The Misunderstood



Sadly, modern Americans seem to have done a better job preserving what Thomas Jefferson has left us in bricks and mortar than we have preserving his ideas. Tourists visiting Charlottesville, Virginia, can witness firsthand the ongoing efforts to preserve Jefferson\'s home at Monticello as well as his splendid little "Academical Village," the Lawn, which is still a vital center of student life at the University of Virginia. Further down the road, near Lynchburg, Virginia, preservationists have begun restoring Poplar Forest, Jefferson\'s retreat home.

Scholars have been less successful in keeping alive his philosophy, particularly his ideas about government -- despite the copious record he left in his writings. Ken Burns\'s recent PBS documentary, Thomas Jefferson, is a case in point. It features a parade of scholars who simultaneously declare their own inability to understand Jefferson, and mislead others with interpretations of his life and thought that are as questionable as they are contradictory.

Burns informs the viewer, for example, that Jefferson\'s life was full of contradictions: the "man of the people" with the tastes of an aristocrat, the natural rights philosopher who owned slaves, the "lifelong champion of small government who more than doubled the size of the United States," and so on. Most of these alleged contradictions really aren\'t as antithetical as they appear, for they are based on faulty assumptions or misunderstandings of principles. Joseph Ellis, for example, reasserts the bromide -- common among modern "liberal" academics -- that the ideals of equality and the pursuit of happiness, as expressed in Jefferson\'s Declaration of Independence, are unattainable or contradictory. But there\'s nothing contradictory about equality of rights and each individual\'s pursuit of happiness, if the concept of rights is properly understood. Herbert Spencer\'s law of equal freedom, the radical Whigs\' concept of "natural liberty," and Jefferson\'s concept of "natural society" all accounted for how the two can work together. The fact that many of today\'s intellectuals simply don\'t get it reveals much more about them than it does about Jefferson.

Misinterpretations of Jefferson\'s political thinking seem pandemic these days. The 1993 celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Jefferson\'s birth, for example, typically championed his reputation as "father of American democracy." Chief Justice William Rehnquist, speaking at the University of Virginia, echoed the views of many Jefferson scholars that "the permanence of Jefferson resided not in his specific theories or acts of government, but in his democratic faith." While it is certainly true that Jefferson was a leading proponent of representative democracy -- in Democracy in America , Alexis de Tocqueville called Jefferson "the most powerful advocate democracy has ever sent forth" -- his devotion to democracy was neither absolute nor unqualified. Indeed, Tocqueville thought it significant that Jefferson once warned James Madison that "the tyranny of the legislature" was "the danger most to be feared" in American government. To Jefferson, democracy and its associated principles -- majority rule, equal rights, direct representation of the people in government -- were valuable, not as ends in themselves, but as essential means to a greater end, the maximization of individual freedom in civil society. Liberty was Jefferson\'s highest value; he dedicated his life to what he once called "the holy cause of freedom."1

A Radical Whig

What repeatedly drew Jefferson away from his tranquil domestic life at Monticello and back into the political fray was precisely that "holy cause of freedom," to which he felt duty-bound whenever he saw liberty threatened by a powerful central government -- whether it was the British government under King George III or the United States government under Federalist administrations. His passion for this cause was reflected in the language that he used in his political writings. Jefferson, the zealous defender of religious freedom, tended to use words such as holy, orthodox, or catholic when discussing political, not religious, principles; he reserved words such as heretic or apostate to denounce politicians whom he regarded as the enemies of liberty. He summed up his life\'s work in a letter written relatively early in his public career, in 1790, soon after his return to the United States following his ambassadorship to France. "[T]he ground of liberty is to be gained by inches . . . [W]e must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time, and eternally press