Pursuing Liberty: America Through the Eyes of the Newly Free

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Back in the late eighteenth century the Virginia slaveowners who were Jefferson's contemporaries hadn't taken this Jeffersonian antislavery seriously. They knew Jefferson personally, and knew he meant no harm. And many of them were in the habit of saying the same sorts of things themselves, in appropriate company.

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, southerners had to take Jefferson's antislavery writings seriously, because northerners were taking them seriously, and using them against the South. Taking the Declaration of Independence in conjunction with Jefferson's antislavery utterances well publicized in the North for more than two decades , northerners were able on the eve of the Civil War to read antislavery intentions into the Declaration of Independence itself, and thus to enlist both the Declaration and its author on their side in the coming war.

In a letter of April, , Lincoln wrote,.

Pursuing Liberty: America Through the Eyes of the Newly Free by Cory Emberson

After the Civil War that accolade from the martyred President secured a continuing place for Jefferson in the pantheon of the American civil religion. The Jeffersonian vessel had survived the rapids of the Civil War and remained holy in the eyes of large numbers of Americans, among both the victors and the vanquished. In his posthumous reputation, as in his political career, luck was on Jefferson's side.

Still, there were always some begrudgers, and there were many more in the North than in the South. In the South it was Jefferson—more firmly than before the Civil War—who was at the center. That is to say, sectional and regional alignments were again for a time essentially what they had been in the late eighteenth century. In the first half of the twentieth century the most important occurrence affecting the posthumous reputation and civil-religion status of Thomas Jefferson was the New Deal. Peterson depicts the Roosevelt Administration as building a great national temple to Jefferson's memory.

The temple is the Jefferson Memorial in Washington , dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the two hundredth anniversary of Jefferson's birth, April 13, According to an official brochure, "Inscriptions at the memorial were selected by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission and were taken from a wide variety of his writings on freedom, slavery, education and government. All of this passage except for the last sentence is taken from Notes on the State of Virginia. The last sentence is taken from Jefferson's Autobiography. That sentence, as isolated in the memorial inscription, deceives the public as to Jefferson's meaning.

For the original passage in the Autobiography continues, " Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. In short, these people are to be free, and then deported. Jefferson's teaching on that matter is quite clear and often repeated. Those who edited that inscription on behalf of the memorial commission must have known what they were doing when they wrenched that resounding sentence from the Autobiography out of the context that so drastically qualifies its meaning.

The distortion by suppression has to be deliberate. In that inscription on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D. The quarter century following the dedication of the memorial saw Jefferson's reputation, especially as a liberal, at its height. John F.

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Kennedy and his liberal-intellectual entourage strongly contributed to the general and almost universal acceptance of the Jefferson Memorial. By the mids Jefferson's towering position within the American civil religion appeared assured for all time. By now a successor volume, covering the last decades of the twentieth century, is badly needed.

In particular, a detailed study needs to be made of the impact on Jefferson's image of the civil-rights movement and ensuing changes. In default of such source material I propose to "cut to the chase," as the filmmakers say, and consider factors affecting the place of Thomas Jefferson in the American civil religion as these appear to me today. The two major factors, in my opinion, are challenges to the authority of the federal government and the race issue. These factors have been linked in earlier momentous phases of American history: in , when Virginia and Kentucky were threatening revolt against federal authority; in the periods before and after the Civil War; and in the civil-rights crisis of the s.

They are still linked today, and they raise serious questions about the place of Thomas Jefferson in the civil religion of modern America. Let me begin with the challenge to the authority of the federal government. The President's full name—William Jefferson Clinton—attests to his family's allegiance to a Jeffersonian tradition, probably through Franklin D.

As President-elect, Clinton affirmed his personal commitment to that tradition by a symbolic gesture: in the week of his inauguration he retraced the trip that Jefferson made as President-elect from Monticello to Washington. And Clinton's staff underlined the significance of this gesture by noting that the President-elect at this solemn moment in his life was reading a new biography of Thomas Jefferson.

We may assume, therefore, that when Clinton warned the right-wing militias not to attempt to "appropriate our sacred symbols for paranoid purposes," the heritage of Thomas Jefferson was associated in his mind with the defense of the sacred symbols. But Jefferson is an unreliable ally in this matter. In his middle years—and even before the French Revolution—Jefferson was in the grip of a fanatical cult of liberty, which was seen as an absolute to which it would be blasphemous to assign limits. In this period—roughly to —Jefferson was intoxicated with what Edmund Burke called "the wild gas " of liberty.

Route 66: Free living and liberty at a rural commune

That phrase occurs in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France , with the confutation of which Jefferson, as Secretary of State, managed to associate himself publicly in April of , greatly to his own political advantage. The passage from which the phrase comes is worth quoting here. In America the holy cause of liberty became "combined with government" through the enactment and acceptance of the Constitution. Washington, Adams, and Hamilton were all spiritually Burkeans; so was Madison, while he worked with Hamilton on the Federalist papers and before he fell under the Jeffersonian spell, from on.

These Founders were Burkeans not in that they got their ideas from Burke but in that the principles on which they worked were identical with those enunciated by Burke in the passage above. In resisting the enterprise of the right-wing militias, who are also libertarian extremists, President Clinton has most of the Founders, and the Constitution itself, on his side.

But Jefferson is different. The liberty that Jefferson adored is not a liberty "combined" with all those tedious Burkean things, as in the Constitution, but a wild liberty, absolute, untrammeled, universal, the liberty of a great revolutionary manifesto: the Declaration of Independence. The other Founders saw the Declaration as embodying generalities that would at a later stage need to be combined with and confined by practical considerations. But Jefferson saw the principles of the Declaration as transcendent truths of which he himself, as author of the Declaration, was also the destined and authoritative interpreter.

Even before the French Revolution—and even before the American Constitution—Jefferson had approved keeping the spirit of armed rebellion alive in America and elsewhere. In the context of Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts, in , Jefferson wrote, "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellionThe tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. That is something very like a Jeffersonian charter for the most militant segment of the modern American militias , is it not? If President Clinton is relying on the authority of Thomas Jefferson to keep those sacred symbols out of the clutches of paranoid militias, the President can be refuted out of the mouth of the very authority he invokes.

Jefferson's enthusiasm for what later came to be called permanent revolution antedates the French Revolution. But the advent of the French Revolution fortified and exalted that enthusiasm. In propagating the cause of the French Revolution in America, and incorporating it with the American Revolution into a single holy cause of freedom, one of the things Jefferson was doing was emancipating the cause of freedom from the limits set on it in America by the Constitution. The holy cause was now universal, and transcended the limits of any merely local legislation.

The French Revolution couldn't be told that it was in breach of the American Constitution, so the cult of the French Revolution clipped the Constitution's wings. There were indeed no limits that could be assigned to the holy cause of freedom—neither geographic boundaries nor conventional ideas of morality and compassion.

Were there but an Adam and Eve, left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is. And the letter to Short is not—as Jefferson apologists like to imply—an isolated flash of hyperbole. It is a follow-up to Notes of a Conversation With George Washington on French Affairs , in which Jefferson recorded that faith in the French Revolution was his "polar star," and that he believed Washington to be a belated convert to that faith.

Jefferson set out in his letter to Short the merciless and almost limitless exigencies of polar faith. Those in the culture of the modern American militias who see themselves as at war, or on the verge of war, with the federal government are fanatical believers in liberty, as Jefferson was. Jefferson condoned French revolutionary atrocities on a far greater scale, numerically, than the massacre in Oklahoma City.

George Washington’s Farewell Address

The Adam and Eve letter was written after the news had reached America of the murder of more than a thousand helpless people by the Paris mobs in the September massacres of After September, as before, the French Revolution remained Jefferson's polar star. It is true that Jefferson later condemned "the atrocities of Robespierre. While Robespierre was alive and the Terror was actually raging, Jefferson had no comment to offer on French revolutionary atrocities.


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When Madison informed Jefferson, in a letter, of the massacre of the Brissotins Girondins in October of , Jefferson, in a longish reply, made no reference to that transaction. Presumably all such matters were still covered by the Adam and Eve doctrine of six months earlier. True, there was a pragmatist in Jefferson as well as a visionary fanatic, and the pragmatist acquired the upper hand over the visionary in the late s. Of this phenomenon Robert Bellah, the leading authority on the American civil religion, writes, somewhat misleadingly,.

Slavery and the Civil War

In reality the deep revulsion against the excesses of the French Revolution while they were happening was exclusively a Federalist affair. The Republicans, headed by Jefferson himself, stoutly defended the French Revolution throughout the period when reports of the excesses were reaching America. If possible, anything horrible in the reports from Paris was ascribed by Republicans to the manipulation of the news by the British.

In private the esoteric doctrine of the Republican leaders—as revealed by Jefferson to William Short—was that what the Federalists called excesses were really taking place but were entirely justifiable, however drastic, because they were undertaken in the cause of liberty. The Republicans began to detach themselves from the cause of the French Revolution after , and especially from on.


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But this was not because Jefferson and the rest of them were belatedly experiencing some form of revulsion against excesses that they had systematically condoned often by denying their existence at the time of their perpetration. The detachment was, rather, the result of a growing perception in that enthusiasm among the American people for the French Revolution was cooling—not only because of those excesses, which were at their worst during the period when Americans other than Federalists were most enthusiastic about the French Revolution, but also because of developments in the United States itself and in a neighboring territory, Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, and because of Washington's influence.

Those developments included the victory of the black slaves in Haiti and the ensuing carnage and dispersion of the whites. The exact nature of the connection between the black insurrection and the French Revolution remains open to argument. But it would have been hard for slaveowners to remain enthusiastic about the French Revolution after February of , when the French National Convention, then dominated by Robespierre, decreed the emancipation of all slaves in the dominions of the French Republic.

The emancipating act was probably not the least of "the atrocities of Robespierre" in the eyes of Virginia slaveowners, including Thomas Jefferson. After these events Jefferson and his colleagues realized that the cause of the French Revolution, formerly a major political asset to them in the United States, had become a liability. So they cut their losses. They never repudiated the French Revolution, still cherished by many of their rank and file, but it was as if this part of their political stock in trade had been removed from the front window.

By the time Jefferson became President, the pragmatist had prevailed over the visionary, head over heart, in this matter. Yet when we are talking about the American civil religion and its sacred symbols, the visionary in Jefferson, the champion of the French Revolution, remains disturbingly—and subversively—alive and relevant.

Jefferson does not fit into the modern American civil religion as officially and semi-officially expounded. The official version involves, as James Smylie has put it, "divine sanction in the use of power and in the support of civil authority. But other versions of the civil religion are extant in modern America—even if official America, and the textbooks written for it, take no cognizance of their existence. Some people seem to feel that since the militia rebels are right-wing, they cannot be Jeffersonians. But the tree of liberty is a mystical, abstract, absolute entity knowing nothing of mundane political distinctions.

It accepts its natural manure, the blood of patriots and tyrants.