Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy

The problem with “popular” history is that it often becomes mired in conventional narratives and familiar tropes. For example, Thomas Jefferson is most commonly remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence, but his other contributions to the making of America—as a two-term President, Secretary of State, and midwife to the Louisiana Purchase—are even greater. We think of July 4, 1776 as “Independence Day,” even though the largest and most consequential colony, Virginia, had already declared itself an independent state on May 15, 1776.

While Jefferson served in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, representing Virginia, he wished he was in the Old Dominion’s capitol, Williamsburg, helping to draft the state’s first constitution.  As a student of world history, Jefferson saw lawgivers—drafters of constitutions—as the greatest of political leaders. Jefferson, later sidelined as minister to France during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, never got a chance to fulfill his dream of participating in the drafting (or ratification) of a constitution.

In Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America, historian Kevin Gutzman examines the legacy of the Founding Father he rates “the most significant statesman in American history.” A polymath with multi-faceted interests, Jefferson provides ample material for scholars to work with. Gutzman, the best-selling author of several prior books on the founding era, focuses on five specific aspects of Jefferson’s influence: federalism, freedom of conscience, colonization of the freed slaves, assimilation of Native Americans, and the establishment of the University of Virginia.

The second and last of these topics have deservedly received substantial scholarly attention, although in connection with Jefferson’s commitment to higher education Gutzman emphasizes the Sage of Monticello’s desire to empower common people with knowledge so they could govern themselves in republican fashion. The availability of a free, secular, and class-less system of education favored by Jefferson “would be the alternative to the old landed aristocracy.” This was a radical and highly-influential reform, often overlooked in favor of Jefferson’s beautiful architectural design for UVA.

Gutzman portrays Jefferson—the author of the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (enacted in 1786), but not the First Amendment—as a lifelong advocate for what he described in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association as  a “wall of separation of church and state.” Jefferson was a proponent of Enlightenment thought who saw state-sponsored religion as a tool for dominance by the landed gentry. On his gravestone, Jefferson listed his authorship of the Virginia statute as one of the three achievements in his life for which he wished to be remembered.

Gutzman seeks to explore the misunderstood, neglected—and in some cases less-flattering—facets of Jefferson’s legacy. For example, Gutzman posits that “virtually all Jefferson scholars agree that Jefferson fathered at least some of his slave Sally Heming’s children.” Jefferson was an ardent proponent of federalism, a topic that comprises the longest chapter of the book. Indeed, despite many modern-day libertarians citing the Declaration as an anarchist manifesto on behalf of “one people,” Jefferson’s principal grievance with the rule of King George III was not opposition to taxation per se, but to the denial of self-determination to the American colonies as sovereign entities. Jefferson began his political career in Virginia’s colonial legislature (the House of Burgesses), later served as the second governor of Virginia, and throughout his life remained passionately opposed to centralized authority and committed to representative government at the state level.

The most interesting part of the book, at least to me, are the chapters on Jefferson’s markedly-different attitudes towards African-American slaves (whom he wished to banish from Virginia) and Native American Indians (whom he wished to assimilate into American society). For all his intellectual gifts and lofty ideals, Jefferson was just as capable of fallacy and tunnel vision as any of his contemporaries, and perhaps more so due to his penchant for armchair anthropology.

Like many planters of his era, Jefferson was a slave-owner. Although he was morally opposed to slavery, he never freed most of his hundred-plus slaves, even upon his death (unlike some other Founding Fathers, such as George Washington). Jefferson, however, favored the “colonization” of blacks—relocating freed slaves and their offspring to an independent state abroad, in the Caribbean or Africa. Jefferson felt that a post-slavery biracial society—blacks and whites living together in harmony—was impossible due to his belief in blacks’ physical and mental inferiority and the anti-white animus on the part of former slaves that he feared would persist after emancipation.

As Gutzman acknowledges, the fear of revenge by freed slaves was certainly not irrational, in light of actual or aborted slave revolts that the antebellum United States had witnessed in Richmond, Virginia in 1800 (unsuccessfully led by Gabriel Prosser), in the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) amidst horrific violence in 1791-1804, and elsewhere. Nor was Jefferson’s belief in blacks’ inferiority exceptional in its time. Even Abraham Lincoln shared this widely-held notion decades later. Colonization itself was broadly favored, even among abolitionists. In 1816 James Madison became the first president of the American Colonization Society, a popular group formed to relocate free blacks from America to Africa.

Strangely, despite Jefferson’s conventionally-racist attitude toward blacks, he was an avid believer in the assimilation of Indians. A self-styled scientist with a fascination for the natural world—flora, fauna, and archeology—Jefferson became obsessed with refuting the contention of a famous French biologist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, that Europe was superior to North America. Buffon’s “proof” for this contention was that all things in the New World “shrink and diminish under a niggardly sky and unprolific land,” citing in particular the “degenerated” status of America’s indigenous people, Indians, whom Buffon deemed to be feeble savages. While other American men of letters merely mocked Buffon, Jefferson stubbornly undertook a mission to refute Buffon’s theory, spending many years on the project.

As a rebuttal to Buffon, Jefferson sought to demonstrate that the American Indian is, in all respects, the equal of European men. In his sole book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson offered an extensive defense of Indians—in physical strength, sexual ardor, familial devotion, courage, fertility, and mental faculties. Jefferson explained that the observable differences between Europeans and Indians—such as the Native Americans’ lack of a written language—were the result of culture, not biology. Gutzman speculates that Jefferson’s motivation for disputing Buffon was simple boosterism—“defending his hemisphere’s honor” by eliminating the taint to Jefferson’s “revolutionary dream” for America. Whatever the reason, in contrast to his pessimism regarding a biracial America, Jefferson fervently believed that Indians could be converted to Christianity, steeped in Anglo-American culture and customs, and eventually assimilated into civilized society.

Especially after the U.S. acquired the vast Louisiana territory in 1803, which Jefferson was keen to explore, he viewed the potential of the American experiment to be essentially unlimited. Gutzman concludes that Jefferson “envisioned Indians being converted from hunter-gatherers” to his beloved ideal of agrarian yeomen. Of course, this laudable goal was never realized, and after Jefferson’s death the policy of acculturation was ultimately superseded by one of removal and relocation.

The key word in the subtitle of Gutzman’s book—A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America—is “struggle,” connoting that in some areas Jefferson, whom Gutzman calls a “genius of republican optimism,” failed to achieve his ambitious goals. Even in his failures, however, the ever-complicated Jefferson inspires our respect.