April 16, 2004


Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist (Conor Cruise O'Brien, October 1996, Atlantic Monthly)

The term "civil religion" was first used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and refers to "the religious dimension of the polity." American civil religion has been summed up by one scholar as "an institutionalized collection of sacred American beliefs providing sources of cohesion and prophetic guidance through times of national crises." Among those sacred beliefs, a cult of liberty has been important from very early on. The sociologist Robert N. Bellah quotes a 1770 observer's opinion that "the minds of the people are wrought up into as high a degree of Enthusiasm by the word liberty, as could have been expected had Religion been the cause." [...]

THERE is no difficulty in seeing Jefferson as the prophet of the American civil religion if one thinks of him as the author of its most sacred document, the Declaration of Independence, and leaves it at that. But there is great difficulty in fitting the historical Jefferson, with all we know of him, into the civil religion of modern America (as it is generally and semi-officially expounded) at all, let alone in seeing him as its prophet.

Thomas Jefferson was in his day a prophet of American civil religion. Indeed, if his original draft of the Declaration of Independence had been accepted, the Declaration would have been more explicitly linked to the American civil religion than it is in its present form. Whereas the second paragraph of the Declaration opens with the words "We hold phese truths to be self-evident . . . ," Jefferson's original draft had "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable . . . " The drafting of the Declaration had been entrusted by the Second Continental Congress to a committee of five, of which the leading members were Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. Although Rousseau's phrase "civil religion" does not seem to have been in circulation in America at this time (when it would have been suspect in the eyes of churchmen), Jefferson -- whether through Rousseau or not -- was a "civil religion" person in his habitual use of language. Adams objected strongly to the mixing of politics and religion. Franklin was more consistently secular than Jefferson in his style. The historian Carl Lotus Becker writes, on the change in the manuscript to "self-evident," "It is not clear that this change was made by Jefferson. The hand-writing of 'self-evident' resembles Franklin's." The change was an improvement, functionally speaking, for a revolutionary manifesto. Anyone who rejects a "self-evident truth" must be either a fool or a knave. And that is precisely what the Founders wanted to say about anyone who opposed the Declaration. Jefferson himself appreciated the polemical force of this word, and often used it later.

Thomas Jefferson served as the American Minister to France from 1785 to late in 1789, and thus witnessed the last crisis of the ancien régime. He was in Paris for the opening of the Estates General (May 5, 1789) and for the fall of the Bastille (July 14). In letters to divers correspondents he evinced growing and confident enthusiasm for the burgeoning revolution. To James Madison: "The revolution of France has gone on with the most unexampled success hitherto. . . ." To Thomas Paine: "The National Assembly [showed] a coolness, wisdom, and resolution to set fire the four corners of the kingdom and to perish with it themselves rather than to relinquish an iota from their plan of total change. . . ." To Paine again: "The king, queen and national assembly are removed to Paris. The mobs and murders under which [the revolutionaries] dress this fact are like the rags in which religion robes the true god." No mere observer of the revolution, Jefferson is believed to have played a part in formulating the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by the National Assembly, the revolutionary heir to the Estates General, on August 26, 1789.

He thus became the symbol of a proposition of which he came to be a fervent apologist: that the French Revolution was the continuation and fulfillment of the American one, both being manifestations of one and the same spirit of liberty. Within a few years that proposition was to become bitterly divisive, both among the American people and among the Founding Fathers themselves. The question of policy toward France was to range Jefferson and Madison, supported by James Monroe, against Hamilton and Adams. Washington first tried to hold the balance but ultimately threw his tremendous weight decisively against the Jeffersonian theory of the continuity and kinship of the two revolutions.

The Jefferson of the early 1790s, the champion of the French Revolution, was an ardent believer in, and prophet of, civil religion in the sense adumbrated by Rousseau. That is, he sought to animate an apparently secular and political idea -- that of liberty, "the true god" -- by breathing into it the kinds of emotions and dispositions with which religion had been invested in the Age of Faith. Of this religion Thomas Jefferson was more than a prophet -- he was a pope. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, he possessed the magisterium of liberty. He could define heresy and excommunicate heretics. To fail to acknowledge, for example, that the French Revolution was an integral part of the holy cause of liberty, along with the American Revolution, was heresy, and the heretic had to be driven from public life.

We can debate his theism or deism, but not his commitment to a universalist vision of liberty.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 16, 2004 11:39 AM

We can even debate his racism. He was a more complicated man than any of his critics.

If you read what he actually said about blacks, it was the that field hands were so degraded that he doubted they could be raised up to civic status. He did not have similar doubts about the house servants and black craftsman.

In other words, his judgment was social not racist.

Doesn't speak very well for his farm management.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 16, 2004 2:10 PM

I know people who think similarly of Arabs.

Posted by: oj at April 16, 2004 2:19 PM

In later life Jefferson sobered up and dropped his fascination with Jacobinism. For example, during the Tripolotanian War, he didn't install democracies on the North African coast; at most his government tried to replace one Dey with another, but wound up screwing their guy in the end. Then as now, it was more dangerous to be an American ally than an enemy.

Posted by: Derek Copold at April 16, 2004 3:46 PM

"We can debate his theism or deism, but not his commitment to a universalist vision of liberty."


Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 16, 2004 8:26 PM

There are no Arab equivalents of house slaves.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 16, 2004 8:29 PM

So they're all lower than blacks were? You are a Southerner.

Posted by: oj at April 16, 2004 9:10 PM

Jefferson's admiration for the "principles" of the French Revolution speaks to either his approval of enlightenment "totalitainian liberty" ie) only the "citizen" who supports the revolution has a right to be free to agree with dirctator of the day, or Jefferson's ignorance of the truth and nievity in believing the propaganda machine (free press) which so effectivly supported the first but not last of the French facists.

Posted by: Keith chapman at April 17, 2004 2:15 AM

Not "lower" than blacks or anybody else.

Jefferson's distinction was not racial but social.

He recognized the socialization of some blacks but could not imagine how the field hands could arise from their degraded condition. (He wasn't the only one who worried about this; it's the theme of Booker Washington's "Up from Slavery" and explains why he spent so much time on brushing teeth.)

No Arabs have been socialized enough to come into society. As Friedman wrote (I believe you cited him) more than a year ago, after a visit to Bahrain, even the educated and informed Arabs were 70 or 80% lunatics.

They are, too; you make a great fuss over how people must abide by the beliefs of the generality. If we take the world as a whole, the Arabs are very, very far from being able to do that.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 17, 2004 10:49 PM

Generality of their society--not ours. Islamic democracy will be different than ours, likely better than Europe's.

Posted by: oj at April 17, 2004 11:02 PM

Islamic democracy.

I think that is in the dictionary as an illustration of the term "oxymoron."

One can either have democracy and freedom, or live under the dead hand of scriptural orthodoxy.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 18, 2004 7:37 AM


You live under it.

Posted by: oj at April 18, 2004 9:13 AM
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