Judging Jefferson

REVIEW: 'His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer'

December 11, 2022

As the historian Merrill Peterson noted in his classic study The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), the popular image of Thomas Jefferson has undergone numerous permutations over the years. In his introduction to the book's 1998 reprinting, Peterson drew attention to the continuing interest in Jefferson as shown in recent historical fiction, films, and documentaries, by the renaming of the Library of Congress main building as well as an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, and by president-elect William Jefferson Clinton's pre-inaugural pilgrimage to Monticello, as well as Sotheby's auction of a Jefferson letter for a record price. The shifts that Jefferson's portrait underwent over time, in accordance with changing political currents, had been largely among rival claimants to his image as a champion of liberty and equality, rather than over Jefferson's merits as such a champion.

That image has changed drastically in the quarter-century since Peterson wrote his introduction. Stains on Jefferson's liberal and egalitarian reputation had already appeared following Peterson's original book, starting with constitutional historian Leonard Levy's 1963 challenge to Jefferson's (self-created) image as a nonpartisan defender of civil liberty in Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (1963) and Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography (1974), which dwelt on his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings (which Peterson had treated as doubtful). These were followed by Joseph Ellis's ambivalent American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996) and Conor Cruise O'Brien's The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800, which persuasively interpreted Jefferson's perverse enthusiasm for that revolution, well after it had devolved into anarchy and terror, as a psychological compensation for feelings of guilt about his slave ownership, which contradicted the principles he had so eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Notes on Virginia.

Despite the foregoing works of scholarship, until a few years ago the Democratic Party was proud to trace its lineage to Jefferson, terming its annual fundraiser the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner. (The title was itself ironic, in view of the elitist Jefferson's contempt for Jackson's vulgarity.) But the turn in Jefferson's popular reputation suddenly reached 180 degrees in today's "woke" revolution, with the Virginian's name regularly being stricken from schools and other public institutions around the country owing to his having been a slaveowner (and, secondarily, to his hypocritical coverup of his relationship with Hemings). That turn (seen also in the "1619 Project") threatens to obliterate recollection of the great goods Jefferson accomplished for his country, taking a leading role in the movement for independence, subsequently representing it ably as minister to France in the 1780s, authoring not only the Declaration of Independence but also the draft of what became the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territories, and undertaking the Louisiana Purchase during his presidency.

In His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer, Fred Kaplan, emeritus professor of English at Queens College and the author of 12 previous books, adopts a more balanced approach that is neither hagiographic nor unappreciative. Borrowing his title from the phrase that Jefferson's friend-enemy-friend John Adams used to describe his literary brilliance, Kaplan traces his subject's life and career from youth to old age by relying chiefly on an examination of his words—both his public addresses and his public and private correspondence.

A recurring theme in Kaplan's portrait, however, is Jefferson's remarkable capacity for self-contradiction and outright self-forgetting: issuing continual exhortations on behalf of liberty while disregarding his slave ownership, and even his determination to see the slave rebellion in Haiti crushed; his extravagance, which kept him perpetually in debt, even as he celebrated the virtues of the independent, sturdy yeoman farmer; his "fantasized" recollection of the American Revolution as a time of general happiness, just because of people's supposed freedom from debt; his dishonest treatment of the Indian tribes, espousing a conciliatory but patronizing attitude toward them while really intending the forced removal of those who refused to assimilate to the area west of the Mississippi; his willingness as president to take strong actions, in contrast to his longtime "preaching" in favor of small government.

But unlike Jefferson's contemporary detractors, Kaplan repeatedly reminds us of his virtues: above all, his ardent devotion to public service, the range of his intellectual curiosity, and his remarkable mastery of English prose. (This does not prevent Kaplan from pointing out the failure of some of the policies Jefferson favored, such as the reliance on embargoes instead of a navy to protect American interests against foreign depredations—prefiguring contemporary American exponents of "soft" power to ward off foreign aggressors, in place of undertaking the expense of necessary enhancements of our military capacities. But as that last example illustrates, today's detractors of Jefferson’s policy errors are not necessarily in a position to crow over their own successes.)

Aside from some minor stylistic blemishes (occasional repetitiveness and irrelevant speculations, such as that Jefferson's beloved daughter Martha was probably a virgin when she married), and one major substantive problem addressed below, Kaplan succeeds brilliantly at his task. The book is written in a style that will be accessible to general audiences: While thoroughly annotated, and obviously reflective of extensive scholarship (the bibliography, besides a comprehensive listing of Jefferson's books and correspondence, includes a 13-page listing of secondary works), Kaplan's notes are placed at the end, without annoying superscripts to interrupt the narrative.

The one major difficulty in Kaplan's treatment of Jefferson's thought is his misreading of the Declaration of Independence. Following a line of argument pioneered by Chief Justice Taney in his infamous Dred Scott decision (1857), Kaplan denies that Jefferson and his colleagues truly meant that "all men" (that is, all human beings) are created equal, and hence equally entitled to the protection of such inalienable rights as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. His scanty evidence for that denial is that while members of "the Anglo-American world" at the time believed that "all Englishmen were created equal" in their entitlement to such rights, "to eighteenth-century Englishmen" the phrase supposedly "did not even include non-Englishmen," since the typical Brit "would not have thought that any Frenchman" was his equal—let alone slaves, members of "other races or colors," or even, "for most Anglo-Americans," Catholics. According to Kaplan, despite Jefferson's appeal to nature as his standard, he really meant only "that all white Englishmen and Europeans" were born with the rights he lists.

This is an appalling misrepresentation of the Declaration, one that had already been refuted by the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, in his 1861 "Cornerstone" address, which acknowledges that America's Founders indeed believed that all people are equal in their possession of the crucial inalienable rights, a consequence of their equal membership in the human species (although Stephens maintained that modern "science" had subsequently refuted that belief).

Even while terming Jefferson's claim "radical" and reflective of "certain schools" of "seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political philosophy" (the example of John Locke, from whose Two Treatises Jefferson cribbed much of his theoretical argument, comes first to mind), Kaplan severely underestimates the real radicalness of Jefferson's thought—and, indeed, that of many Americans of the time, already schooled in Lockean principles by dissenting Protestant clergy as well as by their own reading—owing to his determination to subsume Jefferson within the supposed constraints of 18th-century practice and prejudice.

Kaplan's goal, of course, is to rescue Jefferson and his colleagues (as Taney professed to do) from the charge of outright hypocrisy or self-contradiction: How could they seriously maintain that all human beings are naturally equal in their entitlement to certain fundamental rights, even while many of them continued to practice slavery? And how could they even regard Frenchmen, let alone the inhabitants of less cultivated nations, as their equals, given their pride in their own superiority?

This argument rests on two sorts of confusion. First, it denies the possibility (which in other respects, as already noted, Kaplan readily acknowledges) that a man may hold certain principles to be true, even while he knowingly continues to violate them, either out of apparent practical necessity or from seemingly irresistible passion or greed. (Kaplan himself later cites the dilemma, as Jefferson described it late in life, of Americans' having "the wolf [of slavery] by the ears," unable either to keep him or safely "let him go.") Much as Jefferson may be faulted for failing, in his later career, to do anything to effectuate his liberal principles (most egregiously in the same "wolf by the ears" letter, in which he expressed opposition to the Missouri Compromise prohibition on slavery in most of the Louisiana Territory, on the ground that it would deepen divisions among the states), he never reneged on his hope that emancipation would ultimately be achieved. (See his warning in the Notes on Virginia that Americans would ultimately suffer divine punishment should they continue their evil practice indefinitely.)

Second, Kaplan's argument obscures the differences (emphasized by Jefferson) between natural and purely conventional inequalities (e.g., between the British and French), and also between those natural inequalities that enable some people to be greater thinkers, artists, or statesmen than others, and those which have (wrongly) been held to exist such that the few (allegedly) superior individuals are entitled to rule others without their consent. (See Jefferson's letter to John Adams of October 28, 1813, distinguishing radically between the natural and conventional aristocracies, and C. Bradley Thompson's brief but astute discussion of the Declaration in his recent book America's Revolutionary Mind.)

It is regrettable that Kaplan marred his otherwise admirable work of scholarship with this serious misunderstanding. But it is nonetheless a book that merits applause as well as a wide readership for its combination of meticulous scholarship, balanced judgment, and what I am tempted to term a masterly style.

His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer
by Fred Kaplan
Harper, 672 pp., $35

David Lewis Schaefer is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.