J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 07, 2013

Reviewing Jefferson the Politician

The Jefferson tussles continue with Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain, assessing Jon Meacham’s political biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power in The New Republic:
Meacham has read the scholarly literature on Jefferson—some of it critical—but doesn’t let enough of this debate intrude on the storytelling, which nearly always puts Jefferson in the best possible light. . . .

In his notes, Meacham concedes that “a vapor of duplicity,” as Charles Francis Adams wrote, beclouds this founder. But Meacham hastens to reassure us that Jefferson would never tell a lie. If his language seemed to deceive, the deception must be in the ear of the listener: “He hated arguing face-to-face, preferring to smooth out the rough edges of conversation …” Thus, Jefferson gets a pass for lying to [George] Washington when he sought to deceive the president about his deep involvement in the propaganda wars raging in the newspaper: “Jefferson had been dishonest …preferring to mislead Washington rather than force a confrontation.” This was power politics at its dirtiest—and most fascinating—yet Meacham gives it only cursory attention, perhaps because, as he admits, Jefferson’s financial ties to the propaganda hounds reeked of “the smell of the stables.”
Abigail Adams fell out with Jefferson not just over the 1800 election but over his bald-faced denials that he had anything to do with press attacks on her husband. On 1 July 1804 Abigail wrote to the President of the U.S. of A.:
And now Sir I will freely disclose to you what has severed the bonds of former Friendship, and placed you in a light very different from what I once viewed you in. . . .

Until I read [James Thomson] Callenders seventh Letter containing your compliments to him as a writer and your reward of 50 dollars, I could not be made to believe, that such measures could have been resorted to: to stab the fair fame and upright intentions of one, who to use your own Language “was acting from an honest conviction in his own mind that he was right.” [In other words, her husband.] This Sir I considerd as a personal injury. This was the Sword that cut asunder the Gordian knot, which could not be untied by all the efforts of party Spirit, by rivalship by Jealousy or any other malignant fiend.
Jefferson, of course, denied that he had been supporting Callender when that printer attacked the Adams administration. Abigail Adams didn’t believe him, and rightly so.

As author of a study of Jefferson’s slaveholding, Wiencek naturally considers what Meacham has to say on that topic:
The shadow of the Peculiar Institution looms over this book and, I suspect, is the main reason why Meacham so persistently emphasizes Jefferson’s political “realism” and his refusal to move farther and faster than the law or the public mood allowed. Meacham has no problem with bold presidential moves such as the Louisiana Purchase, which as Meacham admits, was illegal (the Constitution did not provide for its acquisition) and Jefferson’s naval action against the Barbary pirates, which he pursued without Congressional approval (he secured it retroactively). But slavery is always a special case. Slavery was just one of “the complexities of life.” Sally Hemings was not enslaved by Jefferson but by “geography and culture.” When the political issue is slavery, the man who elsewhere seizes control and imposes his will, immediately gives up: “Wounded by the defeats of his progressive efforts on slavery, Jefferson was finally to retreat to a more conventional position.” Meacham does not let Jefferson entirely off the hook, but his rebuke is gentle.
Meacham uses the phrase “geography and culture” when writing of young Sally Hemings in Paris, saying that having previously enslaved her (i.e., she was born to an enslaved mother in British-speaking North America), those circumstances now offered a risky opportunity for freedom. On the same page of the book, Meacham writes that Jefferson had this “beautiful woman at his command” because of “an evil system,” and “he was not a man to deny himself what he wanted.” So it’s not as if Meacham erases Jefferson and his desires from the picture.

In fact, Meacham, unlike most Jefferson biographers before 1998, cites Madison Hemings’s account as the most reliable source on his mother Sally’s life. Seeing a complimentary biographer do that reveals how much the ground has shifted on the consensus picture of Jefferson.

Nevertheless, Wiencek makes an important point. If Meacham’s Jefferson “was not a man to deny himself what he wanted” yet took very few steps toward ending slavery at Monticello, he can’t have wanted emancipation as much as he said he did. At the very least, he wanted other things more.


John L Smith Jr said...

I'm reading Meacham's book right now. On the subject of slavery, Meacham states [about Jefferson], "He knew slavery was a moral wrong and believed it would ultimately be abolished. He could not, however, bring himself to work for emancipation". Meacham implies that TJ felt he was too old to fight that battle since it would quite likely tear the country apart. The "hideous blot" of slavery would have to be fought by new generations, he felt. He was right and in 1819 wrote that the slavery status of Missouri bothered him a lot; from which he wrote the famous "... firebell in the night" line.

J. L. Bell said...

Jefferson's critics on slavery would respond that by doing so little on the issue he didn't prevent the nation's split and may even have made it more likely. If he as a former President from Virginia and founder of the Democratic Party had come out for emancipation, would the cause have gained more traction? But Jefferson wanted a plan for what would follow emacipation and was unable to believe that African-Americans could become members of the republic.

Michael D. Hattem said...

Re-read the first quote passage again and notice how Wiencek accuses Meacham of "reassur[ing] us that Jefferson would never tell a lie" and of giving Jefferson "a pass for lying," but then immediately follows it up with a quote from Meacham's book that begins, "Jefferson had been dishonest …"

Meacham is acknowledging Jefferson's dishonesty (in this case, in his dealings with Washington). Yet, Wiencek's judgment is so distorted by his dislike for the subject that unless one does not use their entire book to denounce Jefferson and call him a liar on every other page, they are guilty of giving Jefferson "a pass." I'm not defending Meacham's work, which I am still yet to get around to reading, but this is a perfect example of the historical extremism that infests much of the popular works on Jefferson, especially Wiencek's Master of the Mountain.

J. L. Bell said...

It struck me that Meacham might be trying to draw a distinction between telling an outright lie and using misleading language. I think Jefferson more often used the latter tactic, but I don't know the particular details of the dispute that prompted the quoted words (Jefferson's support for Philip Freneau). For Wiencek, and perhaps many others, that distinction, if it exists, is an attempt to excuse Jefferson's dishonesty. That's why I quoted Abigail Adams when she caught Jefferson in what she believes was a lie; contemporaries thought he was dishonest, not just us moderns. Personally, I think the distinction between outright lying and misleading is significant, but so is the underlying attempt to deceive, but can see both Meacham and Wiencek's approaches as valid as long as they're consistent.

Mylene said...

On Thomas Jefferson or anyone else for that fact, had me think of this Maxim of Law ( Qui non libere veritatem pronunciat, proditor est verilatis. He who does not willingly speak the truth, is a betrayer of the truth.) that I have been studying. I am wondering how adept was Jefferson in understanding how law worked? And or how well did the others of their time period understand also?

Because the way that I see it. Who ever truly understood how law worked and or didn't work. Are guilty of lying,if they knew the truth and chose not to speak it. Then they are betrayers of the truth. Liars.

I do know in Thomas Jefferson's letter to a Dr. Cooper in 1814 points out how Private Law infiltrated our Common Law Customs and Usages adopted from Britain's Law of the Land aka Common Law. Here is link to site that has his letter;