Reality Mugs a Founder

REVIEW: ‘The Jeffersonians: The Visionary Presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe’

March 19, 2023

With The Jeffersonians, Kevin Gutzman has written a rare and welcome kind of book, one that will satisfy academic historians (insofar as academics can be satisfied), whom he engages across several highly salient scholarly questions. Students will benefit from his considerable body of research, scrupulously documented and organized in the volume’s references and indexes. But, most importantly, and impressively, Gutzman does all this heavy lifting behind a brisk and accessible, even colloquial style of writing. Combined with an exciting pace, and a keen eye for evocative detail and exemplary yarn, these make Gutzman’s account as enjoyable to the casual or hobbyist reader as any narrative history or biography on the market—and all without sacrificing any rigor whatsoever. That is a rare achievement, indeed.

Substantively, Gutzman makes a necessary intervention on behalf of Jeffersonianism as political philosophy. Too many historians reduce the Jeffersonian program to a cult of personality or a coalition-building program. It was, of course, both, and Gutzman ably unspools the details of the political and personal bulwarks of Jeffersonian power. But as Gutzman shows, Jeffersonianism was also a set of political principles, taken seriously by their adherents and exponents, and made concrete in policy across a quarter century of American history for better and often worse.

Here, Gutzman’s discipline as a scholar shines through. He articulates the key Jeffersonian values—hostility to debt, skepticism of militarism and foreign entanglements, and an outsized faith in the virtues of agrarian egalitarianism—in ways aimed at making them most persuasive to a 21st century audience with little immediate contact with the reality of the early republic. Indeed, reading the early portions of the book, I wondered at points if he was attempting an apologia.

Yet as the narrative progresses, Gutzman shows concretely how these ideas led to policy and, ultimately, political failure. The high ideals of the Jeffersonian age, as implemented by the three personalities that dominate it—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—end up in a surprisingly Hamiltonian place. For a period that still inspires passionate devotion, and even a Broadway musical, this is all the more remarkable. Rare it is indeed for a historian of the early republic to take seriously the ideas of his subjects, interpret in fine detail the political facts on the ground, and then combine the two to elucidate the comparative successes and failures of a given program.

Gutzman is on weaker ground, relatively speaking, when he tackles the personalities and motives of his subjects. Part of this is doubtlessly due to work done elsewhere. He has, after all, written biographies of both Jefferson and Madison, and these plumb deeper into the interiority of each man than is possible in a book such as this.

This is especially true of Jefferson, who at times in The Jeffersonians escapes deserved scrutiny, and nowhere more so than in the events surrounding the Kentucky Resolutions. Here Jefferson, far more than Gallatin during the Whiskey Rebellion, overstepped the bounds of republican politics and embraced the logic of the sword. Yet Jefferson appears almost antipolitical at different points in the book, a far cry from the highly effective Machiavellian operator he was. Jefferson uniquely combines unscrupulousness and high ideals, peerless rhetorical felicity and indefensible opportunism. A catastrophic genius, an irresponsible visionary, a bad great man, he may be inscrutable.

By contrast, Gutzman’s treatment of James Monroe is vital, full-blooded, and as realized as possible given the constraints of this book’s subject and length. Too often neglected as an appendage of his more illustrious forebears, Monroe comes sparklingly to life in Guzman's narrative. I hope a biographical treatment along the lines of the Jefferson and Madison books might be in the future.

The fourth and final key character in the background of the Jeffersonian age is, of course, the borderlands between Virginia’s Tidewater and Piedmont regions, which produced the book’s protagonists along with Washington, Patrick Henry, and so many of the Old Dominion’s revolutionary leading lights. As with Jefferson and Madison, Gutzman has elsewhere delved deeply into the Virginian experience of the colonial, revolutionary, and early republican periods. It would be unfair to ask him to bring that level of detail to bear on how the social landscape of this rapidly changing region produced so many members of America’s revolutionary pantheon. But as a reader of these earlier works, I will confess to having wanted a bit more of the scenery.

Ultimately, however, this is a book about ideas being mugged by reality. The Jeffersonian vision that Gutzman lays out is deeply appealing even now. We can see its residue in contemporary political rhetoric and in our recent history. What could be more Jeffersonian than the populist budget hawkishness underpinning calls for a balanced budget amendment? Does one hear echoes of Madison in the naïve peace-through-trade reasoning that led to China’s admission into the World Trade Organization at the end of the last century? Are America’s environmentalists not drawing deeply on the aesthetic appeal of Jeffersonian agrarianism when they invoke localism to justify decentralizing the nation’s electric grids?

Yet Gutzman is clear that the Jeffersonian project ends in a recapitulation, albeit modified, of the Hamiltonian program against which it was launched. This, in turn, raises a fundamental question. If the Jeffersonian movement that emerged out of Washington's cabinet and against the first Adams presidency ended up ratifying most of the policies it sought to resist, was it a revolution in American political life? Or is Jeffersonianism better understood as extending, albeit through a changed lens, the age of federalism? Put simply, was the Revolution of 1800 a revolution at all?

A frank assessment of the evidence suggests that, for all their ideological novelty, the Jeffersonians wound up operating within the same system as their predecessors. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe can thus be said to have been visionaries. But the great leap from having vision to making it a durable reality comes up wanting. Gutzman walks us through this incongruity with finesse and intelligence. As a result, this excellent book will make a worthy addition to any early republic bookshelf and, hopefully, to many an undergraduate syllabus.

The Jeffersonians: The Visionary Presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe
by Kevin R.C. Gutzman
St. Martin’s Press, 608 pp., $37

Luke Thompson is a Republican political consultant based in Baltimore.

Published under: Book reviews