The Fragile Memory

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On the eve of his departure from London for Paris, Jefferson set out a theme in a letter to James Madison that he was to develop more fully in correspondence with friends and American officials in the weeks ahead, but the basic assumptions—facts, as he stated them—never varied: “With this nation nothing is done; and it is now decided that they intend to do nothing with us. The king is against a change of measures; his ministers are against it, some from principle, others from attachment to their places, and the merchants and people are against it. … This political speculation fosters the warmest feeling of the king’s heart, that is, his hatred to us. If ever he should be forced to make any terms with us, it will be by events which he does not foresee. He takes no pains at present to hide his aversion.”

People, ministry, and king hated the United States, and the king most of all. The king! There was the culprit! “With respect to a commercial treaty with this country,” Jefferson wrote to his friend, Richard Henry Lee, “be assured that the government … has it not in contemplation at present to make any.… When we see that through all the changes of ministry which have taken place during the present reign, there has never been a change of system with respect to America, we cannot reasonably doubt that this is the system of the king himself. His obstinacy of character we know; his hostility we have known, and it is embittered by ill success. If ever this nation, during his life, enters into arrangements with us, it must be in consequence of events of which they do not at present see a possibility.”

Returned to Paris, Jefferson developed the theme of hate in a turbulent stream of letters to friends and associates at home and abroad. Britain “hates us,” he told John Page; “their ministers hate us, and their king more than all other men.” Hostility was “much more deeply rooted at present than during the war.” The same sentiments were sent to William Carmichael, the American representative at Madrid, and to William Temple Franklin. War itself, Jefferson wrote, could not be ruled out as a possibility. “Each country is left to do justice to itself and to the other according to its own ideas,” he told David Ross. Commercial regulations would now come through duties and prohibitions, “and perhaps by canons and mortars; in which event we must abandon the ocean where we are weak … and measure with them on land where they alone can lose.”

In an eloquent passage in his biography of John Adams, Page Smith writes that there was in Jefferson “an ultimate area, a kind of interior arctic region—remote and lonely and cold.” In truth, the ice was penultimate, a frozen crust covering a seething and molten core of hatred for Britain and, above all, her king.

Today, in light of the monumental labors of Sir Lewis Namier and his followers, it is clear that Jefferson profoundly misunderstood the position and the power of the monarch in the eighteenth-century British Constitution—as much in 1786 as a decade earlier. He minimized, too, his own country’s contributions to Anglo-American difficulties of the time. The lesson he read—and preached—to his countrymen—that only by a higher degree of union and efficiency in their government could they hope to achieve the goals of American foreign policy—was eminently right. And it may safely be assumed that his sentiments, powerfully expressed and widely disseminated, gave impetus to the movement toward the formation of a new Constitution. His argument finally rested, however, not on the crying American need to reform herself but on British and especially royal malice. In its formulation, Jefferson was taken captive by his own rhetoric. Thirty-five years later his misreading of the British political scene (where the preoccupation was not hatred of America but the legitimate pursuit of the national interest) emerged in a highly simplified story uncritically accepted by historians ever since.

In the end, of course, the errors and misrecollections Jefferson exhibited in the Autobiography do nothing to diminish a career of high and brilliant accomplishment; but a burden of major responsibility attaches to those later writers who transformed them into a spurious reality. In his commentary on George Ill’s treatment of Jefferson at the levee in March, 1786, Charles Francis Adams may have been indulging in a certain amount of his own rhetoric; but even if he was only partially correct in suggesting that serious effects upon the welfare of nations arise from the “caprices” of important personages, it is vital to have the facts, all the facts, straight. It must be remembered, too, that his dictum cuts two ways.

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