Jefferson, Secession, and Monuments

Lee

Last night on CNN, host James Lemon had African-American public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on his program.  Lemon asked Dyson to respond to the comments Donald Trump made yesterday about historical monuments.  Trump said:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.

All day the commentators on CNN have been outraged that Trump would compare Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  Dyson responded by saying that Lee and Jackson seceded from the union, while Jefferson and Washington, despite owning slaves, formed a “bulwark” against slavery by articulating the ideals that eventually brought the institution to an end.

On one level, I found Dyson’s comment refreshing.  When commentators say that we can’t find a usable past in Western Civilization because it is tainted by the sin of slavery, I often cringe.  Yes, Western Civilization has been inherently racist.  Yes, Western Civilization brought us slavery.  But at the same time, Western Civilization brought us the ideas and ideals–liberty and freedom especially–that were eventually applied to the slavery and ultimately brought it to an end.

I have little patience for defenders of Western Civilization who fail to acknowledge its relationship with race.  I have little patience for those who demonize Western Civilization without acknowledging the historical complexity I wrote about above.  I read several books and articles this summer that propagated both fallacies.

But when it comes to Jefferson, things are even more complicated than this.  If you read Ibram X Kendi’s recent New York Times op-ed you will learn that some of Jefferson’s ideas contributed to secession.

So should the Jefferson monuments come down?

The conversation continues.

(See my last post where I discussed this more fully).

What Would Jefferson Say?

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What would Jefferson say about the events that took place this past weekend in Charlottesville?  The short answer is: “I have no idea.”  We can speculate, but we can’t bring Jefferson back from the grave to give his opinion.  It is an impossible question to answer and this is why we need to approach these kinds of queries with caution.

Having said that, historians can offer reasonable suggestions about what Jefferson may have thought about a troublesome moment like this. And since white supremacists marched through the campus he founded on Friday night, it is worth trying to think together about how he would have responded.

This is what historian Ibram X Kendi did in yesterday’s Washington Post.  Kendi teaches history at American University and is the National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

Here is a taste:

In sum, Jefferson’s legacy embodied the clash that snatched and harmed human life in the city of Jefferson over the last few days.

Confederate leaders revered Jefferson long before they seceded from the Union. To some he was a direct relative. He was the second cousin-in-law of Lee.

To others, he was an inspiration. Jefferson Davis was not just named after him. As a slaveholder, U.S. senator and then Confederate president, Davis shared Jefferson’s values: states’ rights, limited federal power over their property, extended federal military power over their captives, racist ideas and constitutional protections for slavery.

Although Confederate leaders traced their ideological and relational roots to Jefferson, they also knew that his most famous words threatened their plantations. The Confederates seceded from Thomas Jefferson when they seceded from his independent Union. If Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence remains the soul of the United States, then Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens revealed what historian Henry V. Jaffa termed “the soul of the Confederacy” on March 21, 1861. Both justified their new nations and laid out their ideals.

Read the rest here.

David Barton Can’t Let Go Of This John Adams Quote

This appeared on Barton’s Facebook page today:

Barton Quote

Sounds pretty good if your a Christian nationalist.  But let’s take a deeper look at this quote.

I have excerpted the pertinent parts of the letter below.  Warren Throckmorton, who wrote about this letter yesterday on his blog, has highlighted those passages that Barton quotes in the above meme.

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.”* Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. 

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. 

Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.

A few comments:

  1. This is a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson dated 28 June 1813. I do not own this document. I read it at Founders Online, a National Archives database of the writings of the Founding Fathers.  Don’t be fooled by David Barton when he tells you that he has some special insight into the nation’s founding because he owns original documents.  Most of what he owns is accessible to anyone via this database. I found the document in less than a minute.  You can too.  I encourage you to match Barton’s selective use of quotes with the actual documents in the database.
  2. Barton is always complaining that so-called “liberal” historians use ellipses to leave out parts of documents that mention God or religion.  Notice the quote in the above meme.  Then read the actual letter.  It seems to me that the material left out by Barton’s ellipses goes a long way toward helping us understand what John Adams really meant here.  It looks like “liberal” historians are not the only ones who have this problem.
  3.  In the first paragraph, Adams is describing the religious affiliations of the men present at the Continental Congress.  Notice that the list includes “deists” and “atheists” along with more traditional Christian denominations.
  4.  In the second and third paragraphs, Adams notes that the group who met in Philadelphia was so religiously diverse that the only ideas holding them together were the “general principles of Christianity.”  What does he mean by this phrase?  It is hard to tell at first glance.  But if there were indeed “deists” and “atheists” in the room, these “general principles” must have been understood by Adams as a system of belief that was far less orthodox than the Christianity of the ancient creeds.  An “atheist” might be able to find common ground around a Christian moral code (say, for example, the Sermon on the Mount), but could not affirm the existence of God. A “deist” would have rejected the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and, in some cases, God’s providence in human affairs, but he could certainly unite behind a moral code based on the teachings of Jesus. (I titled my chapter on the highly unorthodox Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus”). So let’s return to our original question.  What did Adams mean when he said the Continental Congress was held together by “the general principles of Christianity?” If we take the beliefs of the “atheists” and the “deists” (and, I might add, the “universalists, “Socinians,” and “Preistleyans”)  seriously, the “general principles of Christianity” was a phrase Adams used to describe a very vague moral code that all of these men–the orthodox and the unorthodox–could affirm.
  5. The third paragraph also affirms that these men were united by the “general principles of English and American liberty.”  This tells us that in addition to some very basic moral principles compatible with the ethical teachings of Christianity, the founders shared a common belief in liberty.  This should not surprise anyone.  A belief in liberty was part of their English heritage.  No English heritage of liberty, no American Revolution.  As I tell my classes, the English taught the colonists how to rebel.
  6. The fourth paragraph tells us that Adams believes that these “general principles” of Christianity and liberty could be easily affirmed by a host of secular writers, including Hume and Voltaire, two of the Enlightenment’s staunchest critics of organized Christianity. These “general principles of Christianity” must have been pretty watered-down if Hume and Voltaire could affirm them.  Again, the reference here is to a vague morality, not the particular teachings of orthodox Christianity.

In the end, if we look at the parts of the letter Barton does not mention in his meme we would get a very different view of the role of Christianity in the American founding than the Christian nationalist message he wants to convey to his Facebook followers.  This is cherry-picking at its finest.

(Thanks to Warren Throckmorton for the inspiration to write this post).

Was the Declaration of Independence a “Plea for Help?”

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This is the title of Ishaan Tharoor‘s Washington Post interview with historian Larrie Ferrerio, author of the recent Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.  (Check out my review of this book at Education and Culture).

The idea of the Declaration of Independence as a “plea for help” will not sit well with many Americans today, especially on the Fourth  of July, but this does not make it any less true.  I explored this issue a bit in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction?.  Here is an excerpt:

Most would agree that the Declaration of Independence was not a theological or religious documents, but neither was it designed predominantly to teach Americans and the world about human rights.  Americans have become so taken by the second paragraph of the document that they miss the purpose of the Declaration as understood by the Continental Congress, its team of authors, and its chief writer, Thomas Jefferson.  In the context of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence was just what it claimed to be–a “declaration” of “independence” from England and an assertion of American sovereignty in the world.Revised

Historian David Armitage has argued convincingly that the Declaration of Independence was written primarily as a document asserting American political sovereignty in the hopes that the newly created United States would secure a place in the international community of nations.  In fact, Armitage asserts, the Declaration was discussed abroad more than it was at home.  This meant that the Declaration was “decidedly un-revolutionary.  It would affirm the maxims of European statecraft, not affront them.”  To put this differently, the “self-evident truths” and “unalienable rights” of the Declaration’s second paragraph would not have been particularly new or groundbreaking in the context of the eighteenth-century British world.  These were ideals that all members of the British Empire values regardless of whether they supported or opposed the American Revolution.  The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the members of the Second Continental Congress who endorsed and signed it did not believe that they were advancing, as historian Pauline Maier has put it, “a classic statement of American political principles.”  This was a foreign policy document.

The writers of the Declaration viewed the document this way.  In an 1825 letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson explained his motivation behind writing it:

“when forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our jurisdiction.  This was the object of the Declaration of Independence.  Not to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of…but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

John Adams, writing five years after he signed it, called the Declaration “that memorable Act by which [the United States] assumed an equal Station among the nation.”  Adams’s son, John Quincy, though not a participant in the Continental Congress, described the Declaration as “merely an occasional state paper. It was a solemn exposition to the world of the causes which had compelled the people of a small portion of the British empire, to cast off their allegiance and renounce the protection of the British king: and to resolve their social connection with the British people.”  There is little in these statements to suggest that the Declaration of Independence was anything other than an announcement to the world that the former British colonies were now free and independent states and thus deserved a place in the international order of nations.”

Here is Ferreiro:

We typically look at the Declaration of Independence as a document written to King George III by the American people, stating why we wanted to become an independent nation. That’s what we tell each other when we celebrate the Fourth of July.

Brothers in ArmsBut when you look at what happened in 1776, it was clear George III had already got the memo that the Americans wanted to be independent. And when you look at the writing of the Founding Fathers, they make it very clear that they knew they could not fight Britain by themselves. They knew that the only countries that had the motivation and the military and naval capabilities to defeat Britain were France and Spain. And the only way they could join on the Americans’ side was if they knew this was not simply a battle of colonists with their mother country to get a better deal. They only would come to our aid if they saw that we were fighting as a sovereign, independent nation against a common adversary.

The Declaration was specifically written for that purpose, and both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson said this — they were quite clear in their writings. Thomas Jefferson took those ideas and made a document for the ages, a truly enlightened document that read out many of the ideas of the time on what constitutes the rights of the state and the people. But at the core it was a cry for help. The first considered action by Congress after the Declaration was approved was to put it on a ship so it could reach the courts of France and Spain.

Read the rest of the interview here.

FOUND: The Slave Quarters of Sally Hemings

Manacles

Slave manacles from Monticello (Creative Commons)

She was mother to six of Thomas Jefferson’s children.  She was also Thomas Jefferson’s slave.  Archaeologists at Monticello have discovered the living quarters of Sally Hemings.

Here is a taste of a report from NBC News:

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Archaeologists have excavated an area of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello mansion that has astounded even the most experienced social scientists: The living quarters of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children.

“This discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living. Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room,” said Gardiner Hallock, director of restoration for Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation, standing on a red-dirt floor inside a dusty rubble-stone room built in 1809. “It’s important because it shows Sally as a human being — a mother, daughter, and sister — and brings out the relationships in her life.”

Hemings’ living quarters was adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom but she remains something of an enigma: there are only four known descriptions of her. Enslaved blacksmith Isaac Granger Jefferson recalled that Hemings was “mighty near white . . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back.”

Her room — 14 feet, 8 inches wide and 13 feet long — went unnoticed for decades. The space was converted into a men’s bathroom in 1941, considered by some as the final insult to Hemings’ legacy.

Read the entire news report here.

I am sure Annette Gordon-Reed‘s phone has been ringing today.

John Boles Reassesses Thomas Jefferson

BolesOver at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Parry interviews John Boles, author of the recent Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty.  Reviewers are calling Boles’s book the best one-volume history of Jefferson in nearly fifty years.

Here is a taste of the interview:

What’s your position on the Sally Hemings debate ?

I believe that they had a long-term essentially consensual affair, and that in a different world they may have gotten married. She was technically, legally a slave. There was a law in Virginia that said that a free man could not marry a slave. She also was the half sister of his wife. There also was a law in Virginia that said that a man could not marry the sister of his deceased wife. So even if Sally Hemings were white and free, Jefferson could not have legally married her. He also had promised his wife he’d never remarry.

I don’t know if I want to say it’s absolute love, but it comes pretty close to that. After all, she looked very much like his wife. A lot of people just say offhand, he’s a powerful white man, she’s a black woman, it’s rape. Annette Gordon-Reed says, while that may be usually true, it’s not always true. And if we say that of every single situation like that, then we’re depriving everybody of any sense of agency.

Gordon Wood wrote that you sometimes allow your sympathy for Jefferson to get the better of you in your treatment of race and slavery. Another reviewer accused you of introducing “bizarre semi-justifications and rationalizations to soften the brutal reality of Jefferson’s callous racism.”

I don’t think what I’m saying is a bizarre rationalization. What I’m trying to do is to try to explain, if I can, why Jefferson acted and believed the way he did. One way is to say he’s a white racist, end of story. I’m trying to say there’s more to the story. And I’m disappointed that he doesn’t come down the way I would have. But he’s not living in 2017.

We’re living at a time when protesters at Jefferson’s alma mater, the College of William & Mary, and elsewhere have covered statues of him with sticky-notes calling him a “racist” and “rapist.” At a recent conference, the slavery scholar Hilary Beckles, head of the University of the West Indies, suggested that we should take down statues of Jefferson, just as we took down statues of King George after the Revolution. What’s your response?

That’s a very ungenerous way of looking at the past. And, actually, a lot of the things Jefferson says about liberty and freedom is the language that eventually is employed by those later on who do end up addressing the racial problems. In a lot of ways, he’s surprisingly modern. The Statute for Religious Freedom is one of really the great events in Western history. So things like that we just shouldn’t remember? No.

Read the entire interview and the introduction here

Thomas Jefferson on the Run

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Check out Michael Kranish‘s piece at The Washington Post on the time Thomas Jefferson fled Monticello to avoid being captured by the British during the Revolutionary War. Kranish is the author of Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War.

Here is a taste:

Jefferson’s flight made him a mockery. He was called a coward and worse. His political enemies began an investigation into his conduct and he faced the possibility of censure for leaving the state without leadership while looking out for his own interests. One legislator wrote that Jefferson’s flight left Virginia “in a most distressed condition from sea to the mountains.” Jefferson would later explain that he knew he was no military man; he was a planter and scientist and intellectual, not a warrior; it was best, he reasoned, to have a seasoned general take over. He knew his limitations. But he was tormented by the criticism.

“I had been suspected & suspended in the eyes of the world without the least hint then or afterwards made public which might restrain them from supposing that I stood arraigned for treasons of the heart and not merely weakness of the head,” Jefferson wrote. “I felt that these injuries … had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.”

Jefferson rebutted his critics the way he knew best, with his writing. He was in the midst of composing chapters for his only full-length book, “Notes on the State of the Virginia,” which featured rhapsodic descriptions of the state’s natural beauty. He delivered his defense of his actions in a chapter about the Navy, which consisted of one paragraph. His point was that the state in effect didn’t have one and that it wasn’t his fault. Since the British invaded, he wrote, “I believe we are left with a single armed boat only.”

Read the rest here.

Jefferson on Islam

TJ-Quran-195x300Over at Immanent Frame, the discussion of Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders continues.  In the latest installment, Nadia Marzouki of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes:

Among the scholars who have most inspired my work as a political scientist are multiple historians—whether intellectual, legal, or religious. From James Kloppenberg and Samuel Moyn, to Anver Emon and Patrick Boucheron, scholars of history have offered some of the most rigorous and original contributions to ongoing debates about democracy and religious freedom. History avoids the pitfalls that often characterize other disciplines, especially mine, including an excessive focus on the present and on refined quibbles about methods and positionality, sometimes at the expense of relevance. Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran is one of the most significant illustrations of the need for more history in current academic and political disputes about secularism and citizenship. Hers is not a history of the supposedly linear process of integration of American Muslims. In lieu of the traditional “from migrants to citizens” narrative, Spellberg argues that Muslims were thought of as citizens by the Founding Fathers themselves. The estrangement of Muslims from the American nation and the construction of Muslims as foreigners are products of later developments of the nineteenth century.

In 1765, Thomas Jefferson, then a law student at the College of William and Mary, acquired an English translation of the Qur’an. His fascination with Islamic law and culture led him to defend the rights of Muslims as citizens. Sometimes derided as an “infidel” president, much like Barack Obama three centuries later, he insisted that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom should “comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination,” and argued that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” Tracing the genealogy of Jefferson’s understanding of Islam, Spellberg establishes the importance of John Locke’s definition of religious freedom to Jefferson’s own thinking.

Spellberg’s work corrects the mistaken belief that the encounter between Islam and America is something recent, and instead analyzes this encounter not as a shock between two constituted bodies but as an open set of hybrid and ambivalent phenomena. Her goal is not to pacify the history of the relations between Islam and the West, nor does she seek to deny the erratic character, often invisible and numerically limited, of the Islamic presence in Europe and America before the nineteenth century. Rather, an essential implication of Spellberg’s study is the repositioning of Islam within the interiority and intimacy of Western societies. Her book suggests that one cannot think properly about some fundamental ideals of liberal democracy and secular America independently of their relation, if only in theory, with Islam. This epistemological postulate of a constitutively networked and co-extensive relation of Islam and America opens up new perspectives of research, distinct from the traditional theodicy of the progressive acceptance of religious minorities and based on a robust understanding of political liberalism—which is often too promptly reduced to imperialism in a large part of the broad corpus of secularism studies.

Spellberg posits that the encounter between Islam and America is not the outcome of a slow teleology of integration but a point of departure that captures the foundational ambivalence of American liberal-secular democracy.

Read the entire piece here.

The Founding Fathers Wanted You To Be Polite

PoliteIn his recent piece at Aeon, historian Steven Bullock reminds us that “18th-century Britons and American believed that politeness was essential for a free society.”  This required “respect for other people” and having “sensitivity to their expectations and concerns.”  In fact, it was even an important way of “challenging authoritarian rule.”

Here is a taste:

Jefferson and Lafayette’s extraordinary acceptance of limits on their power (so unlike the impatient Nicholson) points to the formative influence of the politics of politeness. If Revolutionary leaders were not all as cautious about demanding obedience, they still brought with them almost a century of thinking about the need to ground power in restraint and responsiveness. Tellingly calling themselves ‘Whigs’ (and their opponents ‘Tories’), patriots celebrated their military leader, the Virginian George Washington, as a powerful exemplar of these values. Jefferson reported to the general in 1784 that many Americans believed his ‘moderation and virtue’ had kept the Revolution from ending like ‘most others’ – by destroying the ‘liberty it was intended to establish’.

The politics of politeness also helped revolutionaries reconsider social relationships. Resisting attempts to punish loyalists after the war, Alexander Hamilton declared the spirit of the Revolution ‘generous’ and ‘humane’ – and therefore in the best tradition of ‘moderation’. Even captive enemies, Jefferson had similarly argued earlier, should be treated ‘with politeness’. Abigail Adams counselled legal changes in her call to ‘Remember the Ladies’ in 1776, but conceded that new laws were needed primarily for the ‘vicious and Lawless’. More enlightened men, Adams noted, had already willingly ‘give[n] up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend’

Read the rest here.

The Federal Government Has Been Funding American History For a Long, Long Time

 

Ebenezer-Hazard

Ebenezer Hazard

Over at the St. Louis Dispatch, Washington University English professor Abram Van Engen reminds us, in the wake of possible cuts to the National Endowment of Humanities, that the United States has always been in the business of funding the study of history.

 

Here is a taste of his piece:

The first ever federal grant for historical research was recommended by the Continental Congress in 1778. The United States had declared its independence two years before, but it was still fighting to make it stand. In the midst of the American Revolution, with plenty on their minds, Sam Adams, William Duer and Richard Henry Lee approved a $1,000 grant to a man named Ebenezer Hazard to collect, edit, introduce and publish American historical papers.

Founding Fathers lined up to support Hazard. Thomas Jefferson praised his project as “an undertaking of great utility to the continent in general.” When Hazard created a subscription for his collection in 1791, it was signed by the most notable figures of the day, beginning with President George Washington and including the vice president, Cabinet members, senators, representatives and others.

In recommending the grant, Continental Congress determined that Hazard’s “undertaking is laudable, and deserves the public patronage and encouragement, as being productive of public utility.” That was a common view in those days. A good knowledge of history (both American and otherwise) gave people perspective and enabled them to use their liberty well and prosper the republic. The Founding Fathers and the early republic considered history a “practical” subject essential for citizenship. It doesn’t take much looking in the writings of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and many others to find them praising the good of history.

Jefferson, for example, believed that knowledge of history would enable citizens to resist the encroachments of tyranny. In illuminating “the minds of the people at large,” especially with “a knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth,” Americans would “be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.” Historical studies were the best way to understand how societies rose and fell, providing real life moral and political lessons. A study of history was necessary for the defense of liberty.

Read the entire piece here.

Annette Gordon-Reed on Thomas Jefferson: “I now see him with a bit more humility, recognizing how hard it is to do anything, how hard it is to accomplish things”

 

Annette

Gordon-Reed delivered the 2012 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture.  L to R: Jean Corey, Director of Messiah’s Center for Public Humanities; Gordon-Reed; and a random photo bomber

The Harvard Gazette is running a long interview with Pulitzer Prize winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed.  Over the course of the interview she talks about her childhood, her escape from the ashes of the World Trade Center on 9-11, and her approach to writing and teaching.

Here is a small taste:

Q: Returning to your scholarship, you once said in an interview that you had come to know several Thomas Jeffersons. Can you explain what you meant?

A: I suppose I have come to know different Jeffersons as I have become different myself, because you notice different things as you get older. And after working on “Most Blessed Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” with my co-author Peter Onuf, I tend to notice vulnerability more than I did before. The book is about him through his entire life, but I would say the perspective is from the older guy looking back over his life, and from that perspective you realize how hard it is to do things.

The Jefferson that I see now is more vulnerable. When I was younger, I saw Jefferson as more powerful than any normal human being. And that tendency to attribute supernatural powers to him helps account for a lot of the anger that people have about him: “Why didn’t you end slavery? Why didn’t you do something about slavery?” And then you think about someone who was a lawyer, a governor, a revolutionary, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was an ambassador, who was a vice president, who was a president, who founded a university, and then you say, “And why didn’t you end slavery?”

I think about the people who say that, and I think about myself. What is it that I’ve done that approaches all of that? And in asking that question, I now see him with a bit more humility, recognizing how hard it is to do anything, how hard it is to accomplish things. I don’t think the fact that he didn’t accomplish more than he did is a reason to dismiss all the things that he did accomplish. So I think I am a bit more sympathetic, although studying a person’s life can drive you crazy at points. You yourself often wonder why did you do this, or why are you doing that?

The goal for the last book was to try to understand him on his own terms, to accept the problematic aspects of his life and work, but to also have a degree of humility in looking at a historical figure who didn’t have the advantages that we have in understanding the world. I am much more concerned about people today who harbor racial sentiments that are destructive, who have had a chance to learn more than somebody who was born in 1743…

Q: As an African-American woman was it hard to do this research on a personal level?

A: Well it comes and it goes. It came and it went, I should say. For the most part I think people who study slavery are not as sensitive to it as we should be to how other people react. People read this kind of material and are aghast. Historians understand that this was the world that was there. Still, there are always moments when you just are sort of brought up short. I remember reading about when Jefferson sells Mary Hemings, Sally Hemings’ oldest half-sister. Mary had asked to be sold to Thomas Bell, a white man she had been living with while Jefferson was in Paris. They had children together. Jefferson sells her but he doesn’t sell her older two children because they are not considered children at this point — they are 14 and 10. That moment just struck me. It was a weekend and I had been typing away in my New York office and I just started crying because I started thinking of my kids and how when they were 10 how heartbroken they would have been. Now Mary doesn’t move far from them; she is two miles up the road. But kids want to be around their mother, you know. There are moments like that that happen.

But you can’t let your emotions overtake you so much that you can’t do the work. What you are supposed to be doing for them as a historian is telling their story. It’s like visiting someone in a hospital. It can be heartbreaking, but you’ve got to go, because they are expecting to see you. And you have to find the strength in yourself to do that, and then go off and cry or whatever. So it’s very much like that. It would be, I think, self-indulgent if I let my emotions about this get me to a point where I can’t look clearly at the problem, the issue, the situation and be able to take that and to write so that other people can see it. It’s not about me. OK, it is about me to the extent that it’s always about the writer to some degree, but it’s more about the communication, and you have to keep a presence of mind to be able to do that.

Read the entire interview here.

You can also check out our interview with Gordon-Reed and University of Virginia historian Peter Onuf on Episode 8 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Immanent Frame Forum on Islam and the Founding Fathers

TJ-Quran-195x300The other day I was Skyping with a colonial America class at another college.  One of the students asked me what the founding fathers would have thought about Islam.  I answered the question, but after I got done with the class I realized I should have also recommended Denise Spellberg’s 2013 book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.

Check out the recently announced forum at Immanent Frame on Spellberg’s book.

Here is what you can expect:

Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an was released in 2013, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term as president of the United States. As we were reminded during the 2016 election season, both of President Obama’s campaigns for presidency were marked by accusations that he was a practicing Muslim and debates as to the legitimacy of a president with such a religious identity. Spellberg’s book was published as a timely history of the religious freedom debates during the founding of the United States, emphasizing the choice that the Founding Fathers made to create a new nation open to all religions. As Spellberg describes in her historical account, Thomas Jefferson argued for the inclusion of Muslims without knowing a Muslim individual; his theoretical sense of welcome toward them extended hospitality and legal protection to other religious minority groups at the time, including Jews and Catholics.

Detailing these debates around religious pluralism, Spellberg contributed to the defense against Islamophobia championed by those such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in response to questions of Obama’s Muslimness asked, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country?” Now, in 2017, Powell’s question back to his interviewers is more potent, as support for Muslim Americans as fully American citizens seems to be up for debate. Though similar conflicts are happening in other countries as well, the history of American religious pluralism as a founding principle shapes the conversation in a certain way in the United States.

In this short series, four scholars reflect on re-reading Spellberg’s text in 2017.

Follow along here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Maurizio Valsania

JeffersonsBodyMaurizio Valsania is Professor of American History at the University of Turin, Italy. This interview is based on his new book, Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography (University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Jefferson’s Body?

MV: I have always enjoyed reading biographies of American founders and past figures in general. However, wonderful though many biographies are, I often feel that something is missing. Biographers make forays only into the several corporeal dimensions that make us who we are—so that the reader can get basic information about how tall, imposing, elegant, or gentle the subject of that life was. Biographers look for the character, the intellect, the mind, the spirit. But they do not turn the body into the main subject of their analyses. And yet, philosophers and anthropologists have made clear that the body is more than just an appendix or the external coat of the self: it is through the body that we come to be who we are. Our consciousness, cognitive processes, deepest emotions, and beliefs are usually shaped and structured by corporeality and corporeal interactions. This means that our body is often the main actor—at least as important as the mind—of the ongoing drama we call life. By writing Jefferson’s Body, I’ve answered my need to push biographers’ comfort zone a little further up (or, better, further down), and to make the genre more materialistic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jefferson’s Body?

MV: As a typical 18th-century a man who lived in the age of theater and amid all the excitement coming from the emerging middle-class standards, Thomas Jefferson was singularly engaged with his own corporeality. His body, and not only his mind, took up many challenges and made him into an “appropriately” modern, natural, and masculine type—while setting this same type apart from the other bodies (Native American, African American, and female bodies) that were considered less-than-normal.

JF: Why do we need to read Jefferson’s Body?

MV: Over the last 15 years or so, excellent studies of single dimensions of American 18th-century corporeality have emerged, from clothing and fashion to manners, from medical sciences and dietary habits to consumption, from whiteness and masculinity to sexuality. Relying on more and more sophisticated methodologies, these studies have discovered many new elements. Readers may find it interesting to go through a book that encompasses these different fields and, for the first time, applies different methodologies to tell the corporeal biography of one of the most singular, challenging, and at times peculiar man.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MV: When in the late 1990s I did my PhD in intellectual history, I became fascinated by a strain of radicalism crossing Europe and reaching the shores of the Atlantic colonies during the second half of the 18th century. “Reshaping the world anew” became the catchphrase of many philosophers, politicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The new American nation has remained my repository of case-studies since.

JF: What is your next project?

MV: I’m well into drafting a corporeal biography of one of the most beloved American hero ever, George Washington. I promise I will deliver a man not many Americans are familiar with.

JF: Thanks, Maurizio!

The Author’s Corner with Andrew Shankman

Original Intents.jpgAndrew Shankman is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University at Camden.  This interview is based on his new book, Original Intents: Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the American Founding (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Original Intents?

AS: I was excited by the charge given to me by Oxford University Press—to write a book that would advance scholarly knowledge of the nation’s constitutional, political, economic, and financial origins, but that would be entirely accessible to any reader and that could be completely understood without any prior knowledge of subject.  Oh, and to keep it under 200 pages!  That was an exciting challenge.  Scholars are very good at writing for other scholars, and some of them get good at writing for a general audience.  That such a prestigious press wanted me to write a book that the general public could enjoy and learn from, and that would not sacrifice any complexity—would not “dumb it down”—and so would benefit scholars too—that seemed such an exciting and a great idea, and a very worthy challenge to take on.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Original Intents?

AS: Original Intents examines the political, constitutional, and economic ideas and policies of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison from the American Revolution through the early 1790s.  Original Intents argues that Jefferson and Madison had profound disagreements with Hamilton about the meaning and purpose of the Constitution and the future of the nation, and that the ideas of all three were shaped, evolved, and changed by their ongoing and heated arguments with each other.

JF: Why do we need to read Original Intents?

AS: Original Intents recreates in close to real time the step by step ways in which Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison came to realize what they thought and who they were.  They came to their understanding through intense engagement with each other during the most significant, creative, and productive period of their lives. The arguments the three had with each other from the American Revolution through the early 1790s (mostly it was Jefferson and Madison agreeing with each other and seriously disagreeing with Hamilton) established the framework for how Americans came to understand their Constitution.  Their arguments also began the debates that continue to our day about the proper relationship between the national and state governments, how much and in what ways governments should tax and take on debt, and what sort of nation we the citizens should aspire to have.  In their different ways, all three of them believed the United States was an ongoing experiment, that its institutions were only as strong and durable as the citizens who made use of them, and that the Constitution provided the basis and the beginning for a never-ending conversation among citizens and between those who governed and the people they were governing.  Original Intents explores how all that began, and how three of the people most responsible for shaping and overseeing the new Constitution quickly discovered that they disagreed about what it said and what it meant.  Understanding their ideas—their differing original intents—allows us to better understand the immensely important historical legacy we have inherited, and the tremendous burdens, responsibilities, and also privileges that come with being a citizen.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?

AS: From an early age I knew I wanted to study history.  I loved mythology, the middle ages, the Civil War, the old west.  But I decided to try to become a professional historian and specialize in late 18th and early 19th century American history in the fall semester of my junior of college at Northern Illinois University, in 1991.  That semester I took a course in American diplomatic history to 1898 with a wonderful professor who died this past December named Carl Parrini.  The first eight weeks were all about the 1780s and 1790s.  Learning about Hamilton’s financial system, the crazy 1790s when Americans were accusing each other of being secret British agents scheming to restore monarchy, or of being crazy radical operatives of revolutionary France plotting to erect a guillotine in Philadelphia—all that stuff was amazing to me.  The paintings make all these 18th century folks look like boring wax figures wearing wigs.  To learn that they weren’t that at all, to learn just how fascinating and passionate and complex they all truly were, and how wild and wooly it all really was, I was hooked, and I’ve stayed hooked.

 JF: What is your next project?

AS: My next book moves forward in time to the period between the end of the War of 1812 (1815) and the Nullification Crisis (early 1830s), which was when South Carolina argued that it could nullify federal law within its state borders.  I’m looking at a group of younger (for the most part) followers of Jefferson, who came to be known as the National Republicans.  By the end of the War of 1812 the National Republicans began to fear that much of what they had expected to be true about the United States was not going to happen.  They had assumed three things: first, that the U.S. could and should remain almost exclusively agricultural.  Second, that the national government could be very inactive most of the time, especially domestically.  And third, that slavery would naturally grow less and less significant over time.  Between 1815 and 1825 people like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Mathew Carey, Richard Rush, and many, many others came to believe that none of those three things was true or was going to happen.  My book will be about why they concluded that, what they tried to do about it, and why, by the early 1830s, they had provoked a large national movement in opposition to them that defeated them.  I’m writing a story of thoughtful, principled, and often deeply flawed failure.  I plan to title it The National Republicans: Capitalism, Slavery, and the State during the Long 1820s.

JF: Thanks, Andrew!

My Latest Piece in the Harrisburg *Patriot News*

jefferson-trump

Here is a taste of my “The Press Was Way More Political in Jefferson’s Day–But He Defended It Anyway.”

President Trump has made a habit of attacking the press as being a promoter of “fake news,” part of a “corrupt system,” and the propagator of “lies.” His administration has made enemies of certain outlets, even locking them out of briefings.

In a speech in Melbourne, Fla., he made an appeal to American history to defend his stance, saying presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln “fought with the media and called them out oftentimes on their lies. 

Trump even quoted a June 14, 1807, letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell in which Jefferson wrote “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

The President was correct about Jefferson. The Founding Father had his problems with the press. But what he didn’t note was that despite his agitation with the press, he defended a much more biased press as a necessary part of free speech.

In 1803, during his first term as President, Jefferson wrote to Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean suggesting that the editors of a newspaper critical of his administration should be prosecuted for “pushing its licentiousness and its lying to such a degree of prostitution as to deprive it of all credit.”

This is but one of many examples of Jefferson’s harsh words against a negative press.

But Jefferson also knew the press served an important role.

Read the rest here.

The Election of 1800 and Today

larson-posterYesterday the Messiah College History Department hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson for a lecture titled “The Election of 1800 and the Birth of Partisan Presidential Politics.”  The lecture stemmed from Larson’s 2007 book A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign.

I will not offer a blow-by-blow account of the lecture here.  Those interested should read Larson’s book.  It is fast-moving and accessible.

But as Larson lectured to a room packed with undergraduates, faculty, and community members, I was once again struck by the many similarities (and differences) between the Election of 1800 and the Election of 2016.

Here is how I introduced Larson’s lecture:

Was 2016 the most contentious election in American history?  It seems that every election we hear the same things: “Political polarization has never been worse.”  “The rancor and divisiveness is unprecedented.”  But when historians hear words like “never been worse” or “unprecedented,” our natural inclination is skepticism.  As Americans we can so easily become enslaved by the narcissism of the present that we start to believe that what is happening today is the “best,” the “worst,” or the “most hard fought” of ALL TIME.

We can have an honest debate about whether the 2016 election was the most divisive election in American history. But any such debate MUST take into the consideration the Election of 1800.  This was an election of cantankerous politicking.  It was the first United States presidential election that saw the peaceful transition of power from one political party to another.  And it had a controversial ending that makes last night’s announcement of “Best Picture” pale in comparison.

We are privileged today to have Ed Larson with us to help us sort it all out. 

As Larson gave us a blow-by-blow account of this controversial election he focused his remarks around the three themes.  As he sees it, the Election of 1800 was a contest over:

  1. National Security.  Adams and the Federalists claimed that they could protect the United States from the outside interference of armed French radicals and the threat of the French navy in the Caribbean.
  2. Immigration.  The Federalists had just passed the Alien Act which made immigration into the United States difficult. It allowed the government to turn away immigrants and refugees out of fear that some of them (radicals) might try to overthrow the republic.
  3. Religion.  The Federalist painted Jefferson as an atheist.  Jefferson painted Adams as a religious hypocrite who favored a state church.

Sound familiar?  Perhaps we might even add a fourth point–freedom of the press or freedom of speech.  The Sedition Act made anti-Federalist/anti-Adams rhetoric punishable by law.

As I tweeted following the lecture:

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Gutzman

thomas-jeffersonKevin Gutzman is Professor and Chairman of the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University. This interview is based on his new book, Thomas Jefferson- Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Thomas Jefferson?

KG: The idea of writing a book about Thomas Jefferson’s radical statesmanship came to me as I was working on my most recent previous book, James Madison and the Making of America, a biography of Jefferson’s best friend and closest ally. Madison’s correspondence is devoted almost exclusively to politics of a somehow constitutionalist variety and various business and family matters. Jefferson, on the other hand, was—this is trite because true—a multifaceted genius, one whose influence on our world is in many of its manifestations unremarked. I also believed on the basis of prior work that some of Jefferson’s chief commitments and projects had been misunderstood. I wanted to explore that genius and to clarify the record.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Thomas Jefferson?

KG: Thomas Jefferson remains the most significant statesman in American history. Additionally, much of Jefferson’s radical program has been misapprehended, so that even experts are apt to see in Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America a different Jefferson from the one they have known.

JF: Why do we need to read Thomas Jefferson?

KG: Experts need to read Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America for new insights concerning the radical end of the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson in particular. The general public needs to read it as a corrective to Federalist Chic à la Lin-Manuel Miranda.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KG: I became interested in American Revolutionary and constitutional history in summer 1987, when as part of my joint-degrees program in law and public affairs at the University of Texas I completed a summer internship on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In between work days in the office of a member of the House of Representatives, I exploited the constitutional bicentennial by reading a couple of dozen books of constitutional history and public policy and seeing myriad local sights. The final decision to become a historian arose out of my experience of legal practice as a very dull matter indeed.

JF: What is your next project?

KG: My next project, The Virginia Dynasty: Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020 (forthcoming)), will be – believe it or not – the first such book ever published. I am well along in doing the research.

JF: Thanks, Kevin. 

Thomas Jefferson and Freedom of the Press

Today the POTUS tweeted:

I responded:

Freedom of the press is included in the same First Amendment that protects religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.

I think it is fair to say that no POTUS has liked the press.   But to declare the press the enemy undermines the First Amendment.

Let’s see what Thomas Jefferson thought about a free press:

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

Jefferson said a lot more about the press. Some of it was critical and some of it might provide a usable past for Trump.  See some more of his quotes here.

Here’s the Continental Congress.

The last right we shall mention, regards the freedom of the press. The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated, into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.–Continental Congress, October 1774.

The Founders were a bit more nuanced about freedom of the press than these quotes suggest, but I do think these quotes represent the Founders’s general understanding of the subject.

No, Stephen Miller. That’s Not How it Works.

This post is pretty basic, but it needs to be said.  In this day and age there are a lot of “basic” things that need to be said about how our government works, how republics are maintained, and how a democratic society functions.

In case you missed, here is Trump adviser Stephen Miller suggesting on CBS’s Face the Nation that Donald Trump’s power to protect the country are “very substantial and will not be questioned.”

No Mr. Miller, that’s not how the United States government works.  We have a system of checks and balances in this country for the very purpose of “questioning” every decision that the President makes.

Here are some passages from James Madison’s Federalist #47:

The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.

The reasons on which Montesquieu grounds his maxim are a further demonstration of his meaning. “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body” says he, “there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.” Again “Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary controul, for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with all the violence of an oppressor.” 

Here is Madison in Federalist #48:

In a government, where numerous and extensive prerogatives are placed in the hands of a hereditary monarch, the executive department is very justly regarded as the source of danger, and watched with all the jealousy which a zeal for liberty ought to inspire.  (See my post “Political Jealousy is a Laudable Passion“).

Here is Madison in Federalist #51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to controul the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to controul the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to controul itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary controul on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Here is George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address:

The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern, some of them in our country and under our own eyes.

Here is Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

The time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they shall have gotten hold on us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.

For a nuanced explanation of all this I recommend Aaron Blake’s piece at The Washington Post.