositional school of the English Whig tradition, which stigmatized the court party of Hanovarian England. The second was the French Enlightenment, which stigmatized the medieval fusion of king and priestly power, in Voltaire's immortal words, "longing for the day when the last king will be strangled with the entrails of the last priest."
Whether this chief intellectual indebtedness was to England to France is irrelevant for our purposes. The central Jeffersonian impulse, which he sincerely regarded as the central meaning of the American Revolution, the true spirit of '76, was a visceral distrust of consolidated political power, the trust increasing the further removed the power was from its local or personal impact. The implications of this point are so significant that they merit our sharpened attention. The core impulse of the American Revolution was not democracy; it was the suspicion of all government power that had its origins in faraway places. The Court of George the III and the corridors of Parliament were perfect illustrations of this danger, and the deep-seated apprehension about such clusters of possible coercion were sanctioned and indeed hallowed by the spectacular success of the American Revolution. Jefferson did not create this ingrained suspicion, nor was he the only revolutionary leader to embrace its potency, but he did become the chief spokesman for, and the chief symbol of, this negative or oppositional principle. Later in American history, it's true, the idea became a powerful weapon on behalf of democratic reform, a club to beat corporate hegemony over the head, or elite domination over the head. Or it could become, uh, you could see it in the populace fear of Eastern banks or bankers, but also you could see it in Southern resistance to federal intervention and the attempt to maintain state segregation. The animating soul of this revolutionary legacy is not majority rule or the elevation of ordinary citizens. It is the mistrust of aggregated political power beyond one's direct control. How does this connect to our world? At the international level it makes the Jeffersonian legacy an extremely relevant political weapon if you happen to be facing tanks in Tienenman Square, or opposing Eastern Bloc Communism in Gdansk or Prague. If you're opposing a totalitarian regime in contemporary Congo, Cambodia, or Hong Kong, you can reliably draw on Jefferson without fear, without contradiction, and without any additional research. If you're in the United States during the last decade of the 20th century, you might be a Democrat or a Republican, but you will instinctively recoil at the mere mention of the phrase, "inside the Beltway." You will regard Washington DC as a veritable cesspool of corruption and degeneracy, a place where decent people go to sell out. You will describe politicians and lobbyists as reptiles gathered in the corridors of the Capitol to plot against the public interest. You will consider the federal government as the Evil Empire, now replacing the Communist Bloc and the Cold War as the chief threat to our national survival. Or if you are Bill Clinton, you will declare, "The era of big government is now over."
This potent oppositional strain in the Jeffersonian legacy has been partially obscured for the last 50 years, and is only now recovering its natural force. Because in times of real national emergency the Jeffersonian impulse goes into temporary hiding, and we're just emerging from what is probably the longest emergency in American history, the Depression, World War Two, and the Cold War, um, which rendered the powers of the national government quite necessary indeed. And a few important exceptions to the Jeffersonian legacy were codified and accepted during that time, to include Social Security, the Interstate highway system, and Medicare. But the deepest currents of American political culture remain virulently Jeffersonian. The end of the Cold War in 1989, and the prolonged stock market rise unleashed by the ... unleashed the old Jeffersonian surge. And this is the chief reason we have been seeing so many Jefferson films, books, and conferences, including my book, I guess, in the last few years. Welfare is being returned to the states in the form of block grants; the Supreme Court is denying federal authority over gun control and school funding; the private sector is replacing federal programs as the preferred solution to economic equal... inequality; in short, the Jeffersonian tide is running again. It's not that Jefferson would have agreed with the political agenda of Gingrich, Limbaugh or, god help us, Jesse Helms; it's that the Jeffersonian legacy puts all initiatives by the federal government on the permanent defensive. Government for Jeffersonian America is not us but them. The second still operative Jeffersonian idea is not so much an idea per se as a way of framing ideas. Jefferson, we have seen, was not really a democrat in any meaningful sense of the term, but he was the first American political leader to discover a language that would work in a democratic society. That you can find significant traces of this discovery in the 1770s in his several publications against the presumptions of Parliament and King, uh, the propagandist tone of these writings can be explained in, well, patriotic terms. That is, when you're out to make a revolution, after all, bold and at times excessive language is not only justifiable, but downright prudent. In 1776 in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was speaking from his romantic heart. Only later did he discover in a more self-conscious way the power of his rhetorical renderings. If I had to date Jefferson's verbal discovery, I would put it in the middle of the 1790s during the debate over the Jay treaty. At about that moment it dawned upon Jefferson that victory in the genuinely new kind of political arena created by Constitutional ... the Constitutional government in 1789 ... that is, created by The Constitution ... depended to a heretofore unprecedented extent on an appeal to a mass electorate. Remember, up until then, ministers, courtiers and selected officials had made policy by oral and written debates within a narrow range of edicated (sic) and ... educated and elite statesmen. That was still how it worked in London and Paris, and indeed how Washington, Adams and Hamilton expected it to work in New York and Philadelphia. What Jefferson recognized earlier and more clearly than anyone else, although Tom Paine could probably be given primacy here, was that a republican government required a new and more simple language to juxtapose the choices facing elected officials. Now, Jefferson actually lost the debate over the Jay treaty, which passed largely because of the immense prestige of Washington, but in losing he learned the political ... that political success in a government of elected officials depended on the capacity to mobilize sheer numbers of ordinary voters. While not really a democrat, Jefferson discovered and mastered the rhetoric of democratic politics. The Jeffersonian rhetoric was rooted really in two simple insights. First, talk about simple, it had to be very simple. The real choices facing the United States in 1795 were extraordinarily complex, involving the risky calculation of the threat posed by British or French prowess in Europe and on the high seas; the nascent condition of the American Navy; the long-term economic interest in American commercial policy; to cite but a few of the many considerations. Jefferson cast the debate in the starkest terms, being ... between enslavement to British tyranny or freedom for American sailors and citizens. Anything more subtle than that would presumably confuse ordinary voters. Second, it had to be ambiguous. Not blatantly incoherent, mind you ...
... but sufficiently elliptical and elusive that different constituencies could hear it or read it and discover what they were looking for. An effective and evocative term, for example, like "the people" was most useful, concealing as it did which people from which region or which economic strata was being described. The tray... Jay treaty, he claimed, was a repudiation of values shared by the people, or by the vast majority of the American people. Voters in the western states and territories, once they read the actual terms of the Jay treaty, realize that their segment of "the people" stood to gain. They helped to support its passage by pressuring their respective senators. But again, the passage of the treaty proved to be only a minor defeat for Jefferson in a larger war which he won. The war was about words, like equality, rights, freedom, liberty, and their multiple meanings. Words with the inherent capacity to levitate out of any specific context, and resida... resonate in defiance of logic or contradiction. Think of a gathering of pro-life and pro-choice advocates, each quoting Jefferson on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to make their respective case. Think of Jesse Jackson and Newt Gingrich, each echoing Jefferson on the potency of freedom and equality as the social ideals for Americans, but obviously meaning entirely different political messages. Or, think of Bill Clinton campaigning for the Presidency in 1992 on a platform based on change.
Or in 1996, on "a bridge to the 21st century."
While studiously avoiding any meaningful clarification of what kind of change or where the bridge might take us all.
Now, Jefferson, let it be noted, was no mere "spinner." Clinton is a spinner, of course. You have to be. The levitating language of democratic polics... politics came to Jefferson naturally. Just as Reagan would have passed a lie detector test on the linkage of aid to ar... uh, to Iran and arms to the Contras, Jefferson believed in the rhetoric he created. He thought in the lyrically, elusive, evaporative way he wrote. Which is one reason why he has proved so persuasive, uh, why ... why he ... he proved so persuasive, and also why ... and here the everyman syndrome comes into play ... he remains so infinitely interpretable. So, we end our quest for the historic Jefferson ... not the historic Jesus, but the historic Jefferson ... uh, or for the Jeffersonian legacy that remains true to its historic origins on two notes. What still lives in Jefferson's political philosophy is not a single idea or a proposition. What Jefferson did was to frame political choices in dramatic formats that stigmatized concentrated power. What he also did was to provide the inflated and inherently ambiguous vocabulary for our democratic discourse. Now, these do not constitute, you might say, a wholly laudable legacy. Just abating or opposing political power is often not sufficient. As Adams and Hamilton understood, channelling it and focusing it is the statesman's ultimate purpose, and Jefferson's elevated language can and sometimes has been used by less scrupulous American pol... politicians to obfuscate choices rather than to clarify them. True enough. But a good Jeffersonian might choose to put it ... as a good Jeffersonian might choose to put it, prudence dictates, and a decent respect for the opinion of mankind requires, we notice that in the course of human events, and more specifically, the course of American history, the inherent ambiguity of our credo convictions has permitted contradictions to coexist and coalitions to hang together despite their differences, all under the American creed or the American umbrella. Jefferson himself was a one-man coalition, a bundle of contradictions commingling comfortably. Not in spite of but indeed because of his flawed felicities, America is Jef... America is Jefferson writ large. He is our master illusionist, and the seminal source of our will to believe. Thank you very much.
Ah. I gotcha. I'm gonna grab something to drink here ... or oh, it's right here. It's just water. Um ...
Uh ... about five people have told me to remember to say that if you have any questions, um, try to speak loud, and I will repeat the question since it's being taped, and we want to be able to hear the question as well as the answer if there is one. Other ... does anyone have any questions? And you needn't ask them about what I've just said, you can obviously ask about anything related to Mr. Jefferson. Mr. Gilder(?), sir.
Can I ask the first question?
You certainly may. You're paying for this, we might as well make ...
As a matter of fact, I'm not (Inaudible Portion)
(Clears throat) Ah, sorry.
(Inaudible) I wanted to ask you as a historian ... some maybe of the folks here are teachers, and perhaps some of them one day will be writing some history, uh, books of their own ... how do you, uh ... your seminal work on Adams is obviously about a man and a leader whom you respect, admire and love.
Whereas it's clear from what you've said here that with Mr. Jefferson, uh, you are about as aloof about him as he would probably be about you.
How can you ... how can you summon the energy and the focus to write about someone whom you really don't particularly like?
Um ... because he is very fascinating and he's extremely influential. Historians are interested not just in people that are like them, but people that exercise power. Um ... uh, I think that that's a ... uh, the question is, how can you be ... spend as much time working on Jefferson when it's clear that you don't love him in the same way that you love, say, John Adams? Um, and I ... and I said ... well, you heard what I said. But I see Robert ... I ... Robert Caro has just given up his biography ... biographical, uh ... uh, works on Lyndon Johnson, uh, which is the most vindictive assault on the personality and character of Lyndon Johnson that ... that you can possibly imagine. Um, I am not doing that. I'm not out to get him.
There are people out to get him. Connor Cruz O'Brien's(?) most recent book certainly is motivated by a desire to get him. Uh, now there is a certain person in this audience who's periodically said to me, "Stick it in and twist it," and, uh ... uh ...
... uh, but I think that to the extent that what I've written has a measure of credibility within the scholarly and the general public world, a good part of it derives from the fact that I'm fair, or I ... that ... that there's not an attempt to just, um, do him in. The problem with Jefferson is that the expectations are so high, the ... what people bring to him as a historical subject are so inflated, that no matter what you say, if it's not something that is filiopietistic ... I said a lot of the same things about Adams that I said about Jefferson. With Adams it was, "Oh, isn't that wonderful?" With Jefferson it's, "How horrible!" Um, it's a measure more of what we bring ... somebody, I think John Irving, said, "In America, all great books could have been entitled 'Great Expectations.'" And, uh ... uh ...
... certainly all books about ... about Jefferson could. And, um, and I think that part of it is to ... it's a test of discipline. It's a test of one's own capacity to be faithful to what is being said, and not to be led astray either by the desire to, you know, sing praises, or on the other hand, to just get him. Um, I'm ... I'm happy ... I'm proud of the degree to which I can steer that course. Um, and, uh ... and while four or five years on a book might seem like a long time to some people, Dumas Malone took over six... about 60 years, I think. I mean, uh, I'm regarded within the world of Jefferson scholarship as somebody that got in and out really quickly.
Um ... and I feel like Jefferson's a kind of big, black hole. If you stick around, it's gonna suck you in.
Um ... uh, and so I ... I wanted to move in, make my assessment, and, uh, write what I had to say and move out. Um, but I ... I think that there are people that read American Sphinx and come away thinking that it's not a negative portrait. I'm pretty sure there are. Even down at Monticello.
Yeah. Yes, sir, there's a hand in the way back there.
This has to do with your comment about the visceral (Inaudible)
(Inaudible) Is that Charlie?
(Inaudible) No, sorry. Sorry.
(Inaudible Portion) your reference to Jefferson's visceral dislike of consolidated political power. I'm just wondering how your comment, given this sort of growing idolization, idealization, wouldn't he have been just as, uh, outraged by consolidated power of any sort, for example, (Inaudible) his times and institutions then, consolidated ecclesiastical power, or consolidated mercantile power, and isn't his ... uh, his agrarian ideology in effect say that that's just as outrageous as consolidated political power from his point of view?
Uh, well, I mean, Hamilton's program in the 1790s is, uh, as threatening or perhaps more threatening from a Jeffersonian point of view than, uh, Parliament's legislation in the 1760s and '70s. Uh, one thing about Jefferson, and ... this is true of a lot of the Virginians, I mean, uh ... they didn't understand economics. I mean, really, they didn't understand it. Um, and they just felt that this was a ... you know, there was a real wizardry to Hamilton that they could never fathom, but they certainly conjured up, uh ... uh, the Hamiltonian, mercantile, Eastern, um, Establishment as a great conspiracy. So, yes, ea... pushed another increment, each of these fears can turn into paranoia. And, uh, you know, the great book by Richard Hofstetler(?), the Paranoid Strain in American Politics, it's a ... it ... now it doesn't have to, and in the case of, uh, well, Connor Cruz O'Brien's book ... again, to separate myself from these kind of lunatic critics, um ...
... well, Connor Cruz O'Brien says that the true legacy of Thomas Jefferson is Pol Pot.
And Timothy McVeigh. Um, that McVeigh's hostility to federal power by blowing up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City is ... and your Michigan Militia. Well, you know, that's not fair to Jefferson. Jefferson was not an advocate of terrorism. He was on occasion quite comfortable ... usually when he's far removed from the bloodletting ... um, to ... to put a blessing on, um, you know, on violence. Uh, Shay's Rebellion or the French Revolution. But, uh ... uh, you're ... you're ... you're absolutely right, the ... the fear isn't of just political power, it's of any power that you don't really understand and that is far removed from you. The religious and ecclesiastical power is something that he sees rooted in the medieval world, um, and that, uh, you know, is part of what has to be eliminated. It's ... and it's at the root of his, uh, of his very, uh, bold doctrine on separation of church and state. I mean, at some level it's a primal fear of being eaten alive, of being consumed by forces larger than you. Uh, yes, right here, yes, ma'am.
Um, okay. You said that, uh (Inaudible Portion) and that, uh, that the Revolution wasn't about democracy, that it was more about the, uh, I guess animosity for, uh, political ... concentrated political power in England.
(Inaudible) you say that, uh, democracy in America (Inaudible Portion) Jefferson's liberalism and his ideas (Inaudible) because people were so into what he was saying at the time?
I've got to get ... I can't hear the last part of your question.
Would you say that the democracy in America grew out of Jefferson's liberal thought (Inaudible Portion) energy that people wanted to follow?
That's an interesting question. I mean, whether or not he was a democrat, did the emergence of a democratic tradition have something to do with what Jefferson himself accomplished? Um, yes. Um, it did. Uh, but again, when it happened, when Jackson became President, and as you begin to get a mass electorate and formal political parties and a democratic political structure, Jefferson was still alive to see this coming into existence. (Glitch)
Some truth to what you say. Certainly, uh, when, uh, there's one evening early in Washington's Administration, when Washington's out of town and the ... the meet... the major figures in the Cabinet are having dinner together ... and that means Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams, and I think somebody else, but those three ... and, uh, they have a little game about who is the greatest person in history. And, um, I think Jefferson says Newton. And Hamilton says Caesar.
That was the end of it as far as Jefferson was concerned.
(Laughs) Uh, and it confirmed his deepest suspicion. Um, there is an element though to Jefferson that ... that is not caught in what ... your ... your remark had to do with the way in which, um, I ... I don't think I can repeat it, but the ... that, um ... Jefferson was uncomfortable exercising political power in the same way that he was uncomfortable about anybody having it. That is to say, uh, he longed for a world where coercion was unnecessary. Where people had internalized the values of the society so well that you didn't have to actually tell them or order them or compel them to behave in a particular way. There's a real radical utopian dimension to Jefferson in that regard. It's also ... it can be very attractive, it can be very naive. But he's ... he's not, uh ... I mean, he's capable in specific tactical situations of being really Machiavellian. Um, but in general, um, he really doesn't like political power. And in some sense, he would have been happier leading his life as an academic. Yes, sir.
Could you share with us, uh, your reflections and your insights in relation to his great concern about separation of church and state, and just share with us some more comments, please.
Could I share with you more comments on the separation of church of state? You know, the, uh ... when, uh, I published this book, Knopf, uh, put me on a bit of a tour and ... and god bless them, there are some people from Knopf here, and, uh ... and, uh ...
... and every time ... there would be these call-in shows, and every time people would call in on this question. People ...
I did that.
Did you really?
Uh ... the, uh ... and everybody knows about the Danbury ... uh, what is it, the letter from the people in Danbury, and he responds about "the wall of separation between church and state." Um, Jefferson begins to put together a notion of the complete and total separation of church and state in the early 1780s, and then he goes to France, and while he's there, Madison's the one who actually ushers this bill through the Virginia Legislature, um, and in ... it passes in the Virginia Legislature in 1786. Now, it's wrong to think that Jefferson is behind anything that's in the Bill of Rights. Jefferson had nothing to do with the Bill of Rights, he had nothing to do with the ... with the language of The Constitution. He was in France during that time. Um, it's ... you know, when you ask students in class ... and Mount Holyoke students are actually pretty good students as a general rule ... "Well, what do you know about Thomas Jefferson?", they say, "We know two things. He wrote The Constitution and he went to bed with Sally Hemmings."
(Laughs) Well, he didn't write The Constitution. He wrote the Declaration. Um ... uh, and, um, he ... I don't know how much more you want to say ... it's a sincere conviction on his part, and it's because he is afraid of a union of power between clerical and secular political forces. This is the great less of the medieval Europe ... of European ... medieval European history. The canon and feudal law, if you will. And so, he sees the combination of church and state as a great ogre. Um, and, you know, what ... everybody wants to know, does he ... is he most afraid of the church or is he most afraid of the state? He's afraid of their combination against the people. He doesn't specify past that. Uh, yes, sir, right here.
You really didn't discover anything that wasn't already known about Jefferson, right? You just reread what was ...
That's not a negative statement. But you just reread what was already known about him, right?
Well, let me ... let me give you ... let me try to give you a sense of things. I mean, it ... that, uh ... no, I mean, I didn't diversify that, uh, on July 3rd, 1776 he, you know, he actually, uh, wrote words that we don't know about. Um ... uh ... the, uh, Jefferson Papers on microfilm stretched in a straight line is about eight miles. The books written about Jefferson in the 20th century ... books and articles ... listed consecutively, fill two full volumes. You can't read it all. No person can read it all. No human being can read it all. Uh, so ... so it's really in ... in working on Jefferson, you've really got to have certain hunches and interests to tell you what handles to grab, and where that you're going to try to dive, and in some sense, that's the secret. Um, and the key of course is to try to have an interpretive take on him, if you will, a portrait that makes him look different from anybody else who's tried to paint him before.
Thank you, that's an excellent answer.
As a President, who among the American Presidency would you feel best reflects Jefferson's personality, politics, philosophy?
Who best reflects ... among more recent American Presidents, I take it you mean, uh, Jefferson? Uh, notice, Jefferson did not put his Presidency on his tombstone. Part of the reason was that he really didn't like the exercise of executive power, and part of it was his second term was a disaster. I mean, his first term was an unmitigated, uh, success, largely for reasons that you might call dumb luck, but that's really important. Uh, I mean, very important. I mean, uh, and then the second term was a disaster, so it's funny ... it's hard to rate him as a President because, um, the first term ... again, the crowning achievement of his Presidency would be the Louisiana Purchase, which I would guess ... I would argue is probably (Coughs) excuse me ... probably the most significant executive action in American Presidential history. I mean, I guess, uh, the decision to drop the bomb and, um, some of ... maybe what ... what some of Roosevelt's decisions can ... can compete. Um, it's ... when he gets rated as a President by historians, whenever the Chicago Sun-Times do this poll, you know, that comes out every, uh, election year, um, he gets wild swings. You know, he gets high grades in one section and very low grades in another. Um, if you said, Who do you think is like him? I think Woodrow Wilson ... had intellectual ... the same kind of intellectual, uh, capacities and idealistic values, um, and Wilsonian foreign policy is essentially Jeffersonian foreign policy. Uh, and ... in ... in its idealism. Um ... um ... whenever I talk about him, and I start talking about Jefferson's capacity to be all things to all people, people start thinking about Clinton.
And, um, there are certain similarities. I mean, I think especially Clinton's capacity to read a room and give the room what it wants. Jefferson did that in letter writing. You read his letters, and he's talking to different constituencies, and he's not lying ... well, sometimes he's lying ... but he's ...
... he's ... he's ... he's ... you know, you know, like so at a certain time he ... it sounds like he thinks that slavery's gonna end in Virginia tomorrow, but that's because he's talking to the French. Um, and he had the same kind of capacity to tilt it and what he said, uh ... uh, "Grab the truth by the smooth handle." Um, I don't ... no, I mean, I think that, uh, Reagan is similar (Laughs) in some respects. Um ... uh, the ... it's not fair to Jefferson to make that comparison.
So I was wondering if you thought about the fact that Jefferson expressed very strong notions of natural rights and social compacts in the Declaration. Did he, dare I ask, start to forget about the operative word secure (Inaudible). In other words, is his opposition to government so visceral that he forgot about what government could do, or (Inaudible Portion) Republican?
Well, you know, just ... read the Declaration. There's nothing in the Declaration of Independence about the powers of government. What's in the Declaration is the roots of opposition to illicit government power. Um, and even when it comes to writing constitutions, Jefferson was always interested only in the Bill of Rights sections, where those regions where you can cordon off behavior that will not be susceptible to any form of political power. Um, Jefferson didn't think constitutionally. He thought at another level. Um, I mean, it was a visionary level that never grappled with the particularities of political power and its implementation. (Clears throat) Which is one reason that Madison was irr... you know, was irreplaceable for Jefferson. Because that was Madison's specialty. Um, but I don't think he ever forgot what he said, because I don't think he ever said it, if you get what I mean.
One more question.
We have time for one more question. There's a young lady right here.
Um, first of all, I really, really enjoyed your speech.
Uh ... I've been talking with my teacher all throughout the speech pretty much, and (Inaudible Portion) ... was that, uh, I think that Jefferson would be truly amazed if he ... if he were brought back from the dead and saw how we were dissecting and analyzing his policies, his thoughts, and his, uh, opinions. Uh, what do you think about that?
Yes. The question is, if Jefferson were to come back to life, would he be amazed at how ... how we're so fascinated with him? Um, the answer I think is yes and no. Um ... uh, and by the way, if you have never seen him, there's a fella that you can see on C-span sometimes, and order up a ... a guy called Clay Jenkinson. Any of you know who Clay Jenkinson is? He comes back and replicates Jefferson, in the present, okay, and he's very good. He's very well read in ... in things Jeffersonian. Um, NEH(?) does a lot with him. But, yeah, and in keeping with the point I made early on, Jefferson would ... you know, a part of Jefferson would say, Get on with your own lives, decide what your own self evident truths are, don't study me. Jefferson didn't like history. Whenever they talked about history to Jefferson it was like the dead hand of history. Um, so he would not ... he would not be favorable to the initiative of the Gilda(?) Lamin(?) Institute here.
Uh, that said, no one ... no one, not even John Adams, the great vain and arrogant John Adams, spent as much time and energy making sure that we wouldn't forget him.
Okay? That ... who went back to his correspondence and took out certain things and erased certain things, which we now can recover with, uh, with certain scientific (Inaudible) so that now we know that, you know, he erased how ... how ... how much ... how he thought about the French Revolution in 1790, '91. Uh ... uh, he was ... he was trying to always commission people to write a history of the Revolutionary period that would counter Marshall's biography of Washington, because he was terrified that that would dominate the understanding, um, and would, uh, leave the Jeffersonian tradition in tatters. Um, uh, he started saving all those letters in 1779, and he didn't have that machine that copies until his Presidency. Well, you know, when you see the movie, Jefferson in Paris, it opens with Jefferson writing and he's got the machine. He didn't have the machine until later. Um ... uh, but what I'm saying is that, yes, he would be surprised, but I also think he'd be very pleased. Um, uh, both because he cared an awful lot about his own immortality, and I don't think that Jefferson was a traditional Christian who believed that he was gonna live next to god in heaven. The only form of ... of existence he was gonna have is in our minds and hearts, and gosh knows he's still there. Thank you very much.
Well, my voice ... my voice ...
(Inaudible) Ladies and gentlemen, please take a moment and fill out the questionnaire. Um, you can leave them on your seat or ... or you ...
Hello, and welcome to "Free At Last", a history of the abolition of slavery in America. I'm Jim Horton, Professor of American Studies at George Washington University, and historian at the Smithsonian Institution. This exhibit which we'll travel was created by the Gilder-Larriman Institute of American History. Professor David Brian Davis of Yale University and I acted as curators, and provided historical guidance for the creation of this exhibit. We did this in conjunction with the Gilder-Larriman Institute in the belief that we really do need to build partnerships between educational foundations in the private sector and the university, partnerships that will help provide historical documents to educate students in the public schools and the public in general.
There's a great irony in American history. A nation based constitutionally on a commitment to freedom and the natural human rights of human beings, yet also founded economically and supported on slave labor.
This irony, this inconsistency was certainly not missed at the Constitutional Convention. Slavery was a hot topic. So hot that ... uh, the founding fathers found it very difficult to talk about.
It certainly does not appear in the Constitution itself. You will not find the word "slavery" in that document. But it influenced all those compromises that needed to be made to bring that document and the nation into existence.
The importance of slavery can be recognized by the fact that after 1815 cotton was the single most economically profitable export not only of the south, but of the entire nation. Slavery was highly profitable as an institution, and therefore the south went to great lengths to make escape from slavery or the abolition of slavery a really (Laughs) really difficult task.
"It took all the moral courage I was master of to suppress my feelings while taking leave of my little family." These are the words of Henry Bibb, who escaped from slavery in the 19th Century. And it gives us some idea of the difficulties of making an escape.
The story of slavery and the escape from slavery, and what we sometimes call the Underground Railroad is a fascinating story that is in some ways the quintessential story of America. It is about personal commitment to freedom. It is about the ... decision on the part of individuals not to be deprived of freedom, almost no matter what. It is also about the commitment of others to make sure that their fellow human being have a chance for freedom.
Once free, a fugitive slave could become very valuable to the organized anti-slavery movement. Of course probably the best example of this is Frederick Douglass, who became a coveted abolitionist speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Society. He was important because he could go into small towns in New England or in New York State and talk to white people who in many cases had never seen a black person before. And so the role of the fugitive slave as abolitionist speaker was key to the, uh, broadening appeal of the anti slavery movement.
The photos in the exhibition give us some idea of the variety of peoples who participated as abolitionists.
If you look at the photo of the abolitionist meeting in Casanovia, New York you'll see blacks and whites and men and women and people of a variety of ages. You'll see Frederick Douglass. You'll also see Garrett Smith, the white abolitionist from Syracuse, who was very important, especially important in terms of help to finance parts of the anti-slavery movement. These are people who were working together for a common cause. They were all opposed to slavery. The Reverend John Rankin, a white minister in Cincinnati, is another example of a white man who was willing to work for the abolitionist cause. His house was a prominent stopping place on the Underground Railroad. And, of course, Cincinnati was central as a place that offered freedom to slaves escaping across the Ohio River from Kentucky and farther south.
Lincoln is a really complex character. I think he is one of our best Presidents. And the reason I say that is because he ... shows the capacity for personal growth. He learned from the events of the 1850s, and especially the events of the 1860s during the Civil War. By the end of the Civil War he was willing to commit himself to full citizenship for blacks, and for voting for ... especially black veterans.
You will see as you go through this part of the exhibit some cartoons which are, quite frankly, blatantly racist. They are there as historical artifacts. They help us to understand the mind set of people who could justify human bondage by racist rationalization.
African-Americans volunteered for military service from the beginning of this war. They were not accepted immediately. They understood this war from the very beginning as a war to end slavery. Now Lincoln said initially that it was a war to save the Union. He would later change that, and the war would become officially war to end the institution of slavery. Black soldiers ...
... were instrumental in bringing the war to a successful conclusion from the standpoints of the United States. They died in large numbers, disproportionate to their numbers. Over 30,000. But they did it to bring slavery to an end, and to make a point to American society that they were Americans fighting for American freedom. Frederick Douglass sums it by saying that America would recognize the bravery of black men when the black man, quote, "got an eagle on his button, a musket on his shoulder, and the Star Spangled Banner over his head."
The purpose of this exhibit is to raise many of these important and perhaps disturbing issues so that we aren't talking about contemporary racial concerns in a historical vacuum. These things have a history. That history is important. It informs what needs to be said and what needs to be understood about race and American society at the end of the 20th century. And to prepare us to deal with issues of race in American society during the 21st century.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Already have an account?
Please click here to login and access this page.
How to subscribe
Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.
Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.
Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.
Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Why Gilder Lehrman?
Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.
Individual subscription: $25
Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Upgrade your Account
We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.
All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!
How to Subscribe
K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.
Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.