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The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 by Conor Cruise O'Brien

Aeon Skoble

University of Chicago Press • 1996 • 385 pages • $29.95

Dr. Skoble is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southeast Missouri State University.

Although Thomas Jefferson is popularly known as a great statesman, historians have long been aware that he, like everyone else, was not as purely good as his popular image would suggest. Political thinkers of some stripes even find his theories of government objectionable. There have been many treatments of Jefferson’s thought and legacy, both sympathetic and critical, yet there is something distinctive about Conor Cruise O’Brien’s new book, The Long Affair: its extreme polemical character. There have also been many polemics about Jefferson, but here, unfortunately, is a polemic masquerading as a serious work of history. O’Brien’s main goal is to show that Jefferson deserves none of the reverence he has enjoyed since his death. Specifically, O’Brien wants to show that Jefferson is the direct ideological ancestor of racist skinheads, apartheid South Africa, and Timothy McVeigh.

O’Brien is off the mark in several respects. Chief among them is the lack of theoretical sophistication and historical context in his analysis. That’s a weighty charge to level against a respected writer like O’Brien, but the fact is that he betrays his lack of theoretical perspective by not so much as mentioning the English philosopher John Locke. Locke is an essential antecedent to everything in the Declaration of Independence, a fact which O’Brien surely knows. Locke had, in the previous century, carefully laid out a theory of natural rights of self-ownership and the ensuing importance of consent. Locke also sets out a right to rebel against an unjust authority, which Jefferson’s generation understood.

O’Brien takes Jefferson to task for being an ideologue, i.e., for thinking that he was the definitive interpreter of timeless truths. But the rhetorical significance of the phrase self-evident truths was to highlight to the target audience, the British, that the colonists’ complaint was not radical at all. The political theory expressed in the Declaration was at least 90 years old by the time of the Second Continental Congress. Locke had already established the legitimacy of the notion of government by consent and natural, inalienable rights, and these theories were common currency in England. The English themselves were supposed to be proponents of the Lockean theory—that’s the point of calling it a self-evident truth. The idea that government derives its just power from the consent of the governed was certainly not something Jefferson would have claimed sole proprietorship over.

O’Brien makes much of the fact that John Adams and Benjamin Franklin made small revisions to the draft of the Declaration in an unconvincing attempt to show that Jefferson doesn’t deserve the credit for writing it. But now the polemicism is made transparent: according to O’Brien, Jefferson deserves denunciation for originating a theory of revolution, but doesn’t deserve to be revered as the author of the theory. The reality is that Jefferson wasn’t, and wouldn’t have claimed to be, the originator of the political theory underlying the Declaration, but was an eloquent articulator of that theory.

In any case, O’Brien is guilty of several ad hominem attacks of the weakest sort. To suggest that there is something suspect about Jefferson because Mr. McVeigh (or whoever) likes to quote him is fallacious reasoning. It’s like saying that since Charles Manson quoted John Lennon, Lennon must have been evil. O’Brien makes several such charges, including his thoroughly unpersuasive attempt to show that the Ku Klux Klan is descended from Jefferson, whatever that means.

As we are all now aware, Jefferson owned slaves, in spite of his often-stated view that slavery was an offense against natural law. For O’Brien, this is evidence of pathological, virulent racism. Any number of more sensible considerations of this paradox (most recently Sean Wilentz’s excellent critique of O’Brien in The New Republic or historian Joseph Ellis’s American Sphinx) have demonstrated that things are not that simple. Could Jefferson have shown greater moral courage than he did? Perhaps, but remember that slavery was the norm for that time and place, so there were more complex legal and financial factors involved, which, while not exculpatory, also suggest less harsh condemnation. During the Second Continental Congress, Jefferson tried to include an antislavery clause in the Declaration, but it was vetoed by the Southern delegation. Later he arranged for the release of some, but not all, of his slaves. Is it strange that someone who thinks that slavery is a moral wrong should not have done a better job ending the institution of slavery? How can we answer that question satisfactorily? Deciding that Jefferson could have done more is a far cry from branding him a vicious racist.

No personal attack on Jefferson’s character would be complete without revisiting the allegation that he had a long affair with his slave Sally Hemings. The long affair of the book’s title is meant to refer most obviously to Jefferson’s enchantment with the French Revolution, and his seeming endorsement of its worst excesses, which is part of the link between Jefferson and McVeigh, according to O’Brien, who documents this with selected writings (while ignoring other more moderate writings). But the long affair also evokes the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Was there such an affair? The only honest answer is: we can’t be sure. There is some evidence to support the story, but not very much, and the story originated in the mouths of political enemies of Jefferson. To accept uncritically the allegations as further ammunition for a personal attack is not the mark of reasoned discourse, yet O’Brien is far too quick to endorse the story in its entirety.

O’Brien’s book is so clouded by animus that it fails to be either reasonable or persuasive. Whatever his faults, Jefferson doesn’t deserve this, and more to the point, modern readers interested in exploring the perplexing legacy of Jefferson do not deserve it either.

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