“Thomas Jefferson’s influence on American political history outstrips that of any other figure.” That is the declarative opening of Kevin R.C. Gutzman’s political history of Thomas Jefferson Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America. It has also been said that if Jefferson is wrong then America is wrong. Who is Thomas Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson is my favorite Founding Father. I even wrote an undergraduate US history paper, subsequently published in a journal before I graduated, on Jefferson (and Hamilton). As Gutzman writes, “Jefferson was more than the supreme politician of the revolutionary era: he was its symbol.”
Jefferson is synonymous with the American Revolution. He wrote the Declaration of Independence. While somewhat cheaply and easily critiqued by Neanderthals for being a hypocrite, his statement that “All Men are Created Equal” has given America a north star to aim for in all of its social reforms and struggles to achieve that equality. Jefferson’s commitment to freedom of conscience, natural rights, equality before the law, inspired many a radicals and revolutionaries inside America and beyond its borders.
Gutzman takes a new spin on Jefferson. Even after the American Revolution, the Sage of Monticello remained a revolutionary and sought to remake the America he helped give birth to. After the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the ratification of the Constitution, which enhanced the power of the federal government—which Jefferson gave tacit support to while Ambassador to France—Jefferson became embroiled in the war to remake America. From 1789 until his death, but especially between the election of George Washington and Jefferson’s own presidency, 1801-1809, the Virginian Founding Father was embroiled with many a conflict that defined early America and set the republic on the path it eventually tread. As Gutzman wrote, “[Jefferson’s] diplomatic masterstroke, the Louisiana Purchase, and its implementing initiative, the Voyage of Discovery (aka the Lewis and Clarke Expedition), made America a continental republic.”
While Jefferson is the architect of America as a continental (and unintentionally with it, global) superpower, Gutzman focuses on Jefferson’s struggles after the Revolution and Constitutional Convention to continue to shape and remake America in the political and social struggles that ensued after the defeat of Great Britain. The book is divided into these struggles, each serving as an illustrative and insightful chapter assessing the revolutionary’s new revolutionary struggles: federalism, freedom of conscience, slavery, indigenous (and slave) assimilation, and education.
The Jefferson of yesteryear was remembered principally for his politics, freedom of religion, and promotion of education. The Jefferson of today is generally pilloried by critics as a hypocrite for his writings against slavery but his owning slaves until his death (unlike George Washington, Jefferson didn’t free his slaves). This clouds the picture and understanding of the Sage of Monticello.
A significant portion of Gutzman’s history is a rehabilitation of the centrality of federalism to Jefferson’s thinking. For Jefferson, the “original” Constitution was one in which the states had primary political authority and a stronger federal government needed in the aftermath of the failure of the Articles of Confederation had its defined authority specifically spelled out in the Constitution. Jefferson is the architect of Constitutional Literalism in American politics as much as he is the father of tenth amendment states’ right supremacy. Jefferson believed in a union of individual people and individual states, democratic and expansive, only loosely aligned in a national union. As Gutzman states, “Jefferson remained committed, as he had been since 1774, to a federal vision in which individual states retained primary authority over their own affairs. The federal government should be understood as possessing only the few powers the states had granted it through the enumerations found in the Constitution.”
Jefferson’s federalism, which can now be described as de-centralization, was democratic in nature. By having small “ward republics” and towns and states with the greatest power, over and against the federal government, this would permit greater liberty to the masses. As Jefferson himself states, ‘the true barriers of our liberty in this country are our State governments; and the wisest conservative power ever contrived by man, is that of which our Revolution and present government found us possessed.’” Gutzman, in assessing Jefferson’s federalism, “Jefferson had developed a profoundly democratic republic vision.”
Freedom of conscience, another one of the great Jeffersonian principles, was tied to Jefferson’s implicit radical Protestant theological inconsistencies. Contrary secularists, Jefferson was not an atheist or even secular in the sense that the term is used today. As Gutzman (and all serious Jefferson biographers and historians know), notes, [Jefferson was] open to religious inquiry without pushing religious orthodoxy.” Jefferson’s fight for free conscience was anchored in the radical Protestant tradition of John Milton, John Locke, and the Earl of Shaftesbury. In Jefferson’s outlook, “the obligation to God is antecedent to the social compact.” Therefore, there should be no establishment of religion because the freedom to worship God comes before the creation of any society or state. Jefferson’s fight to disestablish the Episcopal Church in Virginia and commitment to religious freedom as governor and president was tied to the classical doctrine of free conscience: the freedom to worship God (not the freedom to banish God). Jefferson’s promotion of religious liberty won him the support of dissident Christianities, especially Baptists, during his lifetime.
Entering the difficult waters of racism, slavery, and indigenous politics, Jefferson’s views and politics are far more complicated than let on by the popular media. Jefferson did hold slaves, as everyone knows. He didn’t free his slaves after his death. Yet he was an active politician in anti-slavery politics, preventing slavery’s expansion in the Northwest Territory and taking a stand against the importation of slaves as president. Jefferson’s views on Africans was that they were intellectually inferior to whites (and Native Americans), however, Jefferson also believed in “blacks’ right to self-government.” Jefferson’s belief that Africans should govern themselves motivated his reverse colonization politics: freed blacks should be given financial support by the United States to return to Africa to govern and live for themselves.
Concerning indigenous Americans, or Native Americans, Jefferson believed that high levels of education and democratic politics would bring them into the civilizational orbit of America. Jefferson reached these beliefs by the prevailing “Noble Savage” belief of Enlightenment philosophers. Indigenous Americans seemed to have these qualities: virtue, military discipline, an implicit democratic self-governance, and high degrees of intellectual ingenuity and intuition. This meant, for Jefferson, education and civilization would make them American. He even supported Protestant missions to indigenous tribes to spur the effort despite Jefferson’s famous views on the separation of religion and politics. Ultimately, however, Jefferson’s Native American policies were in vain. The United States didn’t adopt assimilationist policies but displacement.
Lastly, Jefferson’s greatest accomplishment (in his own mind) was the creation of the University of Virginia. What unites Jefferson’s politics of democratic republicanism, self-government for Africans, and indigenous assimilation? Education. Jefferson believed—as many Americans do today—that education is the means to transform the self and society at large. In many ways, despite the shining star of Jefferson having dimmed somewhat in the past 50 years, America—left, right, and center—is still Jefferson’s child.
Politically, Jefferson believed education was the means to self-government, republican virtue, and greater democratization. On race and slavery, Jefferson also believed that education would lead to whites seeing the evil of slavery and that through education gradual abolition would occur and support for black self-government (through repatriation to Africa) would grow. On indigenous rights, Jefferson believed that education would lead them into the American civilizational sphere as equals to whites. And, on education itself, nothing mattered more importantly to self-improvement, democracy, and domestic and global peace than education. Right or wrong, education was the central heart for Jefferson’s revolutionary views and politics. Education would enlighten all to revolutionary ideals.
Liberals earnestly agree with Jefferson’s politics of democratization and education as the road to self-empowerment; conservatives agree with Jefferson’s federalism, his commitment to a politics of decentralization and individual freedom. Civil Rights movements have often invoked Jefferson, despite his own shortcomings, so that America live up to its principles of equality. Above all, as Gutzman concludes, “This genius of republican optimism gave vent to all his hopes in fathering that school [of education and liberty].” Many of us still agree with that hope: education and liberty go hand-in-hand for the advancement of democracy against entrenched power. That was Jefferson’s revolutionary attitude in 1776, in 1800, and at his deathbed in 1826. Even after the United States achieved independence, Jefferson was on the frontline trying to “remake” America into a more egalitarian society. We’re still treading on that path he began walking more than two centuries ago.
Thomas Jefferson Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America
By: Kevin RC Gutzman
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017; 288pp.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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