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Thomas Jefferson, His Editors and Biographers

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

Jefferson and Hamilton, the Struggle for Democracy in America. By Claude G. Bowers. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin Company. $5.00.

Life and Letters of Thomas Jefferson. By Francis W. Hirst. New York: The Macmillan Company. $6.00.

Jefferson and Monticello. By Paul Wilstach. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Page and Company. $5.00.

Correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (1812-1826). Selected with comment by Paul Wilstach. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company. $2.75.

Jefferson et les Ideologues. Par Gilbert Chinard. The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, and Les Presses Universitaires, Paris.

Jefferson is one of those immortals around whom the storms of controversy have ever raged. No contemporary regarded him with indifference, and no historian has been able to deal with him in a purely objective way. His name excites controversy almost as readily to-day as it did during his public career. This seems strange at first thought, because his personality was not aggressive. By nature he was singularly gentle, in manners he was mild and conciliatory, and in conversation he was disarming and persuasive. He had his temper always under control and was never known to have a personal altercation with anybody. As John Fiske says, “His sympathies were so broad and tender that he could not breathe freely in an atmosphere of strife.” And yet he aroused intense passions in his opponents, but such passions were due primarily to the impact of dynamic ideas and only secondarily to personal animosity. His public life was guided by a definite body of political philosophy and his principles were radical and far-reaching.

Few Americans have had as much written about them as Jefferson. He has had over twenty-five biographers, not including innumerable sketches in collected biographies, in general histories, magazines, books on the Declaration of Independence, and orations and essays on Jefferson and Hamilton, names inevitably linked together. Yet strange to say there is not a single outstanding life of Jefferson. The earliest was that of Rayner published in 1832. The fullest is the life by Randall in three volumes, published in 1858, a work of considerable thoroughness and accuracy, but not of great literary merit. Yet it has served as the source of many of the later books on Jefferson. One of the best and by far the most readable is that by James Parton, published in 1874. This book had a great vogue in its day, but is not so widely read now. Probably the best known is that of John T. Morse, published in 1883, a work which owes its prominence to the American Statesmen Series, in which it appears, rather than to any special merits of its own.

Jefferson figures largely, of course, in the lives of his contemporaries. Most writers on Hamilton and Marshall undertake to bolster up their heroes by belittling Jefferson.

This is particularly true of Oliver’s Hamilton and Beveridge’s Marshall. The first is a work of very little historical value, for the author derives his political material from the discredited and forgotten seven-volume “History of the Republic of the United States of America, as traced in the writings of Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries,” by Hamilton’s son. Whatever value Oliver’s book possesses is as an exposition of the author’s political philosophy, for which he uses Hamilton as a peg. Beveridge’s otherwise great biography of Marshall is marred by continual slurs on Jefferson. Jefferson’s victory over Hamilton left wounds which have never healed, and Hamilton’s biographers still seem to cherish a personal resentment against the man whom the people deserted Hamilton to follow, and whose principles and theories of government were destined to prevail.

But Jefferson was one of those illustrious men who live in their own writings. He wielded a facile pen and his writings are voluminous. There have been four main collections of his papers: (1) “Memoirs, Correspondence, and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson.” Edited by Thomas Jefferson Randolph. (4 vols. Charlottesville, 1829; London, 1829; Boston, 1830.) An abridged French translation of the same, 2 vols., Paris, 1833. A still further abridged German translation, 1 vol. 1853. (2) “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson.” Published by authority of Congress from the original manuscripts in the Department of State. Edited by H. A. Washington. (9 vols. Washington, 1853-54. Republished in Philadelphia, 1871.) (3) “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson.” Collected and edited by Paul Leicester Ford. (10 vols. New York and London, 1892-99.) The same in 12 vols., known as the Federal Edition, 1904-1905. (4) “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson.” Issued under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association. (20 vols. Washington, 1903-1905.)

There is also “The Jefferson Cyclopaedia;” a comprehensive collection of the Views of Thomas Jefferson, classified and arranged in alphabetical order, by John P. Foley. (Over a thousand pages quarto. New York, 1900.) Many of his writings have appeared separately. His “Summary View of the Rights of British America” was printed in Williamsburg and in Philadelphia in 1774, and went through two London editions the same year. His “Notes on Virginia” passed through twenty different editions in this country and abroad, and also appeared in French and German translations. His famous report as secretary of State on “Commercial Restrictions,” which Hamilton made such efforts to suppress, went through seven editions. His “Manual of Parliamentary Practice, for the Use of the Senate of the United States,” is still being constantly reprinted, and has been translated into French, German, and Spanish. The so-called Jefferson Bible, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” published in facsimile by the Government in 1904, and distributed as a public document, has since been reproduced by private publishers.

All these editions combined fall far short of giving us all the important letters and papers of Jefferson. Most of the published material is taken from the two principal collections of Jefferson manuscripts in the Library of Congress and the Massachusetts Historical Society, which together fill over 350 bound volumes.

The approaching sesquicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence has stimulated renewed interest in Jefferson, and an unusual number of books and articles have already appeared. Paul Wilstach’s “Correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (1812-1826)” is largely a reprint of letters taken from the published writings of Adams and Jefferson. “Jefferson and Monticello,” by the same author, reprints much of the material found in Sarah N. Randolph’s delightful book, “The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson” (1871), long out of print. Francis W. Hirst’s “Life and Letters of Thomas Jefferson,” is by a well known English economist, whose interest in Jefferson dates from the second Hague Conference, when he was called upon by the British delegation to investigate the history of maritime law in time of war, and was greatly impressed by the liberal views advanced by Jefferson and Franklin in their efforts to establish in the early treaties which they negotiated the freedom of the seas. His book is based to a considerable extent on Randall and contains little that is new. It is of interest, however, as an attempt by an Englishman to refute the aspersions cast upon Jefferson by another English writer, Oliver, whose life of Hamilton has been referred to above. Hirst’s book is too apologetic and controversial, though it is readable and will doubtless serve to counteract impressions of Jefferson which most Englishmen have derived from Oliver.

Chinard’s “Jefferson et les Ideologues” throws a new and interesting light on Jefferson’s relations with contemporary French economists and political philosophers, Destutt de Tracy, Cabanis, Say, and Auguste Comte. The author shows that Jefferson kept alive hope in the minds of the liberals of France during the Napoleonic despotism. If democracy could succeed in America, as demonstrated in Jefferson’s presidency, they were encouraged to believe that it would some day extend to the old world. In fact, Professor Chinard has brought to light in the last few years a large amount of new and important material on Jefferson. No writer has gone more carefully into the Jefferson manuscripts. The present work was preceded by several other monographs by the same author on the interaction of French and American ideas: “Les Amities Americaines de Madame D’Houdetot, d’apres sa corrcspondance inedite avec Benjamin Franklin et Thomas Jefferson” “Volney et VAmerique, d’apres des Documents inedits et sa Corrcspondance avec Jefferson” “Pensees Choisies de Montesquieu tirees du ‘Common-Place Booh’ de Thomas Jefferson.” “La Corrcspondance de Madame de Stael et de Jefferson.” Professor Chinard expects to publish during the summer the “Common-Place Book,” hitherto strangely overlooked by Jefferson’s biographers. It contains summaries of his readings prior to the Declaration of Independence and is of great importance in tracing the origin and development of his political ideas.

Finally we come to a recent book which is already in the hands of thousands of readers, Bowers’s “Jefferson and Hamilton.” It is in fact a best seller, and few historical works of recent years have commanded such immediate and favorable attention. It is, moreover, probably destined to be of considerable political significance, for it deals with the foundations of American democracy and serves to strengthen in the minds of all democrats the reasons for the faith that is in them. Bowers has brought out little or nothing in the way of documentary material that is new, but he has drawn copiously from contemporary newspapers, letters, and memoirs for the purpose of giving the proper dramatic setting to the momentous struggle which is the theme of his book. He has succeeded in making “the men of the steel engravings,” as he expresses it, “men of flesh and blood, with passions, prejudices, and human limitations.” He endeavors to bring together all the influences and circumstances that entered into this great struggle between democracy and privilege, not only the political manoeuvers and debates in Congress, but the gossip and the quarrels of the streets and the taverns, the marching mobs, the burnings in effigy, and also the part “society” played in the drama. His picturesque use of incident and detail and his realistic portraiture of leading personalities, men and women, give the book a reality and interest rarely combined with a serious discussion of great historical issues.

Partisans of Jefferson will read Bowers’s book with delight, while followers of Hamilton will consider it prejudiced. Yet the author, whose sympathy with Jefferson’s philosophy is scarcely concealed, recognizes fully the brilliant qualities of Hamilton’s genius and makes no attempt to belittle or discredit him. He feels rather that the more Hamilton is magnified the greater Jefferson becomes.

Few errors have been noted. Paul Leicester Ford, and not Worthington C. Ford, edited the “Writings of Jefferson;” though Worthington C. Ford edited the “Anas” and “Autobiography.” Through a typographical error Robert Goodloe Harper’s middle name is given once or twice as Goodhue. The bald statement in quotations on p. 339, that “a diplomat is a person sent abroad to lie for his country” is a terrible and meaningless mutilation of the really clever double entendre of Sir Henry Wotton, a diplomat of the reign of James I, who defined an ambassador as “an honest man appointed to lie abroad for the good of his country”— to lie abroad meaning also to sojourn abroad. American newspapers frequently quote it as Bowers gives it, with a failure to grasp the point, worthy of the proverbial Englishman, though in this case it is the Englishman who made the pun and the Americans who fail to see the point.

Jefferson and Hamilton were the leading exponents in American history of two opposing theories of government, theories which always have divided and doubtless always will divide men into opposing political parties. Jefferson believed in laying broad and deep the foundations of democracy. He believed that it was safe to trust political power to the masses, provided the masses were educated. The function of government, in his philosophy, was to protect the rights of the people against the autocratic power of privilege, whether of class or wealth. He would restrain what Roosevelt called the predatory interests. Hamilton on the other hand believed that the aim of government should be to foster the financial and commercial interests, to establish a privileged class which would look to the government for favors and in return support the government, and he believed that the prosperity at the top would filter down among the masses to a certain extent and thus make them reasonably happy and contented. When we consider the illiteracy of the times, the exaggerated ideas of liberty, and the generally lax attitude toward financial obligations, it is easier, Bowers says, “to understand the Hamiltonian distrust of democracy than to comprehend the faith of Jefferson—a faith of tremendous significance in history.”

Notwithstanding the fact that Jefferson’s ideas have prevailed among the masses, no name excites greater enthusiasm to-day at a banquet of bankers and manufacturers than that of Alexander Hamilton. The old fight between democracy and privilege is still on. It is not surprising, therefore, that the present Secretary of the Treasury, who is hailed by the big business and financial interests as a second Hamilton, should not relish the revival of interest in Jefferson, and has decided that the head of the author of the Declaration of Independence shall not grace the coin struck to commemorate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the signing of that immortal document. The press dispatches announce that the profile of Calvin Coolidge superimposed upon that of Washington will decorate this memorial coin! Macaulay’s New Zealander or more likely some archaeologist from Mars excavating the ruins of Washington, after all written records shall have perished, and discovering one of these coins, will doubtless conclude that Coolidge was the author of the Declaration of Independence. Sic transit gloria mwndi.


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