People: Thomas Jefferson

First in a new series detailing the individual dramatis personae in my dissertation. Although many of the people I study are somewhat obscure, I think it’s appropriate to start off with a major figure in US history, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson as portrayed in Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

Jefferson as portrayed in Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

Jefferson — author of the Declaration of Independence and Notes on the State of Virginia, Governor of Virginia, Minister to France, first U.S. Secretary of State, third U.S. President, inventor, polymath, and founder of the University of Virginia — plays an extremely important part in my study, though more through his distant presence than his actual participation. He’s like Laertes’ ghost in Hamlet — more important to the story than his limited amount of screen time might suggest. Just to list some of the ways TJ matters to me, starting with the most basic:

  • he was President of the United States from 1801 to 1809, when a large portion of my narrative unfolds. He thus played the decisive role in the major Federal government actions bearing on my dissertation: the Louisiana Purchase itself; the making of policy on how to govern, settle, and incorporate Louisiana; the prosecution of Aaron Burr for treason; the handling of troubled relations with Britain, leading to the Federal Embargo of 1807-08; and the banning of the international slave trade. After March of 1809 he was an extremely active ex-President with a strong influence on his successors Madison and Monroe.
  • from his earliest days as Secretary of State, he was, among all contemporary statesmen, the one most clearly focused on the potential and the reality of United States westward expansion, the one most actively preoccupied with the form it would take and the political and economic implications, and the one who made westward expansion the cornerstone and central fact of both his policies and his philosophy.
  • starting in the early 1790s, he was the leading figure in the formation of a democratic, egalitarian opposition political movement, which went on to become the dominant ideological and political force in American public life. From 1800 until 1824 the United States, on the federal level and in the vast majority of localities, was essentially a one-party system, and that party was the Jeffersonian one. And even from 1824 until the Civil War, the Jacksonian Democracy, a somewhat reconfigured movement that nonetheless traced its organizational and intellectual DNA to Jeffersonian origins, became the major, dynamic political force in the U.S.
  • with the Batture affair, he intervened with unprecedented directness into the affairs of New Orleans itself, and began a personal struggle, conducted in pamphlets and in courtrooms for ten years and more, with Edward Livingston. The battle over the Batture dramatized both the inner tensions of the world of Jeffersonian politics — both TJ and EL were Democrats of major stature — and the issues the federal government faced in trying to extend U.S. sovereignty to Louisiana.
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

One thing my dissertation will probably not weigh in on is the perpetual debate of “Thomas Jefferson: Good” vs “Thomas Jefferson: Bad.” About this I will just make a couple points. Throughout the last 175 years Jefferson’s historical reputation has tended to rise during progressive eras and decline during conservative ones. Hence he was thought of very highly in the Jacksonian era, came into disfavor during the Gilded Age, was resurrected by the Progressives in the early 20th C., briefly disapproved of again during the Roaring 20s, and a major hero to the New Deal (Alexander Hamilton’s reputation seems to follow an inverse motion). We are just now coming out of a prolonged conservative period in American political life (pace SW’s The Age of Reagan, among many others) and it has indeed been a period of prolonged decline for TJ’s image in both popular and academic historical imaginations. Jefferson has been taken to task for owning slaves and for policies which enabled the spread of slavery, for having an intimate relationship with one of his slaves, for being an imperial expansionist, for wanting to either assimilate or eradicate Native Americans, for being a hypocrite, a Jacobin, an overly abstract theorist, a Machiavellian political manipulator, and finally for being an ineffective President who disarmed the nation and then responded to British aggression with an ineffective and misguided embargo.

All these criticisms and many more (some of which contradict each other) were levelled in Jefferson’s own lifetime, and repeated by subsequent generations of historians. For my own part I have become increasingly sympathetic to Jefferson as my studies have continued. This may be in part because my advisor, Sean Wilentz, is a major Jefferson champion; on the other hand, Sean does not really push his views on his students, and some of my other important mentors (Peter Silver, John Murrin) are considerably less enamored of Jefferson (I think, anyway). One factor has probably been reading the Livingston Papers, immersing myself in the world-view of a major Jeffersonian politician and thinker, and becoming increasingly convinced that the egalitarianism at the heart of the Jeffersonian Republican mindset was real, was revolutionary, and had a major positive effect on American development. On issues of race and slavery I think it is fair to make the following general statements: 1) that Jefferson’s views changed in various directions over the course of a long life; 2) that judged by present-day standards those views are generally retrograde and disagreeable; but 3) assessed in the context of his time, place, and social class, those views were undeniably towards the progressive, liberal, forward-thinking end of the contemporary spectrum. On the never-ending Sally Hemings question I am no expert, but have never heard anything about that particular relationship that I find shocking or worthy of severe censure. True, the idea of an intimate connection with a person one legally owns raises troubling ethical issues; but severe imbalances of power, status and wealth have characterized many relationships in the past and continue to do so in the present, without generally being considered grounds for moral condemnation.

But if I resist the recent popular notion of the perfidious, hypocritical Jefferson, I am also wary of presenting Jefferson as a powerful positive force. In fact if I had one contribution to make to the general conversation about the 3rd President, it would be that Thomas Jefferson’s overall agency in controlling and affecting events — either for better or worse — has been generally overestimated. For example, both the spread of slavery in the Deep South and its eradication North of the Ohio have been attributed, with some justification, to Jeffersonian policies; but I would argue, following John Craig Hammond, that the more important factors in both cases were local and collective, not Federal and individual. The institution Jefferson presided over — the Federal Government of the early 19th century — was a severely limited one, in both concrete tangible ways (lack of infrastructure & communications, financial weakness, nonexistent military) and ideological, conceptual ways (sincere belief on state sovereignty, desire to conciliate local elites, geopolitical insecurity). Both Washington’s power within America, and America’s power within the world, were only fractional suggestions of what they would eventually become. In the case of Louisiana specifically, Jefferson had a clear vision of what the new territory would look like, and how it would evolve, under American rule. It was a vision that did not come to pass. The reasons why it did not (and some of the limited, smaller ways in which it did) form one of the major areas of inquiry for my dissertation.

On the other hand, while I think the power of Jefferson the President and diplomat was more limited than generally portrayed, his influence and legacy as both a political thinker and a political leader is of incalculable importance. In this respect Jefferson the thinker undoubtedly permeates this period. But it would be ultimately more true to say “Jeffersonianism” or “Jeffersonian thought” permeates the period, and those formulations, again, point away from great man theories to considerations of the way in which Jefferson was not the architect of his time but simply a man of his time. Like Napoleon and Tsar Alexander in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (and during pretty much the same time period) Thomas Jefferson was not history’s agent but its instrument; and while he plays, as indicated, a major part in my story, it is not his story. And that is how I think he would have wanted it.

Note on Jefferson Books. In an enormous literature, I would single out Dumas Malone as still the most useful sympathetic narrative account of the Jefferson Presidency; Henry Adams’ classic history covers both the Jefferson and Madison Administrations and is thoughtful and balanced. For strongly negative accounts the books of Forrest McDonald and Garry Wills come to mind, as well as Roger Kennedy’s most recent work, and for critical portrayals centered around the slavery issue, Paul Finklestein. Peter Onuf has the market cornered on Jefferson’s views re: American expansion. Extremely useful in general (to grad students especially) is Francis Cogliano’s historiographical survey, Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy.


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