An Exercise in Polemic
In The Long Affair, Conor Cruise O’Brien challenges professional historians’ hagiographic assessment of America’s third President, Thomas Jefferson. While putatively discussing Jefferson’s relationship to the French Revolution, O’Brien elliptically and intermittently argues that two widely accepted images of Jefferson are errant and must be replaced. Thus, Jefferson’s relationship to the French Revolution, the declared theme of the book, is at best a convenient foil for O’Brien’s indictment of Jefferson. Even then it is not consistently used, for matters distant from Jefferson’s relationship to the French Revolution are discussed at length in this book. For example, O’Brien explores Jefferson’s views on the American Constitution, his relationship to Sally Hemings, his views on black Africans and their enslavement in America, the Washington administration’s internal politics and its dealings with France and Britain (sans Jefferson), and the development of partisan politics in America at the end of the eighteenth century. In some instances, O’Brien attempts to show a tangential relationship of such matters to the French Revolution, but in others, like the Hemings affair, no such attempt is made. It is not, then, Jefferson’s relationship to the French Revolution that drives this book, but O’Brien’s efforts to convince his readers to view Jefferson in a more critical way.
In pursuit of this goal, O’Brien wishes to show that Jefferson was not a statesman and philosopher who stood above the tawdry business of politics, but instead was fully engaged in the rawest of partisan politics. Additionally, he wishes to contest the widely accepted image of Jefferson as a man of liberal and enlightened sensibilities with progressive views on racial matters and slavery. In opposition to this popular image of Jefferson the philosophe, O’Brien counters with one of Jefferson as an intransigent, racist, libertarian, revolutionary zealot, wholly lacking any liberal or enlightened commitments. According to O’Brien, Jefferson finds his only legitimate heirs in the late-twentieth century among the Ku Klux Klan, the Christian Right, and militiamen who design to overthrow the American government by violent means. In support of this conclusion, O’Brien draws frequent attention to Jefferson’s remarkable political skills and the wild rhetoric found in much of his private correspondence. No attention is paid, however, to Jefferson’s wide-ranging views that mirror those of the moderate Enlightenment; for example, his Unitarian hostility to pious religiosity and clerics, his fervent embrace of individual natural rights, his acceptance of Lockean psychology and epistemology, his appeal to the standards of reason and Newtonian science, his this-worldliness and fascination with technology, his philosophy of history and confidence in progress, and his contempt for monarchy and aristocracy and confidence in the superiority of representative governmental institutions and the rule of law. One could go on; but these features of Jefferson’s unusually eclectic thought, like so much else, O’Brien fails to examine.
What O’Brien does explore in persuasive detail are Jefferson’s remarkable political skills and highly partisan sensibilities and activities. In particular, O’Brien shows Jefferson to have deftly managed the rhetorical direction of the shrilly partisan National Gazette, all the while denying to Washington that he had any involvement in its publication. Similarly, in detailing Jefferson’s management in 1793 of the Citizen Genet affair, one of the most outrageous of the encounters between the Washington administration and France, O’Brien makes a convincing case that “Jefferson’s handling of the Genet case was politically skillful and in every way appropriate.” Certainly, then, in his political dealings, Jefferson failed to evince the bizarre radicalism discoverable in some of his private letters. And again, O’Brien’s discussion of Jefferson’s active role in the politics of the 1796 election campaign confirms that Jefferson was a careful and prudent, if not always honest, politician in the fullest sense of the term. Violent revolutionary he was not.
For those like myself who are not admirers of Jefferson, there is much to appreciate in this book’s claims and aspirations. For indeed there is much to find wanting in Jefferson the man, the Virginia Governor, the dilettante political and social theorist, the would-be educator, and American President. Yet a book of biography or history, indeed one published by a university press, must do more than please the reader by opining views shared in common—it must argue and argue convincingly in defense of its theses. In important ways this is what O’Brien has failed to do. He declines to recognize that to the degree he is successful in debunking the first of the myths under attack, that Jefferson was a utopian philosopher unsullied by practical political concerns, he challenges his second thesis that Jefferson was a radical whose only faithful followers—groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and militiamen—reject electoral politics in favor of armed resistance or terrorism. O’Brien succeeds, though in an admittedly chaotic fashion, in making the first of his two cases, but in this he tends to undermine the persuasiveness of his second and, to him, clearly more important thesis. O’Brien’s polemical intention of showing that Jefferson is the “prophet and patron of the fanatical racist far right in America,” is in tension with his own evidence that Jefferson was a consummate politician deeply involved in and committed to electoral party politics and advancing the most bourgeois of America’s economic interests.
My dissatisfaction with O’Brien’s case that Jefferson was wholly unmoved by liberal or enlightened sympathies, however, does not rest on this tension, but with the almost total lack of evidence advanced and his handling of the scant evidence that is provided. Again, with the exception of Jefferson’s published views on race in his Notes and his mostly unpublished thoughts on the beauties of violent revolution, nothing of Jefferson’s wide-ranging thought is considered. And according to a broad range of authoritative voices on America’s Enlightenment that are never referred to in this book, such as that of Henry May, Joyce Appleby, or Robert Ferguson, in many cases Jefferson’s positions were among the most enlightened found in eighteenth-century America.
Let us consider one of the few pieces of evidence advanced by O’Brien to prove that Jefferson was a hostile critic of the French Enlightenment. It is a brief citation from Jefferson in which he challenges Condorcet’s kind words regarding Descartes written during the height of Revolutionary terror. The substance of Jefferson’s remarks was that Descartes’ analytical method was inadequate and that true science demanded empirical observation. But of course this was exactly the same line of criticism advanced by most eighteenth-century French philosophes against the abstract rationalism of the seventeenth century. What else, for example, was at the heart of Voltaire’s celebrated Candide? From this brief remark, wrongly understood at that, O’Brien concludes that Jefferson could not “have been a devotee of the French Enlightenment.” This conclusion, no matter how weakly supported is, nonetheless, of great importance to O’Brien in showing that Jefferson is a man belonging only to the radical fringe without any enlightened sensibilities—a claim that is wholly unsustainable.
But since O’Brien rejects the view that Jefferson was influenced by Enlightenment precepts (not just French, but English as well), he must find another source for Jefferson’s secret revolutionary pathologies. And this he claims Jefferson found in Rousseau, though O’Brien can find no known references to Rousseau in Jefferson’s copious writings. This presents no obstacle to O’Brien, however, who refuses to be limited by scholarly conventions. Accordingly, he boldly asserts that in 1795 it was Rousseau who led Jefferson to write that he was opposed to any government being imposed on a people; but if it were to occur, then he would prefer it to be “a freer one.” O’Brien claims that in writing this, Jefferson was motivated by Rousseau’s threat, in Du Contrat social, that a people must be forced to be free. Never mind that in his reference to that famous passage O’Brien distorts Rousseau’s meaning by failing to recognize that he was defending the coercion of individuals, not nations, who were living within a polity and bound by a social contract to which they had voluntarily agreed. Never mind, as well, that whatever Rousseau had written is not what Jefferson is describing in this passage.
All such scholarly concerns, however, fail to deter O’Brien, who blithely assures his readers, on the flimsiest evidence, that Jefferson’s “intellectual inheritance” from Rousseau “is quite clear, and it is a heritage of awesome import.” This seemingly minor claim linking Jefferson and Rousseau is of great significance in O’Brien’s fabrication of an anti-Enlightenment pedigree for Jefferson’s thought. (It never occurred to O’Brien, apparently, to look at home-grown English or American Agrarian sources of radicalism.) And the distancing of the reviled Jefferson from the Enlightenment is key to O’Brien’s concluding defense of enlightened thought and the official liberal American civil religion. In keeping with the book’s polemical character, O’Brien is unable to accept that Jefferson, and the Enlightenment, was complicated and made up of disparate parts. Such simple caricatures of the complex (and quite probably confused) man and movement do little to advance our understanding of either.
In spite of its just criticism of Jefferson, additional flaws make this book less credible than it might have been otherwise; and if O’Brien hoped to convince admirers of Jefferson to reconsider their views of him, such flaws do nothing to improve the persuasiveness of his arguments. Consider how O’Brien treats contrary evidence in Jefferson’s letters: he simply dismisses it as Jefferson wishing to please those to whom he is writing. Conversely, when what Jefferson writes is favorable to O’Brien, then this is adduced as clear evidence in support of his case. Apparently, we are to trust O’Brien’s instincts in these matters, but not those of other commentators. In addition, O’Brien speculates freely and often on matters about which he has no evidence. One of the more striking is his opinion that Jefferson’s most celebrated editor, Julian Boyd, may have died as a result of his having to confront Jefferson’s dishonesty. Elsewhere, O’Brien holds that if Jefferson were to judge twentieth-century politicians, he would admire most the Cambodian despot Pol Pot. On occasion, he transforms within a few pages such leaps-of-faith into certain fact. For example, he moves from his personal musings about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings to asserting that the reason Jefferson did not meet his daughter in London was because he wished to avoid seeing Abigail Adams who would have disapproved of Sally and his impending affair with her. And he makes a similar shift from speculation to fact in regard to Gouverneur Morris’ unlikely influence over James Monroe. Similarly frustrating is O’Brien’s repetitive use of the same evidence (and commentary). Also irritating is O’Brien’s consistent interweaving of disparate materials in the book which he acknowledges with first-person appeals to the reader “that they do belong” and that, in spite of the reader’s confusion, such side trips are connected to the putative themes of a particular chapter or the book as a whole. Finally, I would suggest that his frequent use of block citations, often five to ten pages in length, is not only inelegant, but discrediting of O’Brien when joined to his frequent claims of competence over professional historians whom he demeans while quoting so extensively.
In sum, although O’Brien is largely right about Jefferson’s duplicity and well-honed political skills, and that he was the author of outrageously irresponsible private letters, O’Brien undermines this much needed reassessment because of his own scholarly shortcomings. He undercuts his own credibility because of his failure to countenance fully the tension between these two sides of Jefferson; his disregard for scholarly propriety; his wildly improbable speculations about Jefferson; and, most troubling, his failure to understand the complexity of the Enlightenment and Jefferson’s unusually warm embrace of much of it. The reader who seeks more than a polemic with which he may share common views must leave The Long Affair deeply dissatisfied and saddened that a book so flawed is today published and promoted, without embarrassment, by a prestigious university press. No longer, it seems, are feminist and post-modern authors the only ones freed from reasonable evidentiary constraints to follow their feelings.
Barry Alan Shain teaches political theory at Colgate University. He is the author of The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 1994).
Posted: February 3, 2013 in Best of the Bookman.