Sunday, December 8, 2013

Was Thomas Jefferson a Conservative?

One of the leading paleo-conservative websites has three posts detailing the place of Thomas Jefferson in the conservative pantheon. While not much of a fan of Jefferson myself, these reflections are passed along to stimulate thought on the role of the Jeffersonian tradition in American conservatism:

Post #1: historian and defender of the Old South Clyde Wilson writes this staunch and stalwart defense of Jefferson as a conservative: Thomas Jefferson, Conservative. Wilson views Jefferson as a conservative reformer, dedicated to the principles of life as he found them in his Virginia planter-society, but also committed to broadening the base of that society in an effort to improve its stability. As Wilson observes:
Who, then, was the real Jefferson? What were these constant themes? They are clear. None offer comfort to the contemporary left. First of all, Jefferson stood for freedom and enlightenment. That he is our best symbol for these virtuous goals is Malone’s central theme. That does not mean, however, that his thought can be twisted to support something that very different men with very different goals postulate to be freedom and enlightenment. His concepts of freedom and enlightenment were always rooted in the given nature and the necessities of his Virginia community and always balanced harmoniously against competing claims.
Post #2: an early essay from Russell Kirk on efforts by progressive historians to distort Jefferson's views, combined with an earnest plea for Jeffersonian principles to form the basis of American renewal: Thomas Jefferson and the Faithless. As the young Kirk writes from the midst of the New Deal era:
To plan effectively the nation’s future we must foster Jeffersonian principles. We must have slow but democratic decisions, sound local government, diffusion of property-owning, taxation as direct as possible, preservation of civil liberties, payment of debts by the generation incurring them, prevention of the rise of class antipathies, a stable and extensive agriculture, as little governing by the government as practicable, and, above all, stimulation of self-reliance. If we are to have a planned economy, collective action, we must have these forces to maintain it. And as yet the national administration, or any other national administration, has been unable to reconcile Jeffersonian ideals with authoritarian methods. If one of these two standards must fall, for the happiness of mankind let it be that of the authoritarian.
Post #3: Ross Lance explains the rhetorical and philosophical grounding of Jefferson's use of natural rights to support American independence: Thomas Jefferson and the American Declaration of Independence: The Power and Natural Rights of a Free People.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I think you meant to write "While NOT much of a fan of Jefferson myself."

Me neither. Frankly, Jefferson the man was a hypocritical pig, and of his politics, his support for the French Revolution--even after its radicalism and tyranny were revealed--makes it impossible to attribute to him and real coherence of principles, especially "conservative" ones.

Indeed, Edmund Burke is known as the godfather of modern conservatism, precisely for his rejection of French radicalism.

Mark D. said...

Agreed on all points, Tom. And I'll make the correction in my main post. Personally, I don't see Jefferson as being part of the conservative tradition.

PatrickLee said...

Read Thomas Jefferson's own words in his blog and form your own opinion!
Several times each week, he posts BRIEFLY on a variety of topics.

Recent posts include:
- “It was a dark and stormy night … “
- Do you want fries with that?
- What do maple trees have to do with slavery?
- Did Jefferson oppose Islam?
- Rebellion, liberty, blood & manure!
- Luxury, drinking & whores! Oh my!

Read the blog at

Tom Van Dyke said...

I just left you a fuller quote than you had on Jefferson and Islam.

"The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every musselman [muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise."

This statement was a part of a March 28, 1786, letter from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, the United States Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Continental Congress, concerning their conversation with the Tripoli ambassador as to why his pirates/terrorists hijacked our merchant ships, stole the ships and cargo while holding the sailors for ransom. (Thomas Jefferson. "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson". Princeton Univ. Press. pp. 9:358.)

lee said...

All this turns on whether or not we can reach a consensus on a definition of "conservatism," a task which has eluded even those of us who call ourselves conservatives. And does "conservatism" refer to those "eternal verities" embraced by self-professed conservatives of any era or does it rest upon particular historical circumstances of a given era?

Tom Van Dyke said...

And does "conservatism" refer to those "eternal verities" embraced by self-professed conservatives of any era or does it rest upon particular historical circumstances of a given era?

Eternal verities, unchanging and objective standards of right and wrong [for instance "natural law" theory], and a recognition of human nature as not subject to redesign by the state or by ideology/political correctness.

Also prudence, that "society" is a highly complex organism that we will never fully be able to understand and predict the subtle interactions of, and so we should be cautious about uprooting its pillars, lest the roof cave in.

The latter is of course why we question Jefferson's conservatism, since the French Revolution he supported was one of the first radicalisms of modernity--a proposed reinvention of both society and man himself--and conservatism ala Edmund Burke says, well, hold on there fella.

Anonymous said...

As you say, Jefferson's optimistic views on human nature and prospects for democracy set him apart from conservatives. It is convenient, however, that those views proved compatible with the political culture of 18th century Virginia.Although suffrage was widespread compared to Britain, the traditional deference for local elites like Jefferson remained an enduring feature. It's easy for Jefferson to exalt the common man when they defer to him as a "natural aristocrat." Personality counted more than policies. I understand that only after the adoption of the Constitution of 1787, the nationalization of political controversies, and the rise of political parties did this deferential attitude begin to subside.

Now Jefferson despised Andrew Jackson. I wonder if he would have revised his views on the common man and democracy had he lived long enough to witness the democracy of the Age of Jackson.

Anonymous said...

I think on political economy, he may be considered conservative--at least in that nearly meaningless sense of "opposed to change." He hoped that the abundance of land would forestall the appearance of manufacturing enterprise, although he recognized it as inevitable. Hamilton, trying to jump-start the process appears more the innovator on this score.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good stuff, Lee. And the bit about Jefferson being repulsed by Jackson and genuine egalitarianism is a hoot!

[I'm not a fan. He was a good dreamer in 1776 and quite a competent and pragmatic president. My admiration is limited to those two periods. Otherwise, he was a backstabbing hypocrite.]

Art Deco said...

Rather anachronistic to apply contemporary political short-hand to Jefferson. Unnecessary too.


That aside, the most durable usage of the term 'conservative' would be as a descriptor of a general disposition toward social life: the notion that there is intelligence encoded in extant practices that you cannot discern very clearly. That disposition does not describe Jefferson.