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Jefferson’s legacy

Book Book Review, Title American Sphinx, Author Joseph J. Ellis, Rating 4.0, Jefferson's legacy

American Sphinx

Joseph J. Ellis

Book Review

Joseph Ellis provides us with an ambitious analysis of the compartmentalized mind of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was extraordinarily adept at saying and writing, apparently believing, and doing things that were paradoxical and often diametrically opposed to each other. Ellis suggests that this helps to explain his enduring following by just about every political persuasion in the United States, and even abroad: Anyone can find in Jefferson something that supports one's ideology, especially if they studiously ignore, in perfect Jeffersonian fashion, the things Jefferson said or did that would negate their ideology.

Jefferson was a habitually secretive man who worked very hard to hide his political will and ambitions, or say, his fathering of children by one of his slaves. Therefrom arises the epithet ‘sphinx.’ Much of Jefferson is accessible today because he was a prolific writer of letters, and his thoughts in these private letters reveal much of the sometimes severe public and private dissonance that is the man.

In his actions, Jefferson often behaved at great odds from his espoused ideals. Jefferson advocated at best a gradual reduction of slavery, yet the older Jefferson got, the time to begin that reduction receded ever farther into the future. (note 1) He also held that blacks were too dangerous to be set free en masse, as he was fearful that they would turn on and destroy their former masters. As President he would not support the insurrection of slaves in Haiti, and even entertained helping France put down the revolt, again because he feared that the slaves in America would be inspired to revolt themselves.

In his Notes on Virginia, he argued that slavery was an abomination, then proposed that when slaves were finally to be freed, that they must be deported from America, again because they would be dangerous, and secondly because they were inferior to white men (he argued that they smelled bad, were uglier, and too stupid to be citizens participating in a republic such as America). Jefferson vehemently opposed the Missouri Compromise later in his life, something that would appear to align with his idea of gradually abolishing slavery, as it did not limit existing states in their use of slavery, but only barred its practice from being introduced into some of the new territories. Of course, not least he was a slave owner, and bought and sold hundreds of slaves in his lifetime (note 2), even after his famous authorship of the words of the Declaration of Independence: ‘All men are created equal.’ His support of fairer punishment of crime under the law did not extend to slaves.

(See a further discussion on Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia and slavery here.)


James Callender, muckracker. PD-US.


Jefferson, who argued that political parties were a corruption of the body politic, was the organizer and leader of the first political party in American politics, the Republicans (the early Republican party changed its name several times, and by the 1850’s was known as the Democratic Party, which it is still called today); Jefferson was in fact as fiercely partisan as any American politician, then or now, although, true to his character, he went to great lengths to publicly hide his partisan behavior, and authorized and paid for many partisan and disingenuous attacks on his political opponents (by such as James Callender), but was careful to remain publicly silent. (He was not alone in this, and his political opponents could be just as partisan, devious and vicious.)

Jefferson had little to contribute to our Constitution proper (and more to its’ first ten amendments: the Bill of Rights): Even if Jefferson had not been in France at the time of the Constitutional Convention, it is likely that he would have had as little influence on our Constitutional form of government were he to have been present at its birth. His ideas of a hobbled central government were clearly impractical for a country of any size, as most of his political allies and opponents argued. In particular, James Madison, Jefferson’s greatest collaborator, and a significant contributor to the writing of the U. S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, routinely pushed Jefferson’s extreme and unworkable ideas of federal government gently aside.

-CC BY 2.0, Bill McChesney

Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea in Charlottesville. Attrib: Bill McChesney, CC BY 2.0.


Jefferson, in his first term of the Presidency who’s powers he had sought to gut, used the power of the executive like any other politician. With it he reduced the size of the Executive, thereby paying down the sizable debt still owed for the Revolutionary War; he refused to prosecute the odious Alien and Sedition Act; he negotiated with France to buy the Louisiana Territories; he organized the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He also refused to acknowledge the power of the fledgling Supreme Court until he was outflanked by Chief Justice John Marshall (in Marbury v. Madison); he almost eliminated our fledgling navy with his cost-cutting, and the country paid a price for it during his second term, when the British and the French navies began to harass our shipping, and severely hampered our trade; his attempt at a trade embargo to solve the issue severely backfired and damaged the national economy.

It can be argued that his Presidency was most extraordinary when he acted against his ideals: The Louisiana Purchase is the largest accomplishment of his Presidency, and it was done extra-Constitutionally and by fiat, without permission from the legislative branch, and was highly controversial at the time, not so much for the acquisition of the land itself, but for the means by which he did it – by acting like the tyrant that he swore he would always oppose. He also did it by taking on central debt . . . All of which is to say, he acted in the best interests of the United States, but to do so, he had to use, and even occasionally abuse, the very powers he held in lifelong contempt. Had he held to his ideal of a limited Executive branch, the United States would have been much the poorer for it; Jefferson, when push came to shove, was capable of acting more rationally than his idealism would have dictated.

One can picture Jefferson looking out of his Palladian windows at the wilderness (note 3), seeing in that endless expanse a means to limited government: in his mind, to the West lay enough room to absorb the expanding population of the young republic in an agrarian idyll, each citizen with his own substantial holdings, each with much need for individual liberty and little need for government. It might be expected that his experience as the Chief Executive would have tempered his contempt for central government, but following his presidency, privately and persistently, he went so far as to advocate the complete destruction and rebuilding of central government every twenty years. (From this idea came his infamous quote: ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants’. Quite simply, in this Jefferson was an anarchist.) Madison and Monroe, his political allies to whom he wrote these radical thoughts, fundamentally disagreed with him, were appalled, and cautioned him not to make a public case for such destructive and nihilistic nonsense.

Jefferson also wrote about the equality of men, but was not careful to describe it more practically, as did the French in their Declaration of the Rights of Man, as equality of men under the law. He was more focused on the idea of class, particularly on the idea that the tyranny of inherited position and power was wrong, in reaction to Europe’s long history of hierarchy and privilege and the disadvantage of those at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Monticello was the workshop of the maker of the 'agrarian dream.' It was here that Jefferson conducted his agricultural and scientific experiments and offered a generous hospitality to visitors. It was here that he lived a bustling, but gracious life far from the money changers in the cities of the North. This was the life that he sought to preserve against the incursions of the forces of commerce and industry. But it should not be forgotten that Jefferson's world depended upon forced labor for its very existence.
-William Cohen, Jefferson & the Problem of Slavery, J Am Hist Vol 56 No 3, Dec 1969
As a landed aristocrat, Jefferson belied this, living in luxury all of his life, well beyond his means, and held privately the more generally accepted attitudes of his times and class: Inferior minds should not have a hand in government, the cream rises to the top, and must accept some responsibility to rule. His penchant for luxury made laughable the severe simplicity he insisted on when carrying out the affairs of state as President, which he did to publicly set a more republican and democratic tone, and to contrast the purity of the new republic with European ostentation and court display. (The Europeans who knew him, and knew of his own love of luxury, having seen it first hand during his years in Paris, smiled in amusement.) Most glaringly, his private attitudes and public behavior regarding slavery were at great odds with his espoused ideal of the equality of all men, yet utterly necessary to support the aristocratic life he maintained.

Jefferson dictated the inscription to be written on his gravestone, which reads: ‘Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, Father of the University of Virginia’. Of the three, the largest accomplishment is his championing of religious freedom. In this he did not behave in his more usual secretive manner, but openly and bravely fought for it first in Virginia, later to include it in the Bill of Rights, and in his public and unpopular support of Thomas Paine after Paine’s incendiary tract The Age of Reason was published, which was an open attack on Christianity and a promotion of deism. (See my pocket review of the Age of Reason here.)

His founding of the University of Virginia, the first secular university in America, was in keeping with his ideal of an educated population of citizen voters, although the University during his rectorship exclusively served only the sons of rich white planters, contrary again to his ideal of meritocratically funneling the brightest candidates into the University, independent of social status and class.

The Declaration of Independence was of no great influence when it was written, and contains nothing original by Jefferson, as he himself acknowledged; by the time it was written, the critical actions of revolt in the Colonies had already been taken, including open warfare and the creation of independent state governments; the Declaration was merely an ex post facto rubber stamp. The declaration of human rights from its first section have since become the words that are used around the world to summarize pithily the worth of individual men over the power of tyranny.

Missing from his gravestone inscription was his two term presidency and arguably his greatest political act, the Louisiana Purchase; as President, Jefferson did not miss this momentous opportunity, and handled it well; it may be speculated that Jefferson himself could not reconcile these achievements with his political philosophy, and chose therefore not to include it.

His legacy is as bewildering and impossible as the man was in his life: Nearly all frequencies of the vibrating political spectrum in the United States have been filtered through the prism of Jefferson’s writings. Slave owners and their modern descendants tout(ed) Jefferson’s heavy emphasis on limited government and its cousin, states rights, while libertarians emphasize(d) some of the same, along with Jefferson’s insistence on the liberty of all men, the need to fight tyranny in any guise, and the ‘right’ to pull down the government on occasion, while liberals emphasize(d) Jefferson’s writings on the various freedoms of the Bill of Rights. Each have to ignore some of what Jefferson actually did politically, and ignore the gross incompatibility of some of his ideals, to come to the conclusion that Jefferson’s writings in fact represent their views.

Maybe Jefferson’s best contribution to our nation was his insistence on removing the yoke of tyranny, his great hypocrisies aside. As President, Jefferson ultimately had to increase the power of the central representative government and to compromise politically in order to guard against the tyranny of the majority over the minority, the tyranny of money and power over the disadvantaged, the tyranny of state religion, the threat of tyranny from without, and as a guard against the tyrannical forms of government and societal classes he hoped to leave behind.

Even so, Jefferson is perhaps best taken with a large dose of Madisonian salt, as not everything he espoused was in the best interests of the American body politic. Jefferson’s most enduring global legacy is that of a defender of the rights of man, yet that legacy is largely unearned: It is tarnished by his own lifelong tyranny over his slaves and his taking advantage of them economically; his political inaction or opposition to the removal of the institution of slavery; his own dismissive attitudes regarding the fitness of the average citizen to participate in ruling; and his construction of a political party that was dedicated to the preservation of the institution of slavery. It begs the question of whether he should be placed in the pantheon of the greatest Americans alongside men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both with their own flaws, but men who, when the time came, did the hard work for liberty that Jefferson mostly just talked about.

A gift from my brother-in-law and drinking buddy, Scot.



1. Jefferson signed the 1807 bill into law outlawing the continued import of slaves into this country, but this is very misleading: The U.S. Constitution allowed for such a bill to be introduced as early as that date, and by then the slave interests were more than happy to block the import of slaves, as they were “breeding”, to use their term, enough slaves domestically to meet supply, and it was more profitable for American slaveholders to produce their own stock, again in their own terms. (Jefferson himself was a breeder, buyer and seller of slaves, and privately an enthusiastic promoter of the breeding and trading of slaves for economic gain, and continued to be throughout his life). Sometimes this law is described as the cessation of slave trade in the U. S., but it is more narrowly only the cessation of legal international slave trade in the U. S. Slave trading flourished within the U. S. in slave and border states until the 1860’s.

2. For an examination of Jefferson‘s complete and lifelong embrace of slavery as the preferred economic engine for the management of his estates, and his use of the usual brutal methods as a slave breeder and owner, see the recent Master and the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and his Slaves, by Henry Wieneck, or the compact but well-reasoned Slavery and the Founders, by Paul Finkelman.

3. Thanks to Robert Kaplan, in his book The Nothing That Is, p. 202, for the evocative image of Jefferson looking out his Palladian windows at the wilderness, in a passage that makes reference to the American ideal of the frontier and of the passion for individual liberty.

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