03 December 2012

The matter of Monticello

Johnson, Adams, Jefferson

Wow, wouldn’t that title make for a great 1960’s musical number?

Ahem. Anyway, the phrase ‘the Monster of Monticello’ appears prominently in this New York Times op-ed, ‘The Real Thomas Jefferson’, by Dr Paul Finkelman, who writes a devastating critique of the man for his practice of slavery, and how it made him into a ‘creepy, brutal hypocrite’. Dr Finkelman was rebutted by David Post here, who was in turn rebutted by Corey Robin of Crooked Timber, here. The argument between Finkelman and Post (or rather, the argument Post wants to have with Finkelman) is basically a retread of a retread, an unending Nietzschean struggle-drama between memory and pride, and so has rather limited interest to me. Corey Robin’s post is far more interesting because it delves so much deeper into the underlying debate over political philosophy.

Firstly, I should make it clear that I agree with Corey Robin’s conclusion, and with part of Dr Finkelman’s article linking the political philosophy of Jefferson with that of Calhoun. But I also believe that Corey Robin overstates his case more than slightly by trying to link both with fascism. He is only slightly mistaken about the history of racism - rather than being a counterrevolutionary ideology specifically designed to combat abolition (abolitionism not having been a formidable force at the time), it was an ideology designed by the merchants and industrialists who profited from slavery, to prevent poor whites from identifying with blacks. But this slight mistake is indicative of a greater one which he makes: attempting to show racism to be fundamentally conservative, or counterrevolutionary.

I have shown previously that many of the conservatives of the time - in particular Pope Gregory XVI and Dr Samuel Johnson - were very much anti-slavery and anti-racist, and this not in spite of their traditionalist conservatism, but rather because of it. To them, racism and slavery were forms of untruth: a white Anglican and a black Anglican immediately have deeper common interests in the promulgation of the Gospel than they have divergent interests in the colour of their skin; and slavery as an institution was destructive to the virtues of both by which the Gospel could be made manifest. This bears (not accidentally) a great deal of similarity with later ‘progressive’ thinking, on account of the fact that such thinking had been shaped along the way by Quakers, Anglicans and Catholics (all of whom tended to harbour high-Tory sympathies, if they were not Jacobites outright). Mr Robin’s argument sheds more light on the ways in which modern American coalition politics informs our historiography, than it does on the political proclivities of Thomas Jefferson.

For, if we were to trace that common thread, it would be along the lines of a form of liberalism, not of counterrevolutionary thought. It was not uncommon for liberals at the turn of the 19th century to be racist in ways which contemporary conservatives were not (witness Metternich, who fought tooth-and-nail for peace in Europe and for the rights of European Jews at a time when the classically-liberal Burschenschaften he was charged with oppressing under the Carlsbad Decrees were clamoring for their ostracism or expulsion in the pursuit of racial purity). The juxtaposition of a classical Tory like Dr Johnson, or better yet a Burkean conservative like John Adams, with Thomas Jefferson is equally enlightening: John Adams detested slavery and refused (along with, or inspired by, Abigail) to employ slave labour on principle, but at the same time argued for a society based on traditional Christian morality and a ‘natural hierarchy’ which sounds, for lack of a better word, like a reconstituted aristocracy. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiast for the French Revolution (and showed a cavalier disregard for its human cost), detested traditional, creedal Christianity to the point that he made his own version of the Gospel which was in line with classical liberalism, and based his own revolutionary ideology upon the Lockean philosophy of greed and upon the denial of the divine right of kings. Slavery was not incompatible with such a system - or rather, Jefferson tried his damnedest (as Corey Robin ably shows) to make it compatible through ‘scientific’ proof of whites’ racial superiority.

The task which all of the above authors (Finkelman, Post and Robin) are attempting either to surmount or to evade - the real matter of the man of Monticello - is the task of reconciling the ideology of liberty of which Jefferson was a supporter, with the brutalities, hypocrisies and ‘creepiness’ of Jefferson the man. Either one does as Post does, and says ‘so what’ to the content of Jefferson’s character and the real suffering the man caused in defence of the ideology he came to embody; or one does as Finkelman and Robin do, which is to claim that Jefferson was not actually such an embodiment, but rather stood for something else. Neither option is really fully desirable, since they overlook a third option: that Jefferson genuinely believed what he did, and that he genuinely did what he did, and that as a consequence something is wrong with the way we as a nation have historically conceived (in both senses of the word), and continue to conceive, of ‘liberty’. If ‘liberty’ is merely the licence of white Europeans to be removed from the social strictures and restraints of traditional creedal Christendom and from the ancien régime of Europe, then chattel slavery (being an institutional artefact of the outward migration from Europe at the dawn of the colonial age, and thus part-and-parcel with the early capitalist and anti-aristocratic ‘arc’ of the Enlightenment) is by no means incompatible with such a conception. Slavery on the basis of skin colour was certainly if not anathema, then at least incomprehensible and alien, to the Scholastic medieval mind.

This way of framing the argument is not likely to be a popular one in American political discourse or historiography, because a.) it explodes the left-liberal mythology of linear historical progress in the direction of greater and more refined morality, whilst at the same time yoking one of the central concepts in that mythology (that of personal licence) with one of its most unfortunate consequences; b.) it directly contradicts the right-liberal, American exceptionalist idea that Jeffersonian ideology has given America a unique place and moral mission within world history; and c.) it does not kowtow to the demands of the evangelical right that the Founding Fathers be recognised ahistorically as the guardians of some sort of Christian moral order. But it is necessary to consider this way of thinking about it if we are to take any edifying lesson away from Jefferson and his complicated place in the American story.


  1. An interesting take on Mr Jefferson. Guess the American Tory is one of those persons sidelined from mainstream US political discourse.

    I would also like to ask your assessment of the American Revolution.


  2. Well, perhaps I should put it this way: if I had been alive during the War of American Independence, my ideology, actions and fate might very well have been similar to those of my mother's-side kinsmen in the Doan Gang.

    The American Revolution may not have been as immediately or as hideously destructive as the French one, but its widespread consequences have generally been more insidious, in terms of having spread the Lockean philosophy of greed under the semantic cloak of 'liberty'. What I think both sides get wrong is that Thomas Jefferson wasn't really an outlier in his behaviour, and that his behaviour actually follows logically from what he believed. It is only because the American founding ideology had been tempered down the generations by recovered Christian insights and values that we even have a progressive movement today, though it is rather weak tea when compared with, say, any of the Catholic-inspired labour movements in continental Europe (which are now being slowly suffocated by the EU).

    Anyway, thanks again for the comment, Idrian; always glad to have you!


  3. No problems, Matt.

    So you mean that only a post-Revolution American Toryism was responsible for the birth of a progressive movement in the US?

  4. It is a thesis worth considering, I think. Certainly the influence of the (historically) classically-conservative Society of Friends, Episcopal Church (itself tracing its episcopate back to the Church of Scotland) and Roman Catholic Church over the great social reform movements in American history (abolitionism, labour rights and civil rights being the three big 'uns) is not indelible.

    And of course, Canada, that last great refuge of classical High Toryism in Anglophone America, was leaps and bounds ahead of us on every single one of those issues (and remains so, at least on issues of economic justice).