The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 6/Thomas Jefferson
The biography before us is so voluminous that it can hardly maintain the popularity to which its subject entitles it. He must be a bold man, and to some degree forgetful of the brevity of life, who, for any ordinary purpose of information or amusement, undertakes to read these huge octavos. True, the theme is somewhat extended; Jefferson's life was a protracted and busy one; he took a leading part in complicated transactions, and promulgated doctrines which cannot be summarily discussed. But the author's prolixity has not grown out of the extent of his theme alone. He is both diffuse and digressive. He introduces much irrelevant matter, and tells everything in a round-about-way. By a judicious exercise of the arts of elimination and compression, we think that all which illustrates the subject might have been comprised in one volume much smaller than the smallest of these.
But Mr. Randall's most serious fault arises from his desire to be thought a fine writer. Without making long extracts, it is impossible to give any conception of the absurdities into which this childish ambition has led him. The tropes and metaphors, the tawdry tinsel, the common tricks of feeble rhetoricians are reproduced here as if they were the highest results of rhetorical art. The display is often amusing. Thus, in describing Mrs. John Adams, Mr. Randall says: "Her lofty lineaments carried a trace of the Puritan severity. They were those of the helmed Minerva, and not of the cestus-girdled Venus." We do not mention this in order to justify a strain of captious criticism, but to ask Mr. Randall, in all seriousness, how it was possible for him to associate a staid and sensible New England matron with Venus and Minerva? What would he say of a writer who should gravely tell us that Washington's features were those of the cloud-compelling Jupiter, not of Mars, slayer of men,—and that Franklin's countenance resembled that of the wily Ulysses, not that of the far-ruling Agamemnon? We might fill this paper with passages like the one we have quoted. What is the use of this kind of writing? It does not convey any meaning; there is no beauty in it; it increases the size and price of books; it corrupts the taste of the young, is offensive to persons of good sense, and mortifying to those who take pride in the literary reputation of their country. It is the bane of our literature. Many of our prose-writers constantly put language upon paper the use of which in ordinary life would be received by a court as evidence of insanity. If they do so for display, they take the readiest course to defeat their purpose. There is nothing so fascinating as simplicity and earnestness. A writer who has an object, and goes right on to accomplish it, will compel the attention of his readers. But it seems, that in art, as well as in morals and politics, the plainest truths are the last to be understood.
We make these strictures with reluctance. This biography, in many respects, is valuable, and Mr. Randall might easily have made it interesting. He had a subject worthy of any pen, and an abundance of new material. He does not lack skill. His unstudied passages, though never elegant, are well enough. He is industrious. Though we must dissent from some of his conclusions, he is entitled to the praise of being accurate, and is free from prejudice,—except that amiable prejudice which has been well called the lues Boswelliana. His delineations of famous personages, though marked by the faults of which we have spoken, show quite unusual perception of character. He has a thorough appreciation of Jefferson's noblest characteristics, and an honorable sympathy with the philosophy of which Jefferson was a teacher. With resources and qualifications like these, he might have produced a biography which the country would have received with gratitude, and which would have conferred an enviable reputation upon him; as it is, through his neglect of a few wholesome rules which he must have learned when a school-boy, the years of labor he has spent over this book will go for nothing, and the hopes he has built upon it will be disappointed.
There is much conflict of opinion as to the character of Jefferson, and the value of his services. We doubt whether there is another person in our history, as to whom there still exists so strong a feeling of dislike on the one hand, and of admiration on the other. By some he is regarded as a theorist and a demagogue, who, for selfish purposes, opposed the purest patriots, and disseminated doctrines which will pervert our institutions and destroy our social fabric; by others he is revered as the philosopher who first asserted the rights of man, and the statesman who first defined the functions of our government and demonstrated the principles upon which it should he administered. His detractors and admirers both bear witness to the extent and permanency of his influence. He saw all the phases of our national life. He assisted in the struggle for liberty, and in the contest which gave form to that liberty,--while it was his happy fortune to inaugurate the system by which, with occasional deviations, the republic, for more than fifty years, has been governed. He heard the discussion of the Stamp Act, and the debate on the admission of Missouri. He shared in the dispute which the establishment of the Constitution produced, and lived to witness the outbreak of the quarrel which now threatens the existence of the Constitution. His influence was felt through the whole of this long period. Nor was it confined to affairs alone. He took part in all the intellectual action of his countrymen. He was an adept in science, an ingenious mechanic, and a contributor to literature. He stimulated adventure, and was the judicious patron of architecture and the fine arts. More than any man of his day, to the labors of a practical statesman he brought a mind disciplined by a liberal philosophy; and he adorned the most exalted stations with the graceful fame of learning and polite accomplishments. It is impossible for us to touch every point of his great career. It is difficult to dwell upon a single point without being seduced into a discussion too extended for these pages. We may, however, be permitted, in a rapid manner, to present Mr. Jefferson in some of those relations which seem to us to throw the strongest light upon his character and teachings.
Peter Jefferson, the father of Thomas, was a notable man. His parents were poor, and in early life he went into the backwoods of Virginia as a surveyor. He is described as a person of great stature and strength. His mind was equally robust. He was a natural mathematician, and was remarkable for hardihood and perseverance. His temper was equable, but his passions were strong and his anger terrible. In youth his education had been neglected; but, by the wise employment of his leisure, he obtained considerable reputation for learning throughout the rude region where he lived. This huge man, with gigantic strength and fierce passions, is said to have been endowed with tender sympathies, and to have had a scholar's love for Shakspeare and Addison.
Social distinctions were strictly observed at that day, but Peter Jefferson broke through them and married a daughter of the Randolph family.
Thomas, the third child and oldest son of this marriage, was born at Shadwell, his father's estate, on the 2d of April, 1743. The characteristics of the sire descended to the son,—the physical attributes in milder, and the intellectual in more active forms. Like many men of his class, Peter Jefferson had perhaps an undue sense of the obstacles he had encountered through lack of education, and was careful to provide for that of his children. As soon as possible, Thomas was sent to school, and when nine years old, under the tuition of a Scottish clergyman, he was introduced to the study of Latin, Greek, and French. His father died when he was fourteen years old, leaving a considerable estate, and particular directions that Thomas should receive a thorough classical training. The executor had some doubt as to whether it would be prudent to send the lad to college in obedience to the paternal request; whereupon Thomas addressed him in a little argument, which is a curious exhibition of the proclivities of his mind. In the mathematical manner which afterwards became common with him, he urged that at home he would lose one fourth of his time on account of the company which was attracted by his presence, and that entertaining so many guests would be a heavier charge upon the estate than the expense of his residence at Williamsburg.
The young disputant prevailed, and, in 1760, he was sent to William and Mary College. He remained there two years. His acquirements, during this time, though probably not so great as Mr. Randall would have us believe, must have been large. He had equal aptitude for the classics and mathematics. In the latter his proficiency was remarkable, and he always retained his taste for it. Though never a critical classical scholar, he could read Latin with ease. He was conversant with French, and had some familiarity with Greek. In later life he studied Anglo-Saxon and Italian. But Jefferson terminated his collegiate course with a possession far more valuable than all the learning he could gather in the narrow curriculum of a colonial college; study had excited in him that eager thirst for knowledge which is an appetite of the mind almost as unconquerable as the appetites of the body.
After leaving college, he remained at Williamsburg, and entered the office of Mr. Wyeth, a leader at the Virginia bar. Williamsburg was the capital and the centre of the most refined society of the province. Francis Fauquier was governor. He was an Englishman, of distinguished family, who had lost a large property in a single night's play, and had taken the appointment to Virginia to repair his fortunes. To some of the vices and most of the accomplishments of a man of the world he added fine talents and many solid attainments. He was, withal, a skilful musician and a fascinating conversationist. Mr. Wyeth, and Dr. Small, professor of mathematics at the college, were in the habit of dining with the governor at stated times, for the purpose of conversation. Jefferson, though not yet twenty years old, was admitted to these parties. Fauquier organized a musical society, and Jefferson, who played upon the violin, belonged to this likewise. In these associations, the young student acquired the easy courtesy and conversational art which afterwards greatly contributed to his success, and distinguished him even among the gentlemen of Paris.
His life, between twenty and thirty, was judiciously employed. A closer student could hardly have been found at Edinburgh or Heidelberg. He pursued his profession persistently, and, in addition, made incursions into the fields of belles-lettres and political and physical science. He early conceived a prejudice against metaphysical speculation, which was never removed. We cannot believe that his partiality for romance was much greater. He undoubtedly had that appreciation of the value of this department of letters which every man of sense has, and included it within the circle of his reading because it contains much desirable knowledge. The severest criticism which can be made upon his taste for poetry is conveyed by the statement, that, when young, he admired Ossian, and, when old, admired Moore.
His summers were spent at Shadwell. The responsible charge of a large estate rested upon him, and he introduced into his affairs and studies the extraordinary system which, through life, he carried into all matters, great or small. He commenced keeping a garden-book, which, with interruptions caused by absence, was continued until he was eighty-one years old. It contains memoranda of vegetable phenomena, and statements of all kinds of information, in any way affecting the economy of horticulture. He likewise kept a farm-book. His accounts were noted, without the loss of a day, through his entire life, and every item of personal expense was separately stated. We often find entries like these: "11 d. paid to the barber,"—"4 d. for whetting penknife,"—and "1s. put in the church-box." On the 4th of July, 1776, we find:—"pd. Sparhawk, for a thermometer, £3 15s.—pd. for 7 prs. women's gloves, 27s.—gave, in charity, 1s. 6d." His meteorological register informs us, that, at 6 o'clock, a. m., of the same memorable day, the mercury stood 68° above; at noon, at 76°; and at 9, p. m., at 73½°. Entries were regularly made in this register, three times a day. Separate books were kept for special accounts, like the expenses of the Presidential mansion. In addition, he made minute records of observation in natural history, and a curious "Statement of the Vegetable Market of Washington, during a Period of Eight Years, wherein the Earliest and Latest Appearance of each Article, within the whole Eight Years, is noted." This table mentions thirty-seven different articles, and was compiled during his Presidency. He made a collection of the vocabularies of fifty Indian languages, and two collocations of those passages in the New Testament which contain the doctrines of Jesus. One of these, entitled, "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," is an octavo volume, with a complete index. The texts are written out in Greek, Latin, French, and English, and placed in parallel columns.
Mr. Randall makes a long argument to defend Jefferson from the common imputation, that a man who was so fond of detail could not have had much capacity for higher effort. It was hardly worth while to expose a delusion which is so apparent, especially in the case of Jefferson. Men are often seen with great aptitude for the accumulation of facts, and none for the comprehension of principles. Such men, though never great, are always useful. But the most useless and unfortunate organization is that quite common one, where a speculative mind is found which has not sufficient energy to lay hold of details. These philosophers, as the foolish call them, are the ingenious contrivers of the impracticable reforms, the crazy enterprises, and the numberless panaceas for all human ills, which are constantly urged upon the public, and which, under the name of progress, are the most serious obstacles to progress. Both faculties are necessary to one who undertakes high and useful action. Mr. Jefferson was a philosopher because he was a constant and accurate observer; he was correct in his generalizations because he was so in matters of detail.
His career at the bar was short. The acquisition of a science like the law was an easy task for a mind so ingenious and active as his. He had no talent as an advocate, but was at once successful in the more retired and not less difficult departments of the profession. During seven years' practice, his income averaged three thousand dollars a year;—a large sum then, and no mean reward at the present day.
When twenty-nine years old, he married Mrs. Martha Skelton, a young and childless widow, of great beauty. In relation to this affair a pleasant anecdote is told. Mr. Jefferson had a number of rivals. Two of these gentlemen met, one evening, in the drawing-room of Mrs. Skelton's house. While waiting for her to enter, they heard her singing in an adjoining room, and Jefferson playing an accompaniment upon the violin. There was something in the burden of the air, and in the expression with which the performers rendered it, which conveyed unpleasant suggestions; and the two suitors, after listening awhile, departed without seeing the lady. The inevitable account-book mentions the sums paid to the clergyman, fiddlers, and servants, on the occasion of the marriage.
His wife's fortune, as he informs us, doubled his own, and placed him in a position of pecuniary independence. He soon abandoned his profession, and thenceforward his career was a public one. He entered political life at the time when it first became evident that a war with England must occur, and threw himself into the extreme party. He was admirably fitted for success in a legislative body. His talents were deliberative, rather than executive. He had no power in debate, but he possessed qualities which we believe are more uniformly influential in a public assemblage,—tact, industry, a conciliatory disposition, and systematic habits of thought. He was always familiar with the details of legislation. The majority of the members of a legislature can seldom know much about its business. Those questions which excite popular attention and become party tests are inquired into; but most matters attract no attention and are not party tests. Only a few men of great industry and rare powers are familiar with these. In the British House of Commons, it is said, there are not more than thirty or forty such members. In either branch of our Congress the proportion is no larger. It is a great power to know that which others find it necessary to know; and if to this information one adds good judgment and a persuasive intellect, his influence will be almost unbounded. Young as he was, no one could approach Jefferson without seeing that he had read and thought much. While most of his comrades in Virginia had been wasting their youth in horse-racing and cock-fighting, he had been an enthusiastic student of books and Nature. Upon all subjects likely to excite inquiry his knowledge was full and precise, and his opinions those of a sagacious and philosophic mind. His manners were attractive; he never engaged in dispute; he expressed himself freely to those who sought his society for information or an intelligent comparison of opinion; but his lips were closed in the presence of a disputant. The patience with which he listened to others, and the modest candor with which he expressed himself, usually disarmed the contentions; when they did not, he went no farther. If his views were false, he did not wish them to prevail; if they were true, he felt certain that sooner or later they would prevail. A temperament like this might have placed a less firm man under the imputation of disingenuousness; but such an imputation could not rest upon him. No one was in doubt as to his opinions. He generally anticipated inquiry, and selected his ground before others saw that action would be necessary. There were capable lawyers and men of wide experience in our Revolutionary legislatures, but there was no one whose influence was more powerful and felt upon a greater variety of subjects than that of Jefferson.
He might, however, have possessed all of these characteristics, and enjoyed the consideration among his fellow-legislators which they confer, without being well known to the public, if he had not united to them the ability to write elegant and forcible English. The circumstances of the time made literary talents unusually valuable. The daily press has driven the essayist out of the political field. But for several generations elaborate disquisitions upon politics had been usual in England; in this regard pamphlets then occupied the place of our newspapers. Bolingbroke, Swift, Johnson, and Burke, all the serious and some of the gay writers, acquired repute by this kind of effort. Neither were the speeches of leading men circulated then as at present. At the time of the Revolution, an oration never reached those who did not hear it. This gave a great advantage to the writer. The pamphlets of Otis and Thomas Paine were read by multitudes who never heard a word of the eloquence of Henry and Adams. A high standard of taste had been created, and success in political dissertation was difficult, but, when obtained, it was of proportionate value, and the source of wide and permanent influence. Jefferson found a function requiring much the same talents with that of the pamphleteer, but possessing some advantages over it. The only means which the Continental Congress and the colonial legislatures had of communicating with their constituents and the mother country was by formal addresses. These documents were arguments upon public questions, possessing the force which an argument always has when it is the expression of great numbers of minds. An audience was certain. At home they were sure to be read, and in England they attracted the attention of every one connected with affairs. Jefferson's literary talents were soon discovered. One successful performance in the Virginia House of Delegates established a reputation which the Declaration of Independence has made immortal.
In every point of view, Jefferson is entitled to a high place in American literature. As a mere rhetorician, he has few equals; as a political writer, not more than two or three. An adherence to logical forms and the use of mathematical illustrations are his most noticeable faults. But they are not found in his more elaborate performances. He has the supreme merit of perfect clearness, naturalness, and grace of expression. Though never eloquent, he sometimes rises to an earnest and dignified declamation. Not infrequently he has achieved the highest success, and clothed valuable thought in language so appropriate, that the phrases have passed into the national vocabulary and become popular catchwords. His first inaugural address contains more of those expressions which are daily heard in our political discussions than any other American composition. There has been some speculation as to how it was possible for a gentleman, with no other discipline than that afforded by a colonial establishment, to obtain a mastery over so difficult an art. There is little reason for surprise. Jefferson's training had been good; he was familiar with the best models; above all, Nature had given him the qualities which, with the requisite knowledge, insure literary success,—good sense, good taste, and an ear sensitive to the melody of prose.
We do not propose to follow Jefferson throughout his political career. As to his Revolutionary services there is little difference of opinion. His course during the administrations of Washington and Adams has given occasion to most of the criticism which he has encountered. We will direct our attention chiefly to that period of his life. He appeared then as the leader of a party which was intent upon carrying certain principles into operation, and for a comprehension of his conduct an examination of those principles is necessary.
Mr. Randall would have done a good service, if he had made a brief analysis of Jefferson's political system. It affords a fine theme and is much needed, because Jefferson himself left no systematic exposition of his doctrines. They must be sought for through a large number of state papers and a voluminous correspondence. Like all public men, he has been misrepresented both by opponents and adherents. There is a vague impression abroad that he enunciated certain liberal theories, that he was an ardent philanthropist, and that his opinions were those which have prevailed among the modern French philosophers; but the boundaries of his system do not seem to be well defined in the public mind. His theory of politics may, with sufficient accuracy, be said to be embraced in the following propositions:—First. All men are politically equal. Second. A representative government upon the basis of universal suffrage is the direct result of that equality, and the surest means of preserving it. Third. The sphere of government is limited, and its action must be confined to that sphere.
The first proposition is contained in the statement which occurs in the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal." This remark has been severely criticized, and we think there has been much confusion as to its meaning. Jefferson could not have intended to say that all men are equal in the sense of being alike. Such an assertion would be absurd. Undoubtedly he recognized, as every one must, the infinite diversity and disparity of intellectual and physical qualities. He was speaking of man in his social relations, and in the same sentence he qualified the general assertion by particularizing the respects as to which the quality exists,—saying, that men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The equality of which he spoke does not consist in equal endowments, but in equal rights,—in the right of each man to the enjoyment of his individual gifts, whatever they may be.
The proposition, that a representative government upon the basis of universal suffrage is the direct result of man's equality and the surest means of preserving it, opens a wide field for discussion, into which we will not enter. It is not peculiar to Jefferson. We must, however, remark, that he did not hold the extreme opinions upon this subject which have been attributed to him. He thought that popular institutions could be established, and the elective franchise safely made universal, only in an intelligent and virtuous community. In France he advised La Fayette and Barnave to be contented with a constitutional monarchy. When the South American States rebelled, and Clay and many other statesmen were enraptured with the prospect of a Continent of Republics, Jefferson declared that they were not prepared for republican governments, and could not maintain them. At the same time, he was very far from thinking, as some of our modern writers do, that men can become fit for freedom by remaining slaves.
The third proposition, that the sphere of government is limited and its action should be confined to that sphere, is the one to the illustration of which Mr. Jefferson specially devoted himself. Upon his services in this respect rest his claims to consideration as a political philosopher.
It has been the custom to think that the government was the only source of honor; it is still looked upon as the source of the highest honor. By barbarians the monarch is deified. In many civilized countries of our own time kings are said to rule by special favor of the Deity; no one stands erect, no loud word is spoken in their presence; and, indeed, everywhere they are approached with a reverence so great that more could hardly be shown to God himself. This homage is not given on account of eminent personal attributes. These persons are well understood to be often mean in mind and meaner in morals. The same feeling is shown towards other high officials. To be in the public service is eagerly coveted; such employment attracts the finest minds, and is most munificently rewarded. It is so in this country. We are accustomed to confer upon official characters honors which we would refuse to a Shakspeare or a Newton. Yet it is well known, that, while the comprehension and elucidation of the great laws which govern society are a labor which will task the strength of the strongest, in ordinary times affairs may be, and generally are, quite acceptably administered by men of no marked intellectual superiority. It is not necessary to say that the sentiment must be wrong which leads us to such strange errors,—which obliterates the broadest distinctions, and persuades us to give to feebleness and vice rewards which should be given to genius and virtue alone.
For the wisest purposes, the Creator has planted within us an instinctive disposition to revere the illustrious of our kind. To win that admiration is the most powerful incentive to action,—it is the ardent desire of passionate natures. The sweet incense of popular applause is more delicious than wine to the senses of man. Deservedly obtained, it heals every wound, and soothes all pain; nay, the mere hope of it will steel him against every danger, and sustain him amidst disease, penury, neglect, and oppression. To bestow this reverence is a pleasure hardly less exquisite. While we commune with the intellects and contemplate the virtues of the great, some portion of their exceeding light descends upon us, their aspiring spirits enter our breasts and raise us to higher levels. But to yield our homage to those who do not deserve it is to pervert a pure and noble instinct. We cannot worship the degraded, except by sinking to lower depths of degradation.
When one considers that the admitted functions of government have been almost without limit, this mistaken sentiment is not to be wondered at. Why should not they who are able to provide for every want of the body or soul be revered as Superior beings? Governments have established creeds, and set bounds to science; they have been the censors of literature, and held men in slavery; they have told the citizen how many meals to eat, how many prayers to say, how to wear his beard, and in what manner to educate his children; there is no action so trivial, no concern so important, nor any sentiment so secret, that the governing power has not interfered with and sought to control it. This system has invariably failed; constantly coming in contact with each man's sense of individuality, it has been the prolific source of revolutions, despotisms, the ruin of states, the extirpation of races,—and in its mildest forms, where life has been preserved, everything which makes life desirable has been destroyed. In most countries this system still exists to a great degree, nor is there any country whence it is entirely eradicated.
Seeing the constant and uniform occurrence of these evils, Mr. Jefferson was led to believe that they were not caused by a remediable imperfection in the existing system, but by radical defects. He concluded that they were produced by an attempt on the part of government to do what it could not,—that the power of government was limited by absolute and inherent laws, like those which limit the strength of man,—and that there were certain functions belonging to government, in going beyond which it not only failed of its purpose, but did positive harm. In this view, the definition of these functions becomes a task of great difficulty and involves the whole science of politics. We cannot follow his entire line of argument, and without detail there is danger that our statement will not be sufficiently qualified. His general theory, however, is simple, and is drawn from his first proposition as to the equal rights of man. He held that the object of society is the preservation of these great rights. Since experience teaches us, that, however incompetent we may be to decide upon the interests of others, we are able to regulate our own, this social purpose will be best accomplished by leaving to each one all the liberty consistent with the general safety. Security, being the only common object, should be the sole duty of the common agent. The government being confined to the performance of this negative duty, it must not exercise its power except when necessary. The inquiry, Is it necessary? not, Is it advantageous? is the test to be applied to every measure. The rigid application of this rule excludes the state from any interference with commerce and industry,—from all matters of religion and opinion,—and limits its financial operations to providing in the most direct manner for its own support. But it is to be noticed, that it is consistent with this scheme, and indeed the fruit of it, that, in the sphere which it does occupy, the government should be absolute.
Mr. Jefferson formed the governmental machinery in strict accordance with this principle. As many measures are necessary for one portion of a community and not for another, he insisted that local affairs should be placed in the hands of local authorities. The integrity of his system depends not only upon the limitation of the governing power, in a general sense, but as well upon the division and dispersion of it.
The principal exception which Jefferson made was in respect of But, according to his view, this can hardly be regarded as an exception. The general safety depends so directly upon that recognition of mutual rights which is not to be found except among intelligent men, that he advised the establishment, not only of common schools, but likewise of colleges and schools of Art.
To those who objected, that this system would limit the action and decrease the splendor of a nation, Jefferson replied, that its effects were quite the reverse. In proportion as a government assumes the duties which ought to be performed by the citizen, it acts as a check upon individual and national development. Under a despotism, culture must be confined to a few, nor can there be much variety of effort and production. Under a government which is confined to its proper field, the talents of each man may be freely used, and he will not be forced into relations for which he is unsuited. The absurd prejudice, that public employment is the most honorable, will pass away. The man of letters and the man of science, the poet, the artist, and the inventor, the financier, the navigator, the merchant, every one who performs beneficial service and displays great qualities, will be rewarded. Every one who is conscious that he possesses such qualities will be stimulated to strive for that reward. This universal action will give birth to all the things which adorn a state. Social disturbances will excite investigation, and evils which governments have never been able to reach may be removed. Competition will make the accumulation of large estates difficult, property will be equalized, but no motive to effort destroyed. Science will be encouraged. Every day will add to the number of those contrivances which facilitate labor, increase production, lessen distance, and raise man from the degradation of an existence wholly occupied with providing for his physical wants. Under these elastic laws, religion, philanthropy, art, learning, the social amenities, the domestic influences, all humanizing agents, will have opportunity and work harmoniously for the advancement of the race.
It will be seen that Mr. Jefferson's political system was that which, in the language of the modern schools, is called individual theory. It has been said, that it is based upon too favorable an estimate of human character, and that he obtained it from the French philosophers.
It seems to us that the reproach of Utopian opinions may more justly be thrown upon his opponents. The latter do not escape the evil from which they fly. They proceed upon the belief that man is unfit for self-government; but since every government is one of men, if he cannot control himself, how shall he rule over others? Whatever may be said about the superiority of men of genius, it is certain that there never has existed an intellect capable of providing for all the minute and varying necessities of each individual among many millions. The history of legislation shows that the best-disciplined minds find it difficult to devise a single statute affecting a single interest which will be precise in its terms and equal in its operation. These railers at the majority of their kind seem to expect in the minority a greater than human perfection. Mr. Jefferson proceeded upon a mere moderate estimate of the abilities, and a more just appreciation of the weakness of men. It is because we are easily led astray and blinded by passion, that he thought us unfit to govern others, and that we should limit our efforts to self-government. His confidence in man was no greater than that which is the foundation of Christianity. The whole Christian scheme is one of the broadest democracy. The most important truths are there submitted to the general judgment and conscience of mankind, with no other recommendation than their value and the force of the evidence by which they are attested. Can it be said that we are not fit to decide upon a tax, yet are fit to decide our fate for all the mysterious future? If Jefferson was an enthusiast, every clergyman who calls his hearers to repentance must be mad. He did have confidence in his fellows,—he did believe that we are not helpless slaves of sin, that the evils which afflict us are not inevitable,—and that we have power to lead lives of justice and virtue. Who will accuse him because of this confidence?
The charge of French principles originated in a political contest. It was true in the narrow application which it had at first, but false in that which was afterwards given to it. There is a marked distinction between him and the politicians of France. Rousseau, perhaps the ablest, certainly the most popular, of those who preceded the Revolution, is an example. The Contrat Social constantly carries the idea, that the government is the seat of all power and the source of all national action. No suggestion is made, that there are individual functions with which the state cannot interfere to advantage. The same opinions prevailed among the Encyclopedists and Economists, they were announced by the Gironde and the Mountain, and practically carried out by Robespierre and Barras. The Girondists made cautious approaches towards federalism, but one looks in vain through the speeches of Vergniaud for an intimation of individualism. The modern doctrinaires have retained the same principles. Legitimists, Imperialists, Republicans, Socialists, and Communists are all in favor of a centralized and unlimited government. The last two classes wish to exercise the governing power upon the minutest details of life,—to establish public baths, shops, theatres, dwellings, to control the amusements and direct the occupations of the citizen, and to divide his social status by law. Comte himself, whose general system might be expected to lead him to a different conclusion, outdoes them all, and proposes to prescribe creeds, establish fasts, feasts, and forms of worship, and even to name those who shall receive divine honors. There is no trace here of that scrupulous regard for personal independence and that invincible distrust of governmental action which characterized Jefferson. It is true, he and the Gallic writers agreed upon certain fundamental propositions; but they were peculiar neither to him nor them. Some of the same principles were announced by Locke and Beccaria, by Hobbes, who maintained the omnipotence of the state, and by Grotius, who insisted upon the divine right of kings. To agree with another upon certain matters does not make one his disciple. No one mistakes the doctrines of Paul for those of Mohammed, because both taught the immortality of the soul. To confound Jefferson with Rousseau or Condorcet is about as reasonable as to confound Luther with Loyola, or Ricardo with Jeremy Bentham.
Although we deny that Jefferson was indebted to France for his political system, it cannot be claimed that he was the author of it. He himself used to assert, that the scheme of a limited and decentralized government was produced by the events which caused the settlement of the country and the subsequent union of the colonies. The emigration to America was stimulated by the great Protestant and Catholic dispute which occupied Europe nearly two centuries, and during which time the original thirteen colonies were founded. The sentiment of religious freedom was the active principle of all the alliances, wars, intrigues, and adventures of that stormy period. The rights of conscience were maintained, in defiance of the rack and the stake. They were stubbornly asserted in regard to the smallest matters. Lines of separation, so fine as hardly to be perceptible, were defended to the last. The Catholic was not more irreconcilably opposed to the Protestant, than the Lutheran to the Quaker, or the Puritan to the Baptist. Men who differed merely about the meaning of a single passage of Scripture thought each other unfit to sit at the same table. The immigrants were exiles. By the conditions under which they acted, as being from the defeated party, and as being among those whom defeat did not subdue, they must have had the enthusiasm of their time in its most earnest form. Each man came here intent upon his right to worship God in his own way. That he could never forget. It had been impressed upon him by everything which can affect the understanding or touch the heart of man,—by the memory of success and defeat,—by his own sufferings and the martyrdom of his brethren,—by Bunyan's fable and by Milton's song.
But they did not lack bigotry. They were as ready to persecute those who differed with them here as they had been at home. The last and greatest social truth, that the surest way of protecting our own liberties is by respecting those of others, was forced upon the colonists. So general had been the stimulants to emigration, that every European sect and party was represented in America. Hither came Calvinists and Lutherans, Cavaliers and Roundheads, Conformists and Non-Conformists, the precise Quaker and the elegant Huguenot, those who fled from the tyranny of Louis and those who fled from the tyranny of Charles, worshippers of the Virgin and men who believed that to kneel before a crucifix was as idolatrous as to kneel before the seven-headed idols of Hindostan. These sects and parties were so equally balanced that toleration became a necessity. Seeing that they could not oppress, men were led to think oppression wrong, and toleration was exalted to a virtue. The theocratic spirit which prevailed at first passed away, and the great principle was established that governments have nothing to do with religion. It does not require much penetration to discover that a government which has unlimited power over the person and property of the citizen will not long respect the scruples of his conscience. Religious liberty gave birth to political freedom. The separation of the settlements from each other, even in the same establishment, made local provisions necessary for defence, and for the transaction of local business, and led to the division of the government.
When united action was necessary, the colonies did not attempt to reconcile their differences; they made a union for those purposes which were common to all. The general principles which were asserted during the Revolution were logical necessities of that event. It was a rebellion against an unjust exercise of power. Why unjust? For no other reason than because the Americans had an equal right with Englishmen to govern themselves. But that right must be one which was common to all men. The rebels knew this. They did not follow Burke through his labored argument to prove that the measures of the British ministry were inexpedient. They could not defend their conduct before the world upon the narrow ground of a violation of the relations between a dependency and its mother country. Those relations were not understood, and such a defence would not have been listened to. They appealed at once to the laws of God, and for their justification addressed those universal human instincts which give us our ideas of national and individual freedom. The declaration that men are created equal excited no surprise then. They believed it without a thought that it had entered the mind of a fantastic recluse in the retirement of l'Hermitage, and, in obedience to that belief, they severed the ties of tradition and kindred, exposed their homes and the lives of those whose lives were dearer to them than their own to the rage of civil war, and placed all they hoped for and everything they loved upon the perilous hazard of the sword.
At such a time Jefferson was led to the pursuit of politics. He was not in the situation of one who, in disgust at the misery which surrounds him, retires to his study, and, from the impulses of a kind heart, the dreams of poets, and the speculations of philosophers, fashions a society in which there is neither envy, anger, ambition, nor avarice, but where, amid Arcadian joys, all men live in peace and happiness. He was compelled to think because he had need to act,—to make real laws for real societies. To do this, he did not meditate upon human frailty and perfectibility; he did not attempt to frame institutions carefully graduated to suit the dissimilar dispositions, faculties, and desires of men. In the spirit with which he had observed the phenomena of Nature in order to discover the laws which produced them, he inspected the social phenomena of his country to learn the laws by which it might be governed. He studied the processes by which a few hamlets, hastily built upon a savage shore, had grown into powerful communities,—by which the heirs to centuries of bitter recollections had been made to forget the jealousies of race, the enmities of party, the bad hatred of sect, and united into one brotherhood for the accomplishment of a common and noble purpose. He took man as he found him, and believed he could govern himself because he had done so. He endeavored to give symmetry to the system which was already established. It is not strange that in this way he arrived at rules of policy, and assisted to put in operation a government, more perfectly adapted to our wants, more nicely adjusted to our strength and our weakness, giving freer opportunity to individual effort, and more firmly establishing national prosperity, better able to resist sedition or foreign assault, than any which painful toil has created, or the imaginations of the benevolent conceived, from the days of Plato to those of Fourier.
In our next number we shall allude to certain questions, raised by Mr. Randall's book, connected with the early politics of the country; and we shall likewise undertake the more pleasing task of describing the domestic life and the character of Jefferson.
- The Life of Thomas Jefferson. By Henry S. Randall, LL. D. In three volumes. New York: Derby & Jackson. 1858.