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Jefferson’s Americanism

ISSUE:  Winter 1930

Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism, By Gilbert Chinard. Boston: Little Brown and Company. $5.00.

Aglance at Professor Chinard’s latest and, perhaps, most important contribution to knowledge of America’s most unique great man provokes the prophecy that his sub-title will be the object of criticism. For what is Americanism? The answer to the question is not easy. The Americanism of New England is certainly a different thing from that of Texas, and while the innocent bystander may be conscious of certain resemblances in the Americanism of California and Florida, he can find none between that of those two interesting if somewhat juvenile-seeming commonwealths and that of Virginia or Michigan, or Kansas. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Chicago each offers a different brand, and so at times the suspicion seems well founded that there are as many kinds of Americanism as there are Americans. But closer investigation of the thesis will convince the reader that, in spite of the difficulty of defining the term with complete accuracy, the author has made a rather effective case. And besides, it should be added, the book is well worth while if he did not.

Any important historical personage deserves a wealth of portraiture, for in no other way can the whole man be completely revealed. The present popularity, of biography is therefore valuable in its results, for each new contribution, even of the superficial impressionistic sort, throws new light —however lurid much of it is—upon its subject. And in the case of so many-sided a person as Jefferson, too much light cannot be thrown if the truth of the man, too long obscured, is to be revealed to a people, who, as never before since his own time, need a clear view of him and an accurate interpretation of his gospel.

Disciples of Jefferson—and there are really a few existent—look eagerly always for the appearance of the study which will at last reveal him in his entirety. Eagerly they read each new volume and, as a rule, lay it down with disappointment as an inadequate portrayal of the man who was at once America’s most versatile genius, its greatest and most influential political thinker, perhaps its most fascinating personality, and certainly its most consistently slandered national figure. While I do not for a moment intend to convey the impression that the present volume is a definitive life of Jefferson—and it is fair to add that it was not intended to be—I must admit having had the rare experience of completing my reading of this volume with a feeling of genuine satisfaction. And not a small part of this is due to the gratification of finding, in this day, when everybody is writing a biography, a study written by somebody who knows what he is talking about.

Of course it is not a cause of surprise, Professor Chinard’s previous work on the subject having already furnished complete assurance not only of his unique familiarity with his subject, but also of the general soundness of his interpretations and conclusions. The illuminating documents he has gathered from the wealth of unpublished material in the Library of Congress, and the Massachusetts Historical Society, have already revealed much about Jefferson which was before unknown or at best only suspected, and the present volume may be regarded as a synthesis and logical development of his previous studies.

While there is here given a very satisfactory outline of Jefferson’s life, it serves chiefly as the foundation for a study and analysis of his political thinking and his political practice. And, interestingly enough it has remained for a French scholar to prove with a finality that is really conclusive that not from France or the French did Jefferson derive his political ideas, ideals, and philosophy, but from the history and thought of his own race. In the development of that philosophy Jefferson sought “to return to that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever devised by the wit of man as it stood before the 8th century,” and well does the author conclude that “Jeffersonian democracy was born under the sign of Hengist and Horsa, not of the Goddess Reason.”

True to his race, Jefferson was never a pure theorist, dealing in abstractions, nor a mere practical politician, but always the combination of both, the practical idealist. In practice he was a realist who never lost belief in the doctrine that “nations are to be governed with regard to their own interests,” but who added in all sincerity “but I am convinced that it is their interests, in the long run, to be grateful, faithful to their engagements, even in the worst circumstances, and honorable and generous always.” And to the end he never wavered in his conviction that national and private ethics should be identical.

His political philosophy, was based upon the existence of two classes of natural rights: the fundamental which the individual exercises by himself, and another class which depend for their safe enjoyment upon the protection of society. The former must remain always inalienable; the latter should be partly given up for greater security. As the author phrases it, “The individual remained in full possession of certain rights; society was granted part of the others, a part to be determined strictly in forming a social compact: the citizen no longer had to sacrifice all his rights on the altar of his country; he remained sovereign in a sovereign society.” The same doctrine Jefferson applied to the states forming a union. Champion of state’s rights he has been consistently painted, but Jefferson was in practice and largely in theory a consistent federalist, a supporter of the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, a critic of its defects, an advocate of the adoption of the Constitution, and one of its ardent defenders to the end of his days.

The close of the Revolution found him confirmed in the belief, which was presently strengthened by his residence abroad, that America offered a unique opportunity, for the establishment of the most perfect system of government the world had seen, if only the dangers of the European system could be kept out. Entangling alliances must be avoided at any cost. He was even distrustful of a developing commerce because of its international implications. Manufacturing was also dangerous to American ideals. He would have preferred the United States to resemble in its self-sufficiency his plantation at Monticello. Let America be an agricultural nation. “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God . . . whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. . . . While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in, Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than to bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles.” But progressive always, and ever ready to admit error, Jefferson was presently to favor the development of industry as a necessity in a self-sufficient nation.

Peace was an essential part of his system, war being one of the chief burdens of the human race, but he advocated a reasonable preparedness.

I’ ‘

Individual liberty was the foundation stone of the Jeffersonian structure and since free government in his thinking could not exist without widely diffused knowledge, he advocated public education as a necessity. Common schools and a free press would prepare the mass of the people for civic duties and universities would train experts and leaders.

America, applying to the business of government the wisdom of all time, as adapted to its needs, would be an example and a hope to the world.

Deeply convinced as he was that America had a world mission, Jefferson was no missionary. Nowhere in him was there any fire of desire to reform the world or anybody in it other than by example. He was unsympathetic with the offer of revolutionary France to free the rest of the world, for his liberalism, in addition to being tolerant, was of a sort that made him believe men fit to be free only when they were determined to be. He was as averse to forcing men’s political beliefs as he was to forcing their ideas on religion and morals. Freedom in these was among the inalienable rights of the sovereign man.

There are, of course, interpretations in the study that will not gain universal acceptance, even by friends of Jefferson, but there are but few errors of fact. Inconsistencies, however, are more numerous. For example, one wonders why on the same page there is mention of Burr’s “most evident guilt,” and a declaration that “legally speaking it is difficult to find fault with Marshall’s findings.” And, to mention another, if Jefferson doubted Wilkinson’s loyalty during the Burr conspiracy, why did he rely upon him as he did? Doubt is cast upon Jefferson’s belief in immortality, but his beautiful expression of that belief is quoted.

There is a certain humor in Professor Chinard’s falling into an identical error with Jefferson. When John Adams, upon reconciliation bent, wrote Jefferson that he was sending him “two pieces of Homespun lately produced in this quarter by one who was honored in his youth by your attention and much of your kindness,” Jefferson thanked him eagerly for what Professor Chinard calls “a fine specimen of homespun made in Massachusetts.” John Adams has volunteered to correct them both. The “Homespun” was “not Wool, nor Cotton, nor Silk, nor Flax, nor Hemp, nor Iron, nor Wood. They were spun from the Brain of John Quincy Adams, and consist in two volumes of his Lectures on Rhe-torick and Oratory, delivered when he was Professor of that Science in our University of Cambridge.”

Professor Chinard, like Jove—to the comfort of the rest of us—nods sometimes.


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