Mark Noll

Jefferson's America?

From 1789 to 1815, in Gordon Wood's telling.

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The sharpest irony that Wood's account exposes concerns Jefferson himself. A sweeping indictment of this democratic visionary does not need to call on those who have made a career out of trashing Jefferson, but can be built from evidence supplied by Wood himself. The indictment has many particulars.

Jefferson was, first, driven so powerfully by ideological certainty that he often lost his grip on political reality. As early as the 1780s, Wood describes Jefferson's political principles in "their innocence and impracticality … their utopianism." He shows that Jefferson's ardent support of the French Revolution was never tempered by any reaction to its excessive bloodshed. He concludes that in their attitudes and dealings with France, "the naïveté of the Revolutionary Americans [including Jefferson] seems astonishing." And in one of the long-running themes of the last part of the book, Wood details how delusionary Jefferson's belief was that by regulating American trade, the new nation could force its will on Britain, France, and Spain. Following this logic to its conclusion led Jefferson to his economically disastrous Embargo of 1807, which shut down American shipping in a fruitless effort to influence the European great powers. If Jefferson's hope was commendable (to find a peaceful solution to international tension), his means for pursuing that hope bordered on fantasy.

The more serious charge against Jefferson concerns the deep vein of hypocrisy that colors his entire life. The leader of the Democratic Republicans proclaimed an "empire of liberty" as a principled goal, yet was willing steadily to contemplate conquest of Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. In the run-up to the War of 1812, he seems never to have even considered finding a "just war" rationale when he encouraged the invasion of Canada and the absorption of Canada into the United States.

This great proponent of republican ideals of virtue, which required gentlemen to be free of burdensome obligations to others, lived constantly beyond his means and so was perpetually in debt.

Jefferson was the era's strongest defender of limited government and strict constitutionalism, yet when it served his interests he unilaterally expanded the powers of the central government to purchase Louisiana and to punish violators of his Embargo and other trade restrictions.

On slavery, Jefferson was said to be a kind master and did express regret about breaking up slave families, yet in his lifetime he sold or gave away 161 of his slaves, which often resulted in breaking up families. He claimed to "abhor severity" and did not beat his slaves himself, but had no compunctions against having others whip his disobedient chattel. Most amazing was his public stance on race mixing, as explained by Wood: "Although Jefferson had no apprehensions about mingling white blood with that of Indians, he never ceased expressing his 'great aversion' to racial mixing between blacks and whites." Yet Jefferson himself fathered several children with the slave Sally Hemings. Jefferson's record on slavery may have been relatively typical for his place and age, as Wood suggests, though especially this last self-contradiction causes doubts about that assertion.

Given this lengthy record of double dealing and runaway ideology, it is a puzzle how Jefferson can be regarded as embodying America's finest ideals or how, more generally, the new nation can be viewed as an "empire of liberty."

Again, the example of Daniel Walker Howe is instructive. For his title, Howe took Samuel F.B. Morse's first telegraph message, "what hath God wrought," and determined to use it without punctuation so that it could be read both providentially and ironically. As in Howe's volume, Wood presented the material for a complex moral judgment on American history in his era, yet despite the presence of such material—especially for slavery and Jefferson—the book does not feature that ambiguity as a controlling theme.

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