The Other Jefferson

A FB friend posted a good quotation from Jefferson about the importance of the family. Since this aroused some mild skepticism, I posted this answer,  one that has been strongly influenced by my reading of Jefferson's own words, the biography by Dumas Malone, and, above all, by the admonitions of my friend Prof. Clyde Wilson.  It is a trivial observation and overstated, but perhaps it will help parents of children who are being taught the old Classical Liberal bilge.

One way of looking at our third President is to see him as a split personality. There is the typical Enlightened man of his time, full of nice idealism about the possibilities of human freedom and eager to tear down all the walls, someone who pretends to believe the pernicious nonsense of Locke and working tirelessly to put an end to entail and primogeniture, the foundation of propertied estates and stable family traditions.

Then there is the Virginian, a man of family and tradition, who worked tirelessly to improve his nephews and other family members, who championed the Virgininia he regarded as his country, the extreme skeptic on the question of the human capacity for self-government who trusted neither rich nor poor to leave other people alone and who harbored dark thoughts about the capacity of non-Europeans to live in a civil order, the brilliant and articulate defender of what Catholics would call the subsidiarity principle both in his plan for decentralized education in Virginia and in his vision of bringing self-government down to its roots at the level of wards. The first of these Jeffersons is the one we know from history classes--a nice man but a chump--while the second, whom we only know from reading his letters and studying his thought, was a profoundly original political thinker whose thoughts stretch back through the Middle Ages  to the Greeks whom he so passionately admired.

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Clyde Wilson says:

    Well said

  2. Christian Kopff says:

    Edmund Pendleton asked Jefferson about feudal vs allodial land tenure. Jefferson answered on August 13. 1776. Jefferson favors private ownership of family farms. If Dumas Malone and Carl Becker are right, he should cite Locke’s Second Treatise. Chapter 5, “On Property.” He actually writes, “Are we not the better for what we have abolished of the feudal system? Has not every restitution of the ancient Saxon law had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest & most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the 8th century?” As Gilbert Chinard saw in 1939, “Jeffersonian democracy was born under the sign of Hengist and Horsa, not of the goddess Reason.” Compare this with Malone, who never quotes the letter to Pendleton, refers to it in a footnote in 1948 and in 1981 denies that Jefferson’s views were due to “what he read and believed about the Saxons….He believed that the rights of man — inherent, universal and inalienable – were written in the book of Nature.” If Thomas Jefferson says the opposite, too bad for him. Jefferson was a Whig. His chief concern was restoring tradition, not originality, which he mocked in his letter to Henry Lee in 1825.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, indeed, Jefferson’s historical imagination was a great antidote to the simplistic Whig ideology that has been so well dissected by Butterfield. Jefferson’s embrace of the Whig myth of Anglo-Saxon liberty was certainly more positive than negative in its consequences. On the negative side, it encouraged him to despise feudalism and royalism as products of the Norman oppression and probably had something to do with his dislike for David Hume, whose far profounder understanding of Anglo-Saxon England allowed Hume to see that going armed and accepting responsibility for defending one’s person and family was the heart of Anglo-Saxon liberty. On the positive side, it gave Jefferson an historic model that could be set beside the example of Greek and Roman history, which he knew rather well, and the Old Testament narrative, which was not entirely to his taste. It is a bit disappointing that Jefferson’s rejection of feudalism encouraged him in his individualistic conception of property rights and did not lead to an explicit rejection of the government’s power to confiscate property, a subject debated in the 17th and 18th centuries. He also failed to realize that, if “the land belongs to the living,” and entail and primogeniture are to be abolished, the individual and the nuclear family will steadily lose the support offered by kin-groups that are bound together in part by the capacity of members to inherit. I don’t blame Jefferson for not seeing into the 21st century. His individualistic view of property was becoming the norm in his lifetime–one has only to read De Stutt de Tracy’s warping of Montesquieu to see how far it had gone. The approach I have adopted generally is to admire people as diverse as Jefferson, WJ Bryan, HL Mencken, and Alex Cockburn for their original and positive contributions and to forgive them for the inevitable lapses into the opinio communis that all of us who put pen to paper must be guilty of.