Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Jefferson Was a Jerk

And let's not forget the grandaddy of Jefferson punkings, from the October 1996 Atlantic:

In the multiracial American future Jefferson will not be thought of as the Sage of Monticello. His flaws are beyond redemption. The sound you hear is the crashing of a reputation
by Conor Cruise O'Brien


Phil Johnson said...

Everyone was a jerk in those days. Get real.
By the way, I would like to get some opinions on the historian, Daniel P. Mannix (sp?). I'd guess Tom would be the most well informed; but, I don't know. Anyone with any ideas, please respond. Maybe create a thread about the evaluation of historians or those who hold themselves up to be such.



Tom Van Dyke said...

I can't be of help here, Phil, but it's a good idea. I just remember that the Atlantic article created quite a buzz in 1996, taking on a great American sacred cow, the only one along with Washington and Lincoln to be on a coin and a bill!

BTW, I recall thinking O'Brien was way over the top, although I enjoyed it. A defense is here:


jimmiraybob said...

"Jefferson Was a jerk"

Well, we all have to be something.

JMS said...

Yeesch - what a waste.

An amazon.com customer reviewer accurately summed up conservative Irish Anglophile Con O’Brien’s book on Jefferson as “a barroom tirade masquerading as a book,” and continued with the rejoinder, “there, there, Con, put the bottle down and come to bed.”

History is about nuance, complexity, context and at least some empathy (walk a mile in their shoes before judging); it cannot be encapsulated on a bumper sticker or a Timothy McVeigh T-shirt.

Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered for three things: author of the Declaration of Independence and Virginia Statue on Religious Freedom, and founder of the University of Virginia. Every generation should debate the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. He was undoubtedly a flawed man, but should these flaws diminish his great accomplishments? Any article, book or mock trial (Annette Gordon-Reed refers in her book to the CSPAN mock trial presided over by CJ William Rehnquist – you can google it) should judge the entirety of Thomas Jefferson’s career—not just one aspect or incident—but his overall legacy. Just as Jefferson believed the Creator would judge each according to their works, we must strive to do the same.

“We the People,” not Thomas Jefferson, should be charged with failing to live up to the ideals he proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence—that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

There are so many excellent books about Jefferson than O’Brien’s (an ideological hack) and Meacham’s (a journalist out of his depth). Here are a few good ones: 1) Thomas Jefferson – R.B. Bernstein (best “brief” bio); 2 & 3) both of Annette Gordon’ Reed’s books; 4) Sworn on the Altar of God – Edwin Gaustad; 5) American Sphinx – Joseph Ellis; 6) essay in To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders – Bernard Bailyn

JMS said...

I forgot to mention/include the great PBS Frontline documentary, Jefferson's Blood. Shelby Steele articulates some great insights into the legacy of Jefferson and race. You can google the transcript. Students love to discuss this video.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx JMS. Transcript:


I linked the Conor Cruise O'Brien piece as sort of a recent milestone in revisionism--it did make a big stink in '96. I think it was an OK opening salvo at re-examining Jefferson's secular sainthood.

For I think Jefferson has gotten a lot more reverence than he has earned. After penning the Declaration, he took no real part in fighting the Revolution. [His wife was ill.]

Neither did he participate in drafting the Constitution. His claim to fame re Virginia's statute for religious freedom is to a document that was pushed by Madison, and approved more for its preserving the interests of Baptists against the Anglicans and Presbyterians than for any great triumph for "free thinking."


Jefferson was a disloyal Secretary of State to George Washington, a fickle friend to both Benjamin Rush and John Adams, and a supporter of the murderous French Revolution long after its offenses against humanity were well-known.

This doesn't even get to his hypocrisy on slavery, of which we might generously say that if hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, at least Jefferson was a hypocrite about it instead of a full-throated apologist for slavery---and did indeed envision its end, albeit through a glass, darkly somehow someday, and not one that required any personal sacrifice whatsoever from him.

Brian Tubbs said...

O'Brien definitely goes over the top in savaging Jefferson, though (as TVD suggests) I think his work has helped serve as a counter-balance to the Jefferson mythology that seemed to peak in the mid-20th century.

The true giants of the founding era (as judged by Americans at the time) were Washington and Franklin. O'Brien serves a purpose if he helps keep Jefferson out of that top rung.