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thomas jefferson

14 april 2008

"Americans' most pressing history assignment is coming to terms with Thomas Jefferson," says Joyce Appleby (132). An unrepentant slaveholder who saw women's rights as roughly on a plane with animal rights, Jefferson is also the author of the single most important human-rights statement in American history, the Declaration of Independence. And benighted though he was on some civil-rights issues, he remains the great American proponent of civil liberties, particularly of a separation between church and state that ensures freedom of worship while keeping dogma out of politics. More progressive on some counts than any 2008 Presidential candidate, Jefferson dwelt – uncomfortably but accommodatingly – in a slave society that would appall even the most rock-ribbed 2008 right-winger.

The slavemaster of Monticello was the Great Emancipator's favorite political thinker. Abraham Lincoln, as Garry Wills and others have shown, wrote the Gettysburg Address largely by channeling the Declaration of Independence. Time and again in the dense thickets of the Douglas debates, Lincoln comes into a clearing where all that matters is that "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

But Appleby recognizes that we cannot so easily live today with the contradictions that seemed beside the point to Lincoln. If we celebrate Jefferson's uncompromising assertion of human rights, we must also acknowledge that he was asserting those rights with his fingers firmly crossed. In practice, Jefferson really seems to mean that all white men are created equal. And in 1776 or even 1825, when Jefferson's University of Virginia opened its doors, that concept was at the cutting edge of radical thinking.

The Times Books American Presidents series is designed to assess the Presidents as Presidents. Given that mission, Appleby condenses her discussion of Jefferson's overall political philosophy, and attempts to identify the salient contributions of his presidency (1801-1809). She locates Jefferson's achievement in two areas: the dismantling of Federalist formality in goverment, and the spread of egalitarian democracy (at least, of course, among white males).

Both great achievements fall into the category of reduced government and a soft-pedaling of the executive prerogative. For that reason, Appleby doesn't emphasize quite so much the two projects that Jefferson is associated with in most capsule histories: the acquisition of Louisiana and the imposition of an embargo on trade with Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars. Jefferson faced a paradox that many later Presidents would grapple with. Committed to small government, he was elected to an office in which he could only make his mark by doing big splashy things. Encouraging grassroots democracy is OK, but the thing they'll put on your commemorative spoons, plates, and placemats is the Louisiana Purchase.

Jefferson could overturn the formality of the Adams White House single-handedly and overnight, just by wearing housecoat and slippers to receive a British diplomat. His contributions to democracy are harder to identify. In the first quarter of the 19th century, many states moved to eliminate property qualifications for voting rights. Jefferson was enthusiastic about this development, but aside from applauding it, it's not quite clear from Appleby's narrative what he did (or in fact could do) to actively promote suffrage for all white men. Even in the 21st century, when the federal government's sway extends into vastly more areas of public policy, the states often go their own way (as recent tangles between California and the feds over energy, the environment, and medicinal marijuana have demonstrated).

But if Jefferson was mostly a cheerleader for democratization, he was an effective one. And one can argue, as Appleby does at times, that democracy is a kind of snowball. If more and more groups and classes and colors of men start to exercise the vote, then more and more will obtain it in future – and women will increasingly wonder why they shouldn't be voting as well.

One wonders which man – Jefferson or John Adams, who was probably not as aristocratically-minded as Jeffersonians and Jefferson scholars have made him out to be – would be most thrilled, which most dismayed, by the steady extension of the franchise over the past two centuries. Jefferson, the stronger racist and sexist, might be somewhat appalled to see Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton contending for his party's legacy. Adams might be delighted by them personally, but unnerved to see them vying for the approval of working-class folk in small-town Indiana and inner-city Philadelphia. Or just maybe, they would realize that two hundred years work many changes, and enjoy their glimpse of the future with complete equanimity.

Appleby, Joyce. Thomas Jefferson. New York: Times Books, 2003.