June 2017

Comment by Richard B. Morris, Gouverneur Morris professor of history at Columbia University; editor of the Encyclopedia of American History:

It is understandable that Jefferson should receive relatively sympathetic treatment at the hands of Soviet encyclopedists. Here is the man who said at the time of Shays’ Rebellion: “God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion…The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” But he coupled these observations with the assertion in another letter written around the same time that “the will of the majority should always prevail.” This, then, is the flaw in the Jefferson article. It gives an oversimplified portrait of a liberal bourgeois leader with proletarian leanings, whereas the sage of Monticello was a complex personality, an enlightened aristocrat who wanted his country to be a democracy rather than a capitalistic oligarchy or a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Despite the article’s assertion, no outlawry procedure has ever been uncovered against Jefferson for his “Summary View,” the pamphlet referred to in the Soviet article. In fact, although the pamphlet gained wide circulation in America, it scarcely caused a ripple in Great Britain. The election of 1796 was hardly “violent,” but it was certainly close. The much maligned Alien and Sedition Acts are parodied in this article. The Embargo Act interdicted trade with all nations, not only England and France, and the opponents of this measure came from New England and New York rather than from the “upper bourgeoisie .” It is perhaps not quite fair to say that Jefferson rejected the religious bases of morality, for toward the end of his life he wrote his “Morals of Jesus,” which, in his opinion, proved that he was “ a real Christian , that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”

To say that Jefferson “envisaged the division of the land to all workers without compensation” is a distortion of his views. Except for supporting the confiscation of Tory estates and drafting legislation abolishing primogeniture and entails, Jefferson nowhere advocates the redistribution of property. He himself held through inheritance, marriage, and acquisition some ten thousand acres and a considerable number of slaves. In his Second Inaugural he asserted that the government should maintain “that state of property, equal or unequal , which results to every man from his own industry or that of his father’s” (italics added). Perhaps as no other statesman of his time did, Jefferson envisaged the West as affording the small farmer and the landless a grand opportunity to acquire a stake in society. True, in his “Notes on Virginia,” he expressed the hope that “our workshops remain in Europe,” but he was to change or substantially modify this view.

The article is perhaps more significant for what it leaves out than for what it includes. Thus, it stresses what Jefferson was not able to accomplish in his draft of the Declaration of Independence rather than the affirmative role of that document in American political thought. It is true that Jefferson’s clause censuring the slave trade was stricken out by the Congress. But the Declaration does recognize the right of revolution, and asserts the end of government to be the attainment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fact that a bourgeois idéologue should have substituted “happiness” for Locke’s “property” might have been worth calling to the attention of Soviet readers.

At several points the inconsistency of Jefferson’s stand on slavery is stressed. The article quite unfairly blames Jefferson for not taking any action to end slavery when he was President, notwithstanding the fact that the slave trade was officially outlawed during his administration and on his recommendation. Nor is he given credit for the far-reaching proposal in his Ordinance of 1784, which, if adopted, would have barred slavery from all the western territories after 1800, a proposal which was incorporated into the Northwest Territorial Ordinance of 1787.

Two other omissions are surprising. How can one understand the things for which Jefferson stood without mentioning Hamilton, who epitomized the things that he was against? Even in so brief an article the long political and intellectual partnership of Jefferson and Madison deserves at least passing mention. In the enactment of legislation in Virginia separating church and state, Madison’s role was certainly as consequential as Jefferson’s, and in the organization and leadership of Jefferson’s party, Madison’s part, at least down to 1796, was pre-eminent.

Perhaps the most serious distortion in the article is the assertion that “reactionary bourgeois historians falsify the figure of Jefferson.” This might have been true had the article appeared fifty years ago, as nineteenth-century historians were generally not enamored of Jefferson. We think of Hildreth and Von Holst among his severest critics, and of Albert J. Beveridge perpetuating in our own century, in his monumental biography of John Marshall, the traditional FederalistWhig anti-Jeffersonian bias. But with J. Allen Smith and Charles A. Beard, with Claude G. Bowers and Vernon L. Parrington, Jefferson was apotheosized, and his chief adversary, Alexander Hamilton, reduced to the nadir of his reputation among the historical guild. Despite some revisionism over the past few years, school and college texts almost invariably depict Jefferson as a simple agrarian and decent democrat fighting against the corrupt forces of capitalism and industrialism personified by Hamilton. It’s all a plot, of course, to keep Americans from understanding Thomas Jefferson, “the progressive.”