Thomas Jefferson


A Brief Review of Joyce Appleby’s Thomas Jefferson

As we mentioned last Monday, today is the 266th anniversary of the birth of America’s third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson – reason enough to offer a few brief words on another work in the succession of biographies in The American Presidents series available from Henry Holt and Company under the editorship of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (For some of the earlier works in the series, see Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, and Grover Cleveland, along with a variety of excerpts from these and other volumes.)

Joyce Appleby’s Thomas Jefferson is well-written, lucid, interesting and informative, but nevertheless something of an enigma.

There are two fundamental aspects to this enigmatic character. The first is that the book isn’t so much a biography of Jefferson’s life as it is an eclectic, but intelligent, examination of his presidential years, interpolated with an array of interesting reflections on other periods from Jefferson’s life, the larger historical context, the Jeffersonian legacy, and the various controversies surrounding Jefferson’s life and works. The second aspect is that, although Dr. Appleby describes her book as a defense of Jefferson from recent diatribes, she is conspicuously less enthusiastic – or perhaps simply less effective — in defense than she is in restating and emphasizing elements of the indictment. One might easily mistake her book as a fundamental disapprobation of Jefferson’s life and acts, so much does she emphasize her reservations, and hedge her affirmations. I am convinced that a much stronger case might be made for Jefferson’s greatness, and that less ambivalence about his asserted flaws (some real, some less than may at first appear) could have served the author well.

None of this should be taken as severe deprecation of Appleby’s Jefferson. In fact, I enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it as a supplemental work on Jefferson — though not by any means as the only biography you should read. Among all the American presidents, Jefferson, in all his complexity, must be among the most formidable to explicate in a work limited to less than 200 pages. And it may well be that my judgment in this regard is somewhat colored by having recently read James M. McPherson’s outstanding yet very brief biography of Abraham Lincoln, who presents an equally formidable challenge to the historian.

I sum, I recommend this book with the aforementioned reservations. Now, let’s allow the author a few words in a pair of brief excerpts:

America’s Second Revolution

“Jefferson called his election America’s Second Revolution, ‘as real a revolution as that of 1776 was in its form.’ Inclined to treat this claim as a bit of victor’s hyperbole, historians have not taken the pronouncement very seriously. This biography will. Two avenues of transformative change in Jefferson’s presidency will get attention: his radical commitment to limiting government and his eradication of elite practices in the federal government. He was surely the first head of state who deliberately set out to narrow the scope of his and his successors’ authority. And he succeeded, restraining the ‘energetic government’ of his predecessors. He was also, and somewhat paradoxically, a self-conscious social engineer, using his discretionary powers to promote new, democratic manners for the United States.

“Jefferson assumed power as an adversary. His inauguration climaxed a particularly rancorous election. Partisan campaigns had not been anticipated by the Founding Fathers fourteen years earlier. This was virgin political territory. Or to change the metaphor, President Jefferson had to reach office through a minefield. Once there, he transformed an amorphous opposition movement into a political party disciplined in governing. Once in office, Jefferson bent every effort to creating a liberal, democratic America.”

The Ante-Bellum Dynasty

“Nothing could be further from the truth than the claim by John Adams’s great-grandson, the historian Henry Adams, that once Jefferson took office he outfederalized the Federalists. The thrust of Adams’s shaft, which has lodged itself in our history textbooks, was that, having run on a platform of limited government, Jefferson expanded federal powers with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the national shipping embargo in 1806-1807. Adams’s assertion errs in both directions: in misconceiving the profundity of Jefferson’s reforms and in assuming that the Louisiana Purchase and the embargo are measures more Federalist than Republican..

“The thoroughness with which Jefferson exorcised the influence of his predecessors still astounds. He released from imprisonment all who had been convicted of sedition by issuing an executive order ending all prosecutions under the alien and Sedition Acts and letting the acts lapse. In 1802, Congress dropped the waiting period for becoming a United States citizen from fourteen years to five. Jefferson’s campaign had promised simplicity, economy, and an end to elite rule. He delivered on these pledges; he removed a whole cohort of young Federalists from civil and military offices, eliminated domestic taxes, reduced the national debt, and shrank the size of the civil service – all this despite a growing population and the doubling of the country’s territory during his years in office. He also hastened the conveyance of land in the national domain to ordinary farmers. Still further, Jefferson gave the ship of state, to use his words, ‘a republican tack’ by banishing Federalist formality from presidential appearances, receptions and dinners.

“Not a symbol, a civil servant, or a presidential initiative escaped Jefferson’s consideration as a tool for dismantling the Federalists’ ‘energetic’ government. And after his two terms, Jefferson had the exceptional good fortune to see his policies continued by two close friends, James Madison and James Monroe. This ‘Virginia dynasty’ lasted a quarter of a century, long enough to embed Jeffersonian values in American institutions for the entire antebellum period. The Virginia presidents imbued their successors with their understanding of the proper relation between federal and state authority, an understanding that lasted until the question of slavery rent the union and opened Americans to a new exercise of federal power.”

Published in: on April 13, 2009 at 12:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

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