Monday, May 2, 2016

Jefferson: Most Overrated of the Patriarchs?

In a WaPo review of Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf's game defense of Thomas Jefferson, David O. Stewart reminds us that although Jefferson's ideals and rhetoric were impressive, in the real world he neither lived them personally

“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” cannot entirely avoid compiling the sort of despairing catalogue of the great man’s hypocrisies that the authors set out to transcend. They note that Jefferson championed those who till the soil as the most virtuous of people, yet he found farming deadly dull, and his fitful agricultural efforts were largely unsuccessful. He denounced political parties as instruments of the small-minded and self-interested, yet he was the most skilled political partisan of his era. He co-founded America’s first political party, which annihilated its opponents and swept to a rarely replicated dominance of the government. Jefferson’s party, considerably evolved, survives today as the Democratic Party.
Most fundamentally, the author of the ringing commitment to equality in the Declaration of Independence built his economic and social life on human slavery. Jefferson bought and sold people. Rebellious slaves at Monticello faced whipping or being sold off. The hypocrisy meter nearly melts at the spectacle of America’s apostle of liberty co-habiting for decades with a woman he owned, Sally Hemings, while owning their children. That the Hemingses received special treatment from the master makes the relationships no less disappointing, even incomprehensible, to modern sensibilities.

nor, more tellingly [and far less known], did Jefferson ever do much to make those grand words and hallowed ideals a reality in his new nation either.

After writing the opening manifesto of independence, Jefferson was not a major force in winning it; he played no role in writing the Constitution or gaining its ratification; he did not secure enactment of cherished proposals to protect religious liberty (James Madison did) or create a legal structure for frontier lands (the Northwest Ordinance did) or for the new constitutional government (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Madison did); he neither drafted nor assisted in the adoption of the Bill of Rights; he did not chart America’s foreign policy while secretary of state (Washington did); as president, he failed to defend U.S. ships and sailors when Britain and France savaged them during the Napoleonic Wars (Madison did through the War of 1812); and he never performed a public act that limited or challenged slavery.

“Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”--abolitionist Moncure Conway

[crossposted at

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