Wrestling With the Founding in the Culture Wars (Thomas W. Merrill, 1/11/24, Law & Liberty)

Thomas Jefferson was weirder and more complex than our political discourse today can easily acknowledge. Consider these two facts. On the one hand, Jefferson was, as we might say today, French Revolution adjacent. He was sympathetic to the revolution for a long time, perhaps longer than we today feel comfortable with. In a well-known letter to William Short in 1793, Jefferson praised, or at least accepted, the violence of the revolution as necessary for the cause of human freedom. On the other hand, at the end of his life, Jefferson was Southern secessionist adjacent. The whole point of the famous letter to John Holmes of 1820, sometimes called the “wolf by the ear” letter, is that if Congress tried to regulate slavery in the territories, the Southern states would break the Union. Contrary to Abraham Lincoln’s later appeals to a “founding consensus” on slavery in the territories, carefully crafted for his political audiences, Jefferson thought and argued that slavery should in fact spread throughout the territories.

This Jefferson makes us feel uncomfortable. How can you describe a figure who wrote the Declaration of Independence, sympathized with the radical parts of the French Revolution, and yet still ended up in a place close to what the proslavery South became? We don’t have a name for this. Jefferson continues to frustrate our desire for clear political categories.

What are we to make of this? Perhaps this observation might help. For most of us, the first word that comes to mind when we hear the name Jefferson is “hypocrite.” And of course, it is hard to argue with that, for all the reasons that we already know. The man wrote the Declaration, but owned slaves; he orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase against his narrow interpretation of executive power; the list goes on. At the same time, the word hypocrite doesn’t really do justice to the Jefferson phenomenon. For one thing, hypocrite leads us to think about the situation largely in terms of personal moral behavior, as though it were simply a matter of someone preaching one thing in public but acting differently in private. Now, there is a dimension of Jefferson’s actions that fits this—think of Sally Hemings.

But there’s another word that fits Jefferson better. That word is tragedy or grand self-contradiction. In tragedy, precisely at the moment when he becomes himself most fully, the hero also undermines everything he holds highest.