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Nathaniel Burt

July 2024
2min read

Author, composer, and poet

Most overrated:

I’ve always considered Thomas Jefferson the single most overrated public figure in American history. Despite my firm, even obstinate devotion to his political party in its modern guise, it has always seemed to me that as a public political figure he was a failure, rather a baleful one. No one, of course, not even the blackest Republican, could deny his glamour as an ideologue and fascinating figure of the Enlightenment. But as a practical politician he has been praised, or excused by his friends, beyond his deserts. He is not the creator of American independence. Independence was declared by Congress under the leadership of Richard Henry Lee, and Jefferson, who just wrote up the press release advertising the fact (beautifully), gets all the credit. His term as governor of Virginia was near to being disgraceful. The mission to Paris did nothing but delude him into believing in the French Revolution, with fatal later effects on American policy. He had no heroic war career during the Revolution (like Hamilton) and missed out entirely on the framing of the Constitution. Along with his equally contentious enemy Hamilton he did his best as Secretary of State to sabotage the crucial Presidency of Washington. He just squeaked into the Presidency himself because of Hamilton, of all people. Despite his popularity his administration was a fiasco. His ineptness in domestic affairs brought on the new Republic’s first depression and, in foreign affairs, its first rather despicable war. His perverse antifederalism planted the seeds of America’s much more fateful war, that between the states. It was devout Jeffersonians who seceded. Even as an avowed enemy of slavery he failed to free his own slaves, let alone abolish slavery. Though America certainly owes to him the Louisiana Purchase and much of its conception of liberty, it also owes to him many of its partisan follies. He can’t be overrated as a charismatic personality (along with Aaron Burr) or as a man of immense gifts; but as a real, active figure in public life he was close to being a disaster.

Most underrated:

In contrast, Jefferson’s fellow liberal and Virginian Richard Henry Lee is almost totally forgotten, and most certainly underrated. His entire career from 1757 almost to his death in 1794 was spent continuously and actively in largely profitable and useful public activities, from his early attacks on oligarchic corruption when he was in the Virginia House of Burgesses to his helping create the Bill of Rights. It is Lee, not Jefferson, who is the true ancestor of independence, from his early forthright statements and actions against British misrule to his final achievement in the congressional action of June 7, 1776. This motion created the condition of American independence. Jefferson and his committee magnificently elaborated the meaning of the act, but it was Lee who acted. Despite his opposition to the Constitution, Lee agreed to serve under it as one of the very first senators to help forge the crucial Bill of Rights, which gave that document its true libertarian essence. He died before the new century and was forgotten. He had none of Jefferson’s charm. He was as quarrelsome and partisan as most of his contemporaries, but his faithfulness in political office and the result of all that hard work—independence and the Bill of Rights—deserve more recognition.

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