Founding Fathead?

 It’s up to us to prove Jefferson wrong about race


“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

Those words from Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography refer to black Americans, 2 million of whom were held in bondage at the time the words were written. Inscribed on the wall of the Jefferson Memorial, that passage and others like it form the basis for Jefferson’s place as a prophet of freedom in what historian Conor Cruise O’Brien calls “the pantheon of the American civil religion.” [1]

In the October 1996 Atlantic Monthly, however, Mr. O’Brien was rude enough to recite to us what else Jefferson read in the book of fate: “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.”

O’Brien quoted those words in the course of presenting what the Atlantic billed as “an argument that Thomas Jefferson should be condemned as a racist and expelled from the American pantheon.”

In O’Brien’s view, not only was Jefferson a racial separatist who made derogatory comments about blacks and proposed draconian measures to remove them from America, but his “intoxicated” attachment to liberty and his fear of the federal government’s authority make him the natural ally of today’s “most ferocious militant extremists” on the “far right.” All this, O’Brien says, makes the “personal cult” of Jefferson “unfit to survive in a multiracial society.” Jefferson, it seems, is “a patron saint far more suitable to white supremacists than to modern American liberals.”

O’Brien concludes by voicing the belief that “the orthodox multiracial version of the American civil religion must eventually prevail — at whatever cost — against the neo-Jeffersonian racist schism.”

Thus, the guardian of orthodoxy.

As startling as O’Brien’s broadside is, it’s not entirely out of left field. His indictment cites facts about Jefferson that have been in the record all along. Usually they are either viewed benignly or ignored discreetly. Occasionally, they are taken to heart by moral renegades, just as O’Brien charges. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for example, was arrested while wearing a T-shirt that bore the Jeffersonian pronouncement, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” [2]

Before handing Jefferson over to the ferocious radical Right, however, liberals should think a little longer about their heretofore hero.

Library shelves sag under multivolume sets of Jefferson’s writings. He was a tireless pontificator, corresponding daily with friends, colleagues and total strangers. Today, some would call this activity “running his mouth.” Inevitably, not all of his writings are defensible; obviously, none of them is Holy Scripture.

His great reputation and wide circle of admirers tempted him toward vainglorious utterances like this one: “I have sworn upon the altar of Almighty God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” That’s a noble pose for a slaveholder to strike. But Jefferson’s habit of striking noble poses is one of the things liberals love about him. Indeed, it’s one of the vices they share with him.

To take scissors and paste to the Bible, for example, casting aside every concept that did not meet with his approval, was not the act of a humble man. But it hasn’t cost Jefferson’s reputation anything in liberal eyes. On this, as in many things, liberals follow his example.

Consider the deification of liberty. C.S. Lewis once argued that any good thing — be it liberty, or charity, or even a mother’s love — will become a life-destroying demon if raised to the status of a god. [3] Thus the French Revolution, which worshiped liberty, equality and fraternity, produced the Reign of Terror instead. Yet Jefferson stubbornly defended its bloodiest excesses. That and his nonchalant “tree of liberty” response to Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts set him apart from his colleagues, who were horrified by both events. [4] In our own time, however, Jefferson’s part in that dispute is taken, not just by right-wing militia types, but also by the libertarians of the Left.

Jefferson spoke of a tree nourished by human blood. Today, in the name of liberty, a disastrous crime wave is accepted and even protected, though it claims the lives of thousands and blights the lives of millions. And in the name of liberty, abortion has been transmuted from an unnatural atrocity into a sacred right. Like the pagans of old, today’s liberty-worshipers are sacrificing human lives to the Moloch they’ve created out of something that — for all its blessings when kept in perspective — is not God. In this, they emulate the careless idolatry of Jefferson’s “tree” metaphor. 

As for Jefferson’s suspicion of the federal government, he was by no means alone in his insistence that it be kept within its proper limits. Though some of the founding fathers understood those limits differently, all of them agreed that such limits must be observed, and few of them, if any, would agree that those limits are being duly observed today. If liberals are going to throw over Jefferson because of his views about federalism, then, they will have to disown not only Jefferson but virtually the entire “American pantheon.” [5]

A similar problem exists with regard to race. After Mr. O’Brien has finished chiseling Jefferson’s likeness off the face of Mount Rushmore, he had better start in on Lincoln, because both men wanted freed slaves deported from America. [6]

But O’Brien really should save himself the trouble. Racist schismatics aside, neither Lincoln’s nor Jefferson’s notions of an all-white America have any currency today among the conservative Christians and Jews who make up what liberals fearfully call “the Religious Right.” Those people honor Jefferson for the very sentiments that have long been acclaimed by liberals: that “all men are created equal,” that our liberty is “of the gift of God,” that slavery is an affront to God’s justice, and that “His justice cannot sleep forever.” [7]

With a few immortal words, the Sage of Monticello thus bowed before the Lord of lords. For all his Enlightenment pride and plantation hypocrisy, Jefferson acknowledged that God rules in the affairs of men. That, and not his never-secret “dark side,” is why religious conservatives embrace him today. Could that be also why secular liberals are now tempted to turn on him?

This is not to say that Mr. O’Brien has no cause for alarm. The polarized future he foresees, in which liberal multiculturalists hate Jefferson while racist white extremists love him, is certainly possible. And although it never really was “written in the book of fate” that “the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government,” we had better realize that in an age that could produce the O.J. Simpson fiasco, the opposite proposition is not a certainty, either.

If Americans ever are to achieve true “liberty and justice for all,” however, we won’t get it by trying to turn Thomas Jefferson into a non-person.

We’ll get it by proving him wrong.

'Founding Fathead' is an excerpt from Yo! Liberals! You Call This Progress?, available at Amazon.com or directly from Fielding Press. It first appeared in the Chattanooga Free Press and is reprinted by permission.


[1]  O’Brien, “Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist,” Atlantic Monthly, October 1996, pp. 53-74. [back]

[2]  “Oddities offer clues to McVeigh question; Facts from past help officials put together portrait,” The New York Times, Dec. 31, 1995, p. 51. [back]

[3]  In arguing that humanity’s conceptions of right and wrong cannot be mere instinct, Lewis touched on his theme that morality is a comprehensive and universal system, no part of which can stand without all the rest: “There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not some-times tell us to encourage. It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses — say mother love or patriotism — are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad. … There are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother’s love for her own children or a man’s love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people’s children or countries. … The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity,’ and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.”     ———Mere Christianity, pp. 23-24. [back]

[4]  Of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, Jefferson wrote: “My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs of this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve, left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is.”     ———O’Brien, op. cit. [back]

[5]  For chapter and verse on the framers and federalism, see Raoul Berger’s Federalism: The Founders’ Design. [back]

[6]  See Yo! Liberals! Chapter 14. Lincoln’s untimely death keeps us from knowing how his views on race would have evolved. Jefferson, on the other hand, did continue into his dotage nursing schemes for the emancipation and deportation of black slaves. (O’Brien, op. cit.) But rather than judge Jefferson a bad man on that account, we should remember he was haunted by fears of the disaster that slavery would bring to his country — fears that, as the Civil War proved, were well founded. [back]

[7]  Those words from the Declaration of Independence and the Notes on the State of Virginia are, like the first part of the “book of fate” passage, inscribed on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial. [back]

Return to Chapter List


Copyright © 2006 by Karl Spence. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/10/11 20:58:28 -0500.