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To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders by Bernard Bailyn

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

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All-American Ambiguity

If you think you’re clear on how each of America’s leading founders thought and acted, pick up a copy of Bernard Bailyn’s new book, To Begin the World Anew, and find out otherwise. Bailyn describes how different individuals expressed certain genius, while at the same time, behaved in ways that seemed outside the image of one-dimensional characters, just like the rest of we humans. Bailyn makes each character richer as a result of his thoughtful revelation of aspects of their life.

Here’s an excerpt about my favorite founding enigma, Thomas Jefferson (pp. 37-42):

The reputations of those who shape the fate of nations become historical forces in themselves. They are twisted and turned to fit the needs of those who follow, until, it seems, there is no actual person left, only a complex mirror in which successive interests see aspects of themselves. Of Jefferson this is doubly—trebly—true. His reputation has had what has been called a "kaleidoscopic changeability." For a century and a half it has been more fluid, more malleable than the reputation of any of the other great figures of the Revolutionary generation, or indeed of anyone else in American history.

The 450 crowded pages of Merrill Peterson's The Jefferson Image in the American Mind show the fabulous complexity of the problem that faces those who wish to understand Jefferson and assess fairly his place in American history. Which Jefferson? The Jefferson image, Peterson writes, has been "an ill-arranged cluster of meanings, rancorous, mercurial, fertile . . . [It] was constantly evolving." Endless "errors and legends and myths" have found their way into history—and not, it seems, accidentally. The "hysteria of denunciation and the hysteria of exaltation" that have followed him through the ages were there at the start—in his own lifetime.'

Many of his contemporaries idolized him, but others—many others—vilified him. Three generations of Adamses spoke of him venomously. John Adams, his lifelong friend and political opponent, in many ways venerated him, but he disagreed with him on basic principles, and declared at one point that Jefferson was as ambitious as Oliver Cromwell and so "warped by prejudice and so blinded by ignorance as to be unfit for the office he holds . . . As a politician he is a child and the dupe of party!" John Quincy Adams improved on his father's judgment. He conceded that Jefferson had an "ardent passion for liberty and the rights of man" but denounced him for infidelity, "pliability of principle," and double dealing. And that Adams's grandson Henry discounted Jefferson's duplicity, but wrote at length, in his monumental history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, about what he took to be Jefferson's failure as a statesman, his opportunistic abandonment of principles, his willingness to "risk the fate of mankind" to justify his theories, and his fatal incapacity—so caught up was he, Adams said, in delusive visions of the present as a golden age—to recognize that he lived "in a world torn by wars and convulsions and drowned in blood." But it was Hamilton who was Jefferson's chief enemy in politics, and his feelings were never in doubt. Hamilton feared what he called the Virginian's fanaticism and believed he was "crafty" and a "contemptible hypocrite." He worked feverishly for Jefferson's election to the presidency when the contest deadlocked in the House, in part because he was convinced that the alternative, Aaron Burr, would be even worse, and in part because he believed that such was Jefferson's hypocrisy, he was unlikely ever "to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity, or his interest."

After two hundred years, while the panegyrics continue and Jefferson still stands tall in the pantheon of the Enlightenment, the savagery of condemnation, increasingly embittered by the charge of racism compounded by the likelihood of his sexual relation with his slave Sally Hemings, exceeds anything seen before. Leonard Levy, reviewing Jefferson's record on civil liberties, subtitled his remorseless case for the prosecution (1963) The Darker Side ("Jefferson never once risked career or reputation to champion free speech, fair trial, or any other libertarian value . . . The certainty that he was right, combined with his terrifying idealism, led him to nail the fate of the nation"). Michael Zuckerman (1989) declared him to be "a man intellectually undone by his negrophobia . . . he was ultimately prepared to abandon all else in which he believed—and believed passionately—sooner than surrender his racial repugnances." Michael Lind (1995) called Jefferson "in many ways the greatest southern reactionary" whose tradition's "final miserable estuary" lies in the careers of Theodore Bilbo and Strom Thurmond. "Every major feature of the modern United States . . . represents a repudiation of Jeffersonianism." Pauline Maier (1997) argued that "what generations of Americans came to revere [as the Declaration of Independence] was not Jefferson's but Congress's Declaration, the work not of a single man, or even of a committee, but of a larger body of men with the good sense to recognize a 'pretty good' draft [Jefferson's] when they saw it, and who were able to identify and eliminate Jefferson's more outlandish assertions and unnecessary words." Joseph Ellis (1997), while conceding that almost alone among the founding generation Jefferson sought "prescriptions for government that at best protected individual rights and at worst minimized the impact of government. . . on individual lives," concludes that "modern day invocations of Jefferson as the 'apostle of freedom' are invariably misleading and problematic." But it was in Conor Cruise O'Brien's foray into Jeffersoniana (1996) that the attacks on the Virginian reached their peak—or nadir. "It is difficult to resist the conclusion," O'Brien wrote, "that the twentieth century statesman whom the Thomas Jefferson of January 1793 would have admired most is Pol Pot . . . We cannot even say categorically that Jefferson would have condemned the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the destruction of its occupants." And in any case, "the Ku Klux Klan was ideologically descended from Thomas Jefferson."

The condemnations, from Hamilton to O'Brien, are intemperate, impassioned, remorseless—peculiarly venomous.  Yet Jefferson remains a brilliant star in the firmament of American ideals and aspirations. Why the contradictions? Why the anomalies in his image and his reputation?

To some extent they reflect inconsistencies in Jefferson's policies, behavior, and character, which are striking. He said he sincerely loathed slavery, condemned it as "an abominable crime," a "hideous blot" on civilization which must somehow be eliminated, but he did not free his own slaves (except a few, probably related to him, in his will); and at the end of his life he advocated the expansion of slavery into the southwestern states. Was he not the ultimate libertarian, the passionate defender of freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of protection against illegal searches and seizures, of the sanctity of habeas corpus? His passion for civil liberties radiates through his most profound state paper, the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.

There is nothing to compare with the elegant, emotive lyricism that lies within the formal cadences of that extraordinary document. One must read it aloud to appreciate the perfection of the rhythms and the immaculate choice of words. But when he came to design the curriculum for the University of Virginia's law school he deliberately omitted books whose political and moral views he disapproved of, and the only professors he proposed were those whose political opinions agreed with his own. In the early Revolutionary years he endorsed loyalty oaths; in suppressing the Burr conspiracy he tolerated lapses in habeas corpus; and in attempting to enforce his ill-fated embargo he ignored the Fourth Amendment and ruled, in certain areas and at certain times, by executive decree and the threat of armed forced

The anomalies and apparent inconsistencies seem endless. He avoided partisan debates in public, but urged others to do the opposite, and he helped support a partisan press. He was a pacifist in principle, but he argued for a retributive war against the piratical Barbary states, on the ground that if America meant to be an effective naval power "can we begin it on a more honourable occasion or with a weaker foe?" He said that a little rebellion against oppressive conditions, every now and then, would be a good thing; "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants" were his famous words. But when the Haitian people rose against their French masters, he declined, as president, to help them. He was a fervent constitutionalist, indeed a strict and narrow constructionist, especially in fighting the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798; but five years later, in arranging for the purchase of Louisiana, he deliberately exceeded the bounds of the Constitution. "The less we say about the constitutional difficulties respecting Louisiana " he told Madison, his secretary of state, "the better," and he added that if some political maneuvers were necessary to overcome constitutional impediments, they should be done "sub silentio.”

So much about Jefferson seemed to contemporaries, as to many historians, contradictory and incongruous. His appearance surprised those who came to pay their respects to the famous statesman, knowing him to be a learned savant, the friend of major figures of the French Enlightenment. Tall, red-headed, and freckled, dressed in ordinary, rather dowdy clothes (yarn stockings, a British official reported with surprise, "and slippers down at the heels"), he sat casually, "in a lounging manner," perched on one hip. There was nothing, one visitor said, "of that firm collected deportment which I expected would dignify the presence of a secretary or minister." Yet everyone recognized that his conversation was wonderfully informed and often brilliant. And why would it not be? Though he was no orator in public forums, he conversed easily, and he was a fabulous polymath: politician, diplomat, architect, draftsman, connoisseur of painting, anthropologist, bibliophile, classicist, musician, lawyer, educator, oenologist, farm manager, agronomist, theologian (or rather, antitheologian), and amateur of almost every branch of science from astronomy to zoology, with special emphasis on paleontology.

Jefferson slipped easily from role to role. His election to the vice-presidency of the United States coincided with his election to the presidency of the American Philosophical Society, a position he enjoyed far more than he did the nation's vice-presidency and which he proudly and actively held for the next eighteen years. In the midst of the ferocious struggle, in 1801, to settle the tie vote in the Electoral

College—a vote, resolved only on the thirty-sixth ballot, that would elevate Jefferson to the presidency, transform the American government, and alter the course of American history—he calmly continued his correspondence with a professor of anatomy about the disposal of some recently discovered fossil bones that bore on disputed points of animal life in North America.

After reading To Begin the World Anew, you may think a little differently about each individual Bailyn analyzes.

Steve Hopkins, April 19, 2003

 

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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2003 issue of Executive Times

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