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Historian breaks down the myth of Thomas Jefferson’s inscrutability

Historian breaks down the myth of Thomas Jefferson’s inscrutability
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Political discrepancies between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton centered on contradictory interpretations of the U.S. Constitution.


Hamilton favored a slack interpretation of the Constitution—viz., what the Constitution did not strictly prohibit it sanctioned. One large issue for Hamilton was the Bank of the United States (BUS). There was no clause in the Constitution that forbade it, so it in effect had Constitutional sanction. Acceptance and implementation of such loose constructionism would give the Federal Government great power to act as it saw best to act, especially during times of crisis—today, the Basket Clause of the Constitution—and that would lead both to somewhat discretionary interpretations of the document and to government often deciding for the citizenry what is in their best interests without the consent of the people.

Jefferson thought that all Federal actions ought to be in strictest adherence with what was explicit and implicit (in the logical sense of “implicit” where “implies q” entails that is contained in p, just as “bachelor implies man”) in the Constitution—viz., what the Constitution did not address it forbade. Jefferson, thus, objected to BUS. It was unconstitutional precisely because the Constitution said nothing about Federal powers to enact such an institution. Jefferson, as a strict constructionist, was chary of a slippery slope: Allowance of one action in pursuance of a slack interpretation of the Constitution would sanction other actions, and soon lead to the sort of artificial aristoi that John Adams championed—a strong oligarchic, not a republican, government.

There is something, I argue, similar occurring for decades in Jeffersonian scholarship. All scholars admit the extraordinary difficulty of doing Jeffersonian scholarship. Lawrence Kaplan, in Thomas Jefferson: Westward the Course of Empire, acknowledges that Jefferson’s voice has been “the most persuasive in the first generation of the republic’s history,” but adds that “it might also have been the most paradoxical.” John Boles, in Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty, calls Jefferson a “tangle of apparent contradictions.” Both refer to Jefferson, for instance, being a champion of eradication of slavery but a slave-owner as well being a champion of the people but living large. Joseph Ellis in American Sphinx states that Jefferson’s greatness lies in his capacity “to articulate irreconcilable human urges at a sufficiently abstract level to mask their mutual exclusiveness. … The Jeffersonian magic works because we permit it to function at a rarefied region were real-life choices do not have to be made.” Pete Onuf in The Mind of Thomas Jefferson goes so far as to admit the impossibility of knowing the true Jefferson. He spoke in so many voices to so many persons that disentangling the true Jefferson from the voices is a Sisyphean task.

The nodus is that scholars seldom approach “study” of Jefferson as a tabula rasa.In Merrill Peterson’s words, scholars seldom concern themselves with “the history Thomas Jefferson made,” but they come to Jeffersonian scholarship with their own political agenda. Thus, Peterson’s thesis in The Jefferson Image in the American Mind is about “what history made of Thomas Jefferson”—a critique of “biographies” of Jefferson. Where Peterson left off when he finished his watershed work in 1960, another scholar, with equal analytic acuity, could easily begin anew.

Since Peterson published his book, confusion concerning the mind of Jefferson has gotten greater, due to political posturing by conservative and liberal scholars, and appropriation, literally misappropriation, of the words of Jefferson to suit their political needs—that is, loose-constructionist approaches to Jefferson. Rightists use Jefferson to show that America is today a microcosm of, in the words of Voltaire, “le meilleur des mondes possible.” Leftists use Jefferson to show that the hypocrisy and racism they find in America today is the legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

The leftist vilification predominates in the scholarship on Jefferson since Peterson published The Jefferson Image. Scholars such as Onuf, Paul Finkelman, and Pauline Maier have been intent on showing the ordinariness, or even inferiority or viciousness, of Jefferson.

While Onuf bids scholars not to craft images of Jefferson as a god—Jefferson is not to be a synecdoche for America—he praises almost exclusively only those scholars whose views of Jefferson are denigrative. That is consistent with his synecdochic thesis, but in the end, we have not only leveled Jefferson to the ground, we have buried him in it. Jefferson’s vices are numerous and manifest; his virtues, few and not so apparent. Moreover, Onuf himself speaks of Jefferson’s “disguised motives and moral lapses” and concludes that Jefferson is “a monster of self-deception.” Those are not the judgments of someone whose aim is disclosure of a human Jefferson. Onuf’s Jefferson is less than human. There is no mention, for instance, of the decades of Jefferson’s life, spent in service to fellow humans.

Thus, the problem with the synecdochic thesis is Onuf’s inconsistent application of it. He disallows scholars to let Jefferson stand for all that is right in America, but he allows them to stand for all that is wrong with America.

Finkelman argues that Jefferson wished to eliminate the institution only because of “what slavery did to white people.”

The claim that Jefferson wished to eradicate slavery only because of its degenerative effects on whites flies in the face of what Jefferson writes in Query XVIII of Notes on the State of Virginia. There Jefferson writes of the degrading effects of slavery on Whites as well as on black people—“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other” (my italics)—a point Finkelman conveniently misses.

Finally, Maier states boldly that Jefferson was “the most overrated person in American history.”

Maier’s statement typifies a tendency in the secondary literature to use flippantly hyperbolic language to express a point. Yet her point, if true, implies thorough understanding of the mind and motives of Jefferson as well as her acquaintancy with every person in American history at the time of her utterance. And so, the claim is irresponsibly bold, and roundly false. What is most astonishing is that the superlative survived excision in the process of academic screening, which is supposed to be based on academic integrity.

This, of course, is merely a miniscule, but representative, sampling from the secondary literature. What I have said critically of leftist vilification applies to rightist sanctification, but very little of the rightist slant seems to find its way into today’s academic journals.

My point, in keeping with Peterson’s thesis, is that the “paradoxes,” “apparent contradictions,” and “contradictions” generally evanesce when we read Jefferson literally, circumspectly, and without contextomy—i.e., in a strict-constructionist manner. Jeffersonian scholarship is a Hydra’s head, mostly because we make it so.

Jefferson is a difficult task for any historian, because of Jefferson’s polymathy. That polymathy requires that prospective biographers know the literature that Jefferson read—especially the Greek and Latin authors that he cherished (e.g., Tacitus, Seneca, Antoninus, and even Plato, and here it is prudent to have knowledge of Greek and Latin), the moral-sense and moral-sentiment philosophers of his time (e.g., Shaftesbury, Kames, Adam Smith, and Hume), and the empiricists of his day (e.g., Bacon, Bolingbroke, Newton, Hume, Tracy, and Kames). It just might be that the defects that we find in Jefferson are due to our own ignorance, not due to moral maculae in the man.

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a philosopher and historian, editor of "The Journal of Thomas Jefferson's Life and Times," and author/editor of 16 books and over 100 published essays on Thomas Jefferson. He can be reached through www.mholowchak.com.

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