Charles Willson PealePortrait of Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, 1791, Oil on canvas, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Edmund Burke remarked famously—and often—on those men, seized with grand theories, who busied themselves making, unmaking, and remaking the French Revolution. They were counting, he said, on “bungling practice [to correct] absurd theory.” For Burke, the sweeping proclamations on “the Rights of Man” were belied by a spirit of lawlessness; a passion to resist authority running so deep that it would finally detach itself from all manner of moral and legal restraints. But for Thomas Jefferson, viewing France from afar—delivered from the embassy in Paris, installed now as secretary of state in the administration of George Washington—the same record of mayhem did not produce the same impressions or inspire the same judgments. The French Revolution would lurch from confiscation to murderous violence, and yet nothing in this record would mar, for Jefferson, the beauty of the idea itself. The idea was, of course, “liberty.” What was unfolding in France was the natural fulfillment of the American Revolution; it was the first dramatic confirmation that the rights proclaimed in America were universal in their reach.

Jefferson emerges as a man of the Left, simply in advance of his time.

In advancing that same project, the French were now expanding, as Jefferson said, that holy land of liberty. The king, queen, and the national assembly were being chased out of Paris, and yet Jefferson could write to Thomas Paine that “the mobs and murders under which they dress this fact are like the rags in which religion robes the true god.” However unlovely the French Revolution might appear, Jefferson would look through the sordidness and persistently find there the “true god.”1

Jefferson had been succeeded in the embassy in Paris by his protégé, William Short, but he quickly imposed the most benign filter on the dispatches that Short sent from France. Short had arrived with sympathy for the French Revolution, but his reports were sober, realistic, unclouded with illusions. In August 1792, he recounted “[a]rrestations without number of all descriptions of persons suspected of attachment to the late constitution, and the people of Paris menacing the assembly to immolate these victims without delay.”

A month later, Short’s successor, Gouverneur Morris, reported from Paris that there had been a week of “uncheck’d Murders in which some thousands have perished”:

It began with between two and three hundred of the Clergy who had been shut up because they would not take the Oaths prescrib’d by Law, and which they said was contrary to their Conscience… . All those who were confin’d either on the Accusation or Suspicion of Crimes were destroy’d. Madame de Lamballe was (I believe) the only Woman kill’d, and she was beheaded and embowelled, the Head and Entrails were paraded on pikes thro the Street and the Body dragged after them.

In the face of these reports, Jefferson was not instructed by the news but irritated with the messengers. In a revealing letter to Short in January 1793, Jefferson wrote that “the liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?”:

My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.

Conor Cruise O’Brien takes this passage as the centerpiece, or the linchpin, of his new book on Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution. As O’Brien shows, passages of this kind have been discreetly underplayed by the historians; they have been concealed in paraphrase or hidden in ellipses. Writers like Dumas Malone seemed determined to protect Jefferson, or preserve the “real” Jefferson—by which they meant the “liberal” Jefferson—and they could do that by putting his dark side out of view. In this way, the Jefferson who took a posture of detachment in the face of genocide could still be venerated as the leader of the Party of Humane Sentiments. But if Jefferson had not been flying into hyperbole; if his words had been seriously measured; then it would not be such a stretch to suggest, with O’Brien, that Jefferson had contrived the kind of apparatus of justification that would have covered, in our own time, the butcheries of Pol Pot.

O’Brien is determined, in any event, to bring the real Jefferson out of the shadow, and to disrupt the hagiography. The result, at first, is an account that is interesting, but reassuringly familiar: Jefferson emerges as a man of the Left, simply in advance of his time. He seems to be the progenitor of those pilgrims who would journey to the Soviet Union or North Vietnam, and with an exertion of genius, screen out the things that were disagreeable and see what they wished to see. But as O’Brien completes his design, as he nears his end, he produces turns that are indeed quite striking and novel. And then, as though to surpass even himself, he launches into an epilogue on the American “civil religion.” But there, his genius, or his flair for insight, finally devours itself, and he reaches a plane of nearly sublime perversity.

Along the way, as I say, O’Brien manages to see many things rightly, in part because he brings to his reading of the letters and documents the eye of a man seasoned in politics. In that vein, O’Brien quickly grasps that the French Revolution took on a deeper resonance for Jefferson precisely because it played back into American politics. In upholding the idea of liberty, the French were securing liberty in America itself: the American current, running abroad, confirmed the republican idea in the United States. In the reckoning of Jefferson, it strengthened the hands of the “republicans” in America against their adversaries, with their lingering respect for things “aristocratical.” It was Jeffeson’s profound conceit, of course, that he and his friends, sprung from a class of plantation owners, sustained by an economy of slavery, were the true bearers of the republican idea.

But Jefferson’s tie to slavery had to impair his credentials as a champion of “government by consent,” and as O’Brien shrewdly recognized, the French Revolution now offered him a grand device of compensation. The support of the French Revolution could become the test of the purer, unalloyed form of republican government. With attention fixed in that way, Jefferson could soar well above his own complicity in a regime of slavery—and well past the vexing fact that the supposed enemies of republican government, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, were the most sincere opponents of slavery.

Jefferson would use the new moment, offered by the French Revolution, as a surge of renewal for America. It would be a lever for removing the corruption represented by Hamilton and Adams and securing republican government. O’Brien makes the connection as he moves to the end of his book: “Washed in the blood of the victims of the French Revolution … humanity is born again. Above all, America, and even higher above all, Virginia is born again, washed clean at last from that deep blurred single stain, composed of blackness and of guilt.” For this would now be republican government without the strain of principle that was immanent, in America, through the flaw of slavery and the enduring, troubling presence of black people.

Jefferson had said, in that letter to Short, that “were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is.” O’Brien poses the apt question, “What color are the American Adam and Eve?” To that question, as O’Brien says, “there can only be one answer… . Adam and Eve have to be white, because Adam and Eve are free.” In the world of Thomas Jefferson, the equality of free people was an equality that flowed to white men. As soon as black people were free, they would be banished from any land that contained Jefferson. In November 1776, Jefferson was chosen for a committee to modernize and codify the statutes of Virginia, and part of his own work was to draft the statutes bearing on slaves and free blacks. In the additions made by Jefferson, it was illegal for free blacks to enter Virginia of their own accord, or for former slaves to remain there for more than a year after they had been emancipated. White women who bore the children of blacks would also be required to leave the state within a year. Anyone who violated these regulations would be placed “out of the protection of the laws”—which is to say, they could be reenslaved or killed without the restraint of the law.

The attachment to France would gradually lose its political value to Jefferson as France and the United States fell into the famous “quasi-war,” and the French Revolution came to an end with Napoleon’s coup d’etat in December 1799. But the romance of the Revolution for Jefferson came decisively to an end with the incident that touched even closer to home, with the issue of blacks and Virginia. The Revolution in Paris for the Rights of Man had inspired a slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, led by the redoubtable Toussaint-Louverture. While France was at war with England, the British fleet blocked access to the Caribbean, and the French could not deploy a force of any consequence to put down the rebellion. But when Bonaparte made peace with Britain, the sea-lanes were cleared. He could move decisively then to regain this prize of the French colonies.

By that time, Jefferson was president, and a black republic in Saint-Domingue was already setting off tremors in the American South. In an encounter that seems to have been omitted from most textbooks, Jefferson met with the French charge d’affairs, Louis A. Pichon, and suggested, in so many words, that Napoleon would render a useful service to the United States if he would rid them of this black republic. Ironically, Hamilton and Adams, those “heresiarchs,” had favored the independence of this nascent republic. The Federalists had sought to sustain Saint-Domingue with trade and with a certain help in resisting the French. But according to Pichon, Jefferson suggested that if Bonaparte could first make peace with England “then nothing will be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything, and to reduce Toussaint to starvation.”2

Where, in all of this, was the Jefferson of the Declaration of Independence, or the writer who professed to “tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever”? As O’Brien recalls, those sentiments were not out of order in Virginia in the eighteenth century, for not even white Southerners would defend the rightness of slavery. That was especially the case if they traveled, as Jefferson did, in more “national” or cosmopolitan circles. But even at the time, Southerners knew that nothing in these sentiments would induce Jefferson to do anything practical to impair, or destroy, the system that sustained him along with everyone else. In fact, as O’Brien notes, Jefferson was relentless in tracking down his own fugitive slaves, and severe—even gratuitously harsh—in administering punishment to runaways. When it came to the matter of free blacks, Jefferson seemed utterly persuaded that the only tenable solution would require the colonization of blacks, or their shipment out of the country.

In sum, Jefferson reflected the most sober doubts about the prospects of blacks and whites living together in anything resembling a common polity. And as O’Brien suggests, that may explain the paradox of Jefferson’s reputation in the South: he was unpopular in the period just before the Civil War, but he became a grand, venerated figure in the aftermath. Before the war, he was seen as the writer who had rather overdone it with egalitarian prose, calling slavery into question at its root. But after the war, he was the figure who had set forth, in a legal scheme, a stringent policy for dealing with free blacks. The Jefferson Memorial in Washington has, inscribed on the wall, a line from Jefferson’s Autobiography: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [the black slaves] are to be free.” But as O’Brien reminds us, the tablet does not contain the next sentence: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.”

In O’Brien’s reading, it is no wonder that Jefferson became the patron saint of the segregationists and states’ righters in the 1950s and 1960s. He suggests, in a further leap of interpretation, that Jefferson may become again the inspiration of right-wing racists and the militiamen in the 1990s. O’Brien had noted earlier that Jefferson had projected onto his political adversaries his own vices and mistakes. And now O’Brien seems to have taken Jefferson’s technique as his own. The “racism” he fixes on Jefferson he now projects onto conservatives in America; and in this manner he uses Jefferson as a device for defaming what he calls the “right wing” in American politics.

When it came to the matter of free blacks, Jefferson seemed utterly persuaded that the only tenable solution would require the colonization of blacks, or their shipment out of the country.

O’Brien makes his way to that inventive point through the Declaration of Independence. If there is an American “civic religion,” O’Brien understands that the Declaration stands at its center, and the Declaration, he is persuaded, was false at its core. “It is accepted,” he announces, “that the words ‘all men are created equal’ do not, in their literal meaning, apply to women, and were not intended by the Founding Fathers … to apply to slaves.” But Lincoln did think that the central “proposition” of the Declaration applied to women, and in the argument over women’s suffrage, it did not require, as O’Brien claims, any change in “the meaning of the formula, to include women.” Yet, putting that matter to the side, O’Brien asserts quite flatly that “the sublime principles of the Declaration did not apply to [blacks]. They are for whites only.”

With a ring of surety—and with the cover of liberal outrage—O’Brien has simply backed himself into the same understanding announced by Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case. In that decision in 1857, the Court had indirectly “nationalized” slavery; it declared that people could not be dispossessed of their property in slaves when they entered the territories of the United States. In the course of his opinion for the Court, Taney insisted that the Declaration of Independence was never meant to cover blacks. When the drafters declared that “all men are created equal,” they really meant, in this construal, “all white men.” And as Taney explained, the same understanding, carried over into the Constitution, meant that black people literally had no rights that white people were obliged to respect.

But rather than expressing the understanding “accepted” at the time, Taney set off a political firestorm, for he put forth what Lincoln regarded as a heresy—as nothing less than moral treason. Indeed, it was Lincoln’s argument that, until Taney announced this insight of his, no American leader had dared to propound such a teaching in public. Jefferson had ample reason for his guilt and equivocation, for he knew that the doctrine of the Declaration, as an abstract doctrine and as a moral axiom, did indeed encompass blacks as well as whites. Jefferson’s mixed record was well known to Lincoln when he said,

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, … and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

With his large nature, and imaginative reach, it is curious that O’Brien was never drawn to the possibility of St. Paul as another explanation of Jefferson: “In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting against the law that my reason approves.” Jefferson could be an infirm instrument for the principles of the Declaration, but nothing in his infirmity would impair the principles themselves. And yet, it is O’Brien’s inclination to condemn both Jefferson and the teaching of the Declaration. Since the Declaration, in his reading, could not have been meant to encompass all men, black as well as white, it was simply a utopian manifesto that would have, as its principal effect, the toppling of established governments and the unraveling of law. Jefferson was, then, “a spellbinding and anarchic racist prophet.” Years later, one of the suspects in the Oklahoma bombing would be arraigned in a T-shirt bearing Jefferson’s line, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The connection, for O’Brien, was clinching: “Jefferson is far more suitable as a patron saint of white supremacists than of modern American liberals.” He had to be seen, finally, “as prophet and patron of the fanatical racist far right in America.”

But the militiamen, and the fanatical racists, are no more a plausible part of the political Right in America than the Weathermen were a part of the Democratic Left. There is, in fact, no racist party in America, but O’Brien uses the kind of language that subtly identifies the militiamen with the likes of Dick Armey and Ralph Reed. This man with a practiced eye turns that eye to America, and yet he cannot see rightly. But perhaps he misreads the political landscape in America because he misunderstands America at the center of things: he sees America weirdly, because he reads the Declaration of Independence in the style of Chief Justice Taney. Or rather, he takes the founding idea of America, the notion of “natural rights,” and sees it, in the style of Burke, as “the wild gas of liberty.”

And yet, O’Brien himself recorded an encounter with a “Negro chief,” a leader of the revolt among the slaves in Saint-Domingue, who questioned his French captors: “Have you forgotten that you have formally sworn to the Declaration of Rights … which says that men are born free and equal?” Did O’Brien regard that outrage as misplaced, that argument as empty? This man was not invoking, after all, the rights of a Frenchman. His argument made sense only if we take seriously the notion that the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence were indeed universal in their reach; that, as Lincoln understood, those rights sprung from the nature of human beings, and they would hold true in all places where human nature remained the same.

O’Brien makes it clear that he was willing to interrupt the production of this book in order to incorporate late-breaking news, in the spring of 1996, about the accused bombers in Oklahoma. But in a book so arranged, so open to recent events that bear on its main argument, it is all the stranger that there is no mention of the most dramatic event over the past year that bore on relations between whites and blacks in America. There was not even a passing reference in this book to the O.J. Simpson case. And yet, there has been nothing remotely like that case in showing a refusal of blacks to convict a black man who has killed whites. No recent case, then, has posed a sharper question of the willingness of black people to protect the lives of their fellow citizens who are white. But to sense what was deeply disturbing in that case was to remind ourselves of the pessimism borne by Jefferson about the prospect of blacks and whites sharing the same polity, and doing justice to one another. Jefferson’s doubts on that point were hardly novel or racist. Lincoln shared the same sober doubts—and so, too, did Shakespeare (as the late Allan Bloom reminded us with his essays on Othello and The Merchant of Venice). Even politicians seeking the most humane ends could encompass, in their understanding, the sense of a tragic, intractable problem. Yet, there is no concession to that problem in O’Brien—and no disposition even to take notice of the most striking, recent events that may throw out of kilter the political fable he is weaving.

In short, O’Brien manages to erect filters quite as formidable as the filters he attributes to Jefferson. In fact, in the most subtle inversion produced by a writer, O’Brien seems to have absorbed in himself the vices he attributes to Jefferson: the racism he finds in Jefferson he projects onto the political Right, and by implication, then, onto conservatives in America. The racist reading of the Declaration of Independence he incorporates as his own, and through that lens he now offers his commentary on American politics. He would supplant the Declaration of Independence in favor of principles more suited to “multiracialism,” which may be another way of saying the age of “multiculturalism.” In this way, he makes the attack on Jefferson part of the attack of the Left on America. O’Brien is no apologist for genocide, but by the end, he has as many things slightly off, or turned about, as Jefferson had. And one could fairly wonder now of O’Brien, as one could wonder of Jefferson, whether he can look out on politics, in America or abroad, and see what is plainly before him.

  1.  The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800, by Conor Cruise O’Brien; University of Chicago Press, 385 pages, $29.95.
  2.  This infamous dealing over Saint-Domingue— which ended in an orgy of killing and sadism—is one of the most neglected stories on Jefferson. It is treated more fully in Roger G. Kennedy’s Orders from France: The Americans and the French in a Revolutionary World, 1780–1820 (Knopf, 1989).

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