Reprinted from IOS Journal, Volume 7, Number 1, 1997.
David N. Mayer is a professor of law and history at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.
The twentieth-century statesman whom the Thomas Jefferson of January 1793 would have admired most is Pol Pot, head of the totalitarian Cambodian government that killed nearly half his country's eight million people. Such is the dramatic charge in The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, a recent book by the left-wing Irish litterateur Conor Cruise O'Brien.
But how can he say such a thing? Is he just some eccentric and naive amateur historian?
Perhaps so. But he is not alone in his judgment. Examining O'Brien's book for National Review, Forrest McDonald, a leading conservative historian of the American revolution, maintained that O'Brien was right on target. And columnist Richard Grenier of the conservative Washington Times, drawing on the material in O'Brien's book, compared Jefferson to Heinrich Himmlerto Jefferson's disadvantage.
What is going on? How can these writers of high repute, leftist and conservative alike, maintain that a man whose name is synonymous with human freedom would have felt anything but abhorrence for the genocidal Pol Pot and Heinrich Himmler?
The liberal view of Jefferson is epitomized by the Jefferson Memorial, dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 13, 1943the bicentennial of Jefferson's birth. Looking at many of the inscriptions on the walls within the Jefferson Memorial, a student of Jefferson's thought can see that they were selected to serve as propaganda for the New Deal. Thus, Jefferson's description of a wise and frugal federal government as one having a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants does not appear. Instead, there is a quotation in which Jefferson, advocating frequent constitutional change, admonished that as circumstances alter, laws and institutions ... must advance to keep pace with the times. The words are Jefferson's, but the Jeffersonian philosophy is missing. In a sense, the memorial symbolized Jefferson's apotheosis: with its dedication, he joined Washington and Lincoln in the American pantheon and, in the process, was transformed from philosopher to cultural icon. Gone were his ideas favoring limited government; to liberals, he became simply the father of
The conservative attempt to co-opt Jefferson has generally been much truer to his political thought. For example, in 1938, Samuel Pettengill, a conservative Democratic congressman who was appalled by Roosevelt's New Deal, wrote a book called Jefferson the Forgotten Man, which showed how far Roosevelt Democrats had departed from the party's Jeffersonian roots. The forgotten Jefferson in Pettengill's book was indeed the Thomas Jefferson of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Jefferson who profoundly believed in individual liberty and limited government. Most important, Pettengill's Jefferson took seriously the constraints that the Constitution placed on the powers of the federal government. Pettengill closed his book by quoting one of Jefferson's most famous strictures about constitutional interpretation: To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition. A boundless field of power, Pettengill observed, was precisely what the socialist, communist, and fascist governments of Europe had in 1938. Unfortunately, Pettengill's valiant effort to restore the true political Jeffersonand the principles of the American Revolutionfailed, and the modern welfare state was established.
But even conservatives, and especially conservative intellectuals, have never been comfortable with the whole of Jefferson's philosophy. He is too much a man of the Enlightenment: rational, focused on the natural world rather than the supernatural world, and more on man than God. Thus, in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, John Adams represents the American founders. And defending Jefferson in a recent issue of National Review, Richard Brookhiser nevertheless felt compelled to concede that Jefferson was a fanatic and a dilettante.
Over the past several decades, these liberal and conservative stances have become so frozen that no major new study of Jefferson (except my own, The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson [Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994]) has focused on the substance of Jefferson's thought. Instead, modern Jefferson scholarship has become obsessed with exploring Jefferson's character and the circumstances of his life. For example, Andrew Burstein's The Inner Jefferson sees the man as a profoundly sentimental person, a grieving optimist, in the words of the book's subtitle. Herbert Sloan's Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt downplays the significance of philosophical principles in Jefferson's political opposition to such Hamiltonian programs as the national debt, arguing instead that the critical determinants were Jefferson's private problems with indebtedness. Joseph Ellis's American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson is a more complicated study that also downplays the significance of ideas, reducing Jefferson's political philosophy to a product of his character. To Ellis, Jefferson remains an enigmathe American Sphinx of his book titlean interpretation essentially in accord with that offered by filmmaker Ken Burns in his new television documentary, Thomas Jefferson.