In our present Age of Social Justice, study of America’s founders, if it’s being conducted at all, can be summed up in hashtags. The centuries of hard won wisdom which the founders sought to institutionalize through the creation of a constitutionally limited democratic republic are reduced down to a collection of puerile slogans. The central propositions of individual liberty, property rights, limited government and equality under the law are routinely denigrated as a system of white supremacist, patriarchal colonialism by the academic intelligentsia. Of all our nation’s founders, the one whose entire legacy is increasingly subject to reductionist caricature is Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to a steady drumbeat of smug, ahistorical SJW revisionism from artists and academics alike, Jefferson is likely to be perceived merely as the guy who had sex with his slave to the average American.
The prevalence of these leftist cartoons is exactly what makes Kevin Gutzman’s new book about Jefferson such an essential read. Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary is a tour through Jefferson’s thought. Specifically, it highlights what distinguishes him from other national founders and why he lives up to the designation “revolutionary”. These core ideas include federalism, freedom of conscience, colonization, racial assimilation, and the establishment of the University of Virginia. Gutzman’s exhaustively researched book gives us a portrait of a true Renaissance Man; a man whose depth of genius extended beyond his corpus of political thought and spanned every discipline from architecture to anthropology and archeology. As wonderful as Gutzman’s reading of the Jeffersonian record is, it also illustrates the myriad ways his legacy has been overrun, hijacked and discounted.
The first section of the book focuses on the Jeffersonian idea of federalism, and the various ways he fought for it throughout his political career. Federalism is more commonly known as “state’s rights”, but Jefferson’s concept was even more radical than the narrow construction to which we’re presently confined. For Jefferson, it meant that the federal government was strictly constrained by the powers enumerated in the Constitution and that anything that was not expressly within federal purview would redound to the states. He stood by this principle throughout his political career, and it put him at odds, often acrimoniously, with Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. From his stinging rebuttal to the Hamiltonian Bank Bill to his opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, what emerges is an unbroken line of thought which distinguishes Jeffersonian federalism. Time and again, Jefferson appealed to a strict construction of the Constitution. Specifically, he emphasized the power reserved by the States enshrined in the 10th Amendment, whether to enforce federal law. It might be easy for the modern academic to take Jefferson’s stance towards the Missouri Crisis as an endorsement of slavery, but it should be viewed as evidence of his steadfast adherence to this principle.
Though Jefferson formed what are technically the ideological roots of the modern Democratic Party, I am doubtful you’ll find a single modern progressive who subscribes to the belief that the Constitution is to be strictly constructed or that federal power should be constrained in any way. One need look no further than the treatment Neil Gorsuch received in his confirmation hearing to see how the Left views a strict reading of the Constitution.
His defense of federalism during the Missouri Crisis dovetails into the subsequent section which explores his equally fervent belief in freedom of conscience. Just as he believed the federal government had no jurisdiction over an individual State’s sanction of slavery, he fought just as hard to ensure that the State held no power to compel thought of any nature. Especially in matters of faith.
Any modern progressive who’s championed the separation of Church and State owes a debt of gratitude to Jefferson. Gutzman chronicles the numerous pieces of legislation penned by Jefferson which actively severed the State’s ability to compel any form of Christian teaching or ritual. Jefferson’s ultimate legislative triumph which culminated his thought and enshrined the church-state separation was The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
Jefferson’s insistence on severing Church and State didn’t go down so well with some of the more devout Americans. Like the hysterical tantrums of the contemporary progressive Left, New England Congregationalists voiced their opposition to Jefferson’s candidacy in 1800 in the most hyperbolic terms. If you took Timothy Dwight’s paranoid rantings and replaced the Biblical references with the Left’s infantile memes bemoaning the demise of Democracy, the net result would be the same. Opposition to liberty never changes, apparently. Only the slogans.
The purge of all things Jeffersonian from the historical record is easily understood. The current Social Justice Cultural Revolution is pathologically fixated on slavery, racism, and all forms of oppression real and perceived. Many prominent historians have revised their positions on Jefferson downward as PC sentiment rises. Besides being a slave owner, Jefferson held some views which were rather controversial. His advocacy for human liberty was seemingly completely at odds with being a slave owner. It’s easy to look through a contemporary lens and condemn him for holding these views. Gutzman doesn’t sugar coat Jefferson’s thought, but he takes a more even handed approach than his contemporaries.
Jefferson’s written record indicates that he held views that were, in fact, supremacist in nature. With respect to the emancipation of blacks, Jefferson viewed colonization as the preferable alternative to integration fearing that America might see a Haitian-style slave rebellion of its own. He contended that blacks stood a better chance of achieving the type of self-government for which he fought within the context of an ethnically and culturally homogeneous society rather than a mixed one. In this respect, Jefferson was a sort of proto-Richard Spencer.
Gutzman takes the view that Jefferson’s thinking on this topic was unenlightened and that blacks, by and large, view American ideals with respect and forbearance. I believe he is largely correct, but I am also inclined to believe that the Ta-Nehisi Coates’ of the world will continue to exploit Jefferson and his legacy to fuel their own grievance industries.
Another popular lamentation actively cultivated by the progressive grievance machine is the treatment of the Native American population at the hands of the Founders. Jefferson’s views towards the Native Americans were oddly contrary to those he held towards the black population since he believed them to be equal in mind and body to the white man. Though it will doubtless do little to assuage the merchants of American antipathy, his policy was hardly the agenda of genocide that you’re likely to hear from the more hysterical voices. Jefferson held that Native Americans had a “right of preemption” against other nations which entitled them to acquire or dispose of property rights through contract or, if necessary, war. Native Americans eventually assimilated American values which were due in no small part to economic and agricultural policies enacted by Jefferson. However, the eventual dispossession of the Native American land is also directly attributed to Jeffersonian doctrine. Just as with the black population, one wonders whether the lamentations of cultural destruction which emanate from Native American activist circles will ever be put to rest.
Thomas Jefferson’s quest to expand primary and higher education through the creation of the nation’s first university was largely geared towards the preservation of republicanism, creating civic cohesion and building what he described as a “natural aristocracy”. Reading what he wrote about the importance of public education, his rhetoric bears at least a superficial resemblance to progressives like Horace Mann or even Bernie Sanders. Jefferson believed that true populist republicanism could only be preserved through a general elevation of public knowledge. Needless to say, public education is now an unchallenged article of faith amongst the electorate, but Jefferson didn’t share the progressive belief in the institutions as the engines of human perfection.
Jefferson’s views towards the education of young girls will not endear him to the feminist intelligentsia. Nor would his insistence that the UVA ethics professor teach the proof for the existence of God curry favor with the atheist crowd. What mattered to Jefferson is that education serve the greater goal of building a civic minded youth culture.
Is Yvette Felarca the type of public educator Jefferson envisioned best equipped to instill an appreciation for republicanism? Is the Black Femininities and Masculinities in the US Media course offering at UVA building the type of “natural aristocracy” for which Jefferson hoped? Or is it building a different kind of aristocracy?
Dr. Gutzman’s reading of the Jefferson legacy is the antidote to the hegemony of the Ron Chernows and Doris Kearns Goodwins of the world. As much the elite might want to consign the Jefferson legacy to the #SocialJustice Memory Hole, Gutzman’s book reminds us that Jefferson’s thought is hardwired into America’s genetic code. Jefferson was not a saint nor are his ideas beyond criticism or reproach. But that shouldn’t preclude a vigorous reexamination of his record and a reappraisal of his ideas in an age of ever expanding state power and the overwhelming dominance of PC multiculturalism. If anything, the Jefferson legacy leaves us with questions. Can a genuine republican nationalism be created in a multicultural society? Is it even possible to forge a multicultural, Jeffersonian style republicanism when the progressive intelligentsia have an ongoing incentive to foment antipathy towards American thought? I, for one, am hopeful that this book is the catalyst for that discussion.