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Nock’s Jefferson

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

Jefferson. By Albert Jay Nock. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.75.

This is the most recent of the numerous books on Jefferson called forth by the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is also one of the best written and most vivid. It is not a conventional biography, but an interpretation, or, as the author prefers to call it, “a study in conduct and character.” All writers on Jefferson have been impressed with his remarkable versatility. He was a lawyer, farmer, architect, builder, scientist, classical scholar, educator, diplomat and statesman. Mr. Nock represents him also as a supremely able man with an objective point of view, who approached all the problems of life in a scientific spirit and brought to bear on their solution not only a wide range of accurate information, but also the full power of a great intellect. And yet how many Americans, who have derived their ideas from Oliver’s “Hamilton” and Beveridge’s “Marshall,” think of Jefferson as a shrewd, unscrupulous political intriguer!

Mr. Nock wastes no time, as does F. W. Hirst in his “Life and Letters of Jefferson” in refuting Jefferson’s slanderers. In a bibliographical note at the end of the book he disposes of one of the most conspicuous of these in a single sentence: “If anyone wishes to know the worst that a good attorney can make of Mr. Jefferson, it is to be found in Mr. Beveridge’s biography of John Marshall.”

With the exception of Bowers’ “Jefferson and Hamilton,” Nock’s book is the most important of the recent studies of Jefferson. It is not so detailed, for while Bowers confines himself largely to one decade, Nock undertakes to sketch Jefferson’s entire career. Both books show the influence of Beard’s “Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy.” In fact Nock avows himself a disciple of Beard. The economic interpretation of history, of which Beard is the chief American exponent, has developed a new method and a new viewpoint, but Beard and his followers have shown the inevitable tendency to ride their hobbies too hard. Historical forces are too complex to be reduced to any single formula. While the economic motive is always present and powerful in the lives of men, it is by no means the sole motive that determines their conduct. Individuals are frequently dominated on the one hand by prejudice, hatred, or passion, and on the other by conviction or idealism. Even nations sometimes act directly contrary to their economic interests and go to war on questions of national honor. The fact that wars usually pass under the control of profiteers and that victorious nations rarely fail to look out for their economic interests does not necessarily mean that all wars are economic in origin.

Both Beard and Nock deny that Jefferson was a doctrinaire. Beard holds that he derived his chief support from the agrarian class and was responsive to their interests and demands, though not radically so when he became president. Nock’s formula is more simple: Jefferson was the representative of the producing class, while his great opponent Hamilton represented the exploiting class. The conflict between these two great statesmen was, therefore, not a conflict between opposing theories of government, but merely one between opposing economic interests. Jefferson, Nock says, was regarded as “a doctrinaire advocate of State rights and of strict construction; whereas he was really neither. His advocacy of both was occasional. Class-interest led him almost always to the side of the smaller political unit against encroachment by the larger, because the greater the power of local self-government, as a rule, the better for the producer and the worse for the exploiter. Thus he was quite regularly for State rights against the Union, for county rights against the State, for township rights or village rights against the county, and for private rights against all.” While this formula is too simple to be true and must be accepted only with qualifications, Mr. Nock has nevertheless written a most interesting and illuminating book.


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