Review of Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary

In Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary, historian Kevin Gutzman offers a fresh look at the famous statesman, described as “a revolutionary who effected radical change in a growing country.” Although often described as an American political enigma, whose image is claimed by almost everyone, Gutzman’s new exposition does much to sort fact from faction. Additionally, it brilliantly impresses a Jeffersonian imagine upon the minds of its audience.

Instead of intending his latest work to be an exhaustive biography of Jefferson’s life, Gutzman deliberately focuses upon the key elements of the statesman’s political philosophy. Therein, we find an assortment of new and important ideas that have been regularly left unvisited by other historians. As the author puts it, the focus of the book are the “major legislative and constitutional efforts” that ran through Jefferson’s career. Along the way, he also accurately surmises that much of what we now take for granted about the United States was originally a Jeffersonian conception – from the coins in our pockets to the variance in our criminal punishments.

In a chapter named “Freedom of Conscience,” Gutzman illustrates Jefferson’s quest within Virginia to establish one of his most cherished forms of liberty – freedom of religious exercise and association. This subject is the continuation of a two-part saga originally established in the author’s forerunner, James Madison and the Making of America. While Jefferson served as the architect of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, it was Madison that worked to resuscitate and push the bill through the Virginia General Assembly after the idea had long died and Jefferson was serving as a diplomat in France.

Still, the philosophical genesis behind the idea was Jefferson’s alone – a highly radical concept. At the time, Virginia as well as most of the other state governments had officially established connections with churches, where religion was subsidized and officers of the state were required to adhere to oaths to the state religion. Jefferson’s idea sent ripples across the state, bringing forth the ire of famous people like Patrick Henry, who deeply opposed the cause.

While delving into this unique facet of Jefferson’s mindset, Gutzman reveals that the man’s conception of freedom of conscience was even more complex than once suspected. Beyond his compelling natural rights basis for free religious exercise, Jefferson’s disposition supported an individual’s ability to develop a personal identity that would remain free from government control. As Jefferson put it in the bill, “Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it insusceptible to restraint.” At a time where there were renewed energies to subsidize religion in Virginia to a greater extent, this notion was truly revolutionary.

Jefferson was also involved in a liberalization of Virginia’s prescribed oaths for civil offices, and a law he helped write allowed for alterations when an individual’s religious scruples would require it. Interestingly, he even helped formulate a law that would eliminate the state’s clerical monopoly on the ability to perform marriages. Although it was never adopted in Virginia, Gutzman discloses how this effort also underscored his commitment to the extension of religious liberty. These things, too, were notably innovative.

Another point Gutzman continually stresses is the extent to which Jefferson was deeply opposed to monarchy, a highly provocative inclination. Born into a monarchical society, he used his great intellect and political energy at a young age to assist in the transition of that culture into a highly egalitarian republic. While at first he admitted the British monarch to be the common link between all sectors of the British government, he later sought to undermine the power of the crown as the monarch refused to thwart the enforcement of Parliament’s most controversial laws against the colonies.

Indeed, Jefferson later made careful strides to eschew even the mere appearance of monarchy. He rejected the compulsions of the Federalist Party to institute what he thought to be a monarchical restoration campaign, berated the practices of government he considered to be royally-inspired, and even abandoned precedents such as elaborate inauguration festivities and state of the union speeches –because he thought them to be too regal in nature.

Gutzman puts Jefferson’s anti-monarchical proclivities on display by detailing his authorship of one of the most influential revolutionary pamphlets, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, where he articulated his vision of the British Empire as a federal system. Here the author dissects Jefferson’s view in a way that has never been done before, portraying Jefferson’s tract as a radical divergence from orthodox thought. From the way he addressed the king, to the arguments he used to eviscerate the chief pillars of British perspective, all of the most important elements are covered in great detail. Even in 1774, Jefferson strongly implied that Parliament had engaged in a “series of oppressions” that had the aim of reducing the colonies to enslavement.

The same treatment is given to Jefferson in his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence, which went beyond articulating an actual pronouncement – Jefferson said it represented his “political creed.” Within, the Virginian adopted what was then perhaps his most radical and groundbreaking view – the Lockean impulse that government existed only to protect life, liberty, and property,  and that a free people had the right to “alter or abolish” their own government when it became destructive to liberty.

Jefferson’s anti-monarchical, pro-radical affinity can also be demonstrated after the successes of the revolution, where he made painstaking efforts to rewrite Virginia’s civil code. This cause, said professed, would eradicate all possibility of “ancient and future aristocracy” and lay the foundations for “a government truly republican.” The far-reaching series of legal reforms that Jefferson played a principle role in, as it turns out, was a highly groundbreaking endeavor for which he today receives little credit.

Another overlooked area of the life of the “Sage of Monticello” concerns his founding of the University of Virginia, which Gutzman also addresses. Jefferson perceived great value in public education, though he hoped to keep it at the most local level possible. As long as society respected civic virtue and a free press, his faith in humanity to uphold republican principles remained strong. While most Americans don’t realize it, Jefferson considered this accomplishment to be one of the three greatest accomplishments of his life – choosing it to be carved plainly into his headstone. Without a doubt, many of Jefferson’s notions concerning education have also unwritten almost every aspect of American public education. 

Despite his inclination to believe in the natural rights of all people, including slaves, to self-government, Jefferson came to believe that blacks and whites could never peacefully coincide in the same society. Nevertheless, he earnestly mulled various strategies to address the plight of slaves. The 1786 failure of his idea for gradual slave manumission in Virginia, a similar measure to those which had been adopted in other states, gave him great distress. In response, Jefferson wrote: “What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man!”

Viewing the foreign slave trade as a treacherous deed exacerbated by the British, Jefferson believed that ending such a nefarious trade, a feat which he and Congress accomplished in 1808, would ultimately make institution’s demise more palatable. In addition, he considered several schemes to migrate Virginia’s black population to remote parts of the state, which became politically unfeasible for various reasons. Ultimately, he settled on the idea of the colonization slaves elsewhere. According to Gutzman, Jefferson viewed this as a positive step that would help slaves achieve self-government and political autonomy, while still allowing whites to wash their hands clean of the malevolence of slavery.

The most redeeming quality of this work is the writer’s thorough investigation into two of the most overlooked but important aspects of Jefferson’s political philosophy. The first is Jefferson’s conception of the American political union, and the inherent value of federalism. According to Thomas Jefferson, the union of states under the Constitution was a utilitarian construct, not an unbreakable, sacred apparatus. In his mind, the right of all people to self-government trumped the guarantee of political stability. Until the end of his life, he maintained that free individuals invariably maintained an irrevocable power to alter or abolish their government. This proclivity affected Jefferson’s attitudes toward many of the important political events of his lifetime, including the colonial schism with Britain, the Sedition Act watershed, the expansion of federal judicial authority, and the Missouri Crisis.

Federalism, what Gutzman calls “Jefferson’s dearest principle for nearly half a century,” came under regular assault in his retirement. At the time wrecked by personal financial ruin, The anti-Jeffersonian rendering in McCulloch v. Maryland and the Missouri Crisis, for instance, did much to compound Jefferson’s distress and emasculate his conception of the constitutional system. To Jefferson, the Marshall Court had made the Constitution into a “mere thing of wax…which they may twist and shape in to any form they please.” Yet still, despite all of the treachery, the author demonstrates that Jefferson maintained the same partialities that he always had.

The book’s most stunning insight may be Gutzman’s magnificent examination of Jefferson’s far-reaching position on the balance of power between the states and the general government. In 1797, a group of grand jurors were put on notice in Virginia to consider an indictment against Samuel Cabell, a Virginian, for seditious libel because of his criticism of John Adams. An indictment never came, but the event infuriated Jefferson. In an episode that will shock most readers, Jefferson, who was vice president at the time, responded to this deed by recommending that Virginian government indict the same grand jurors for treason against Virginia.

In retrospect, this anecdote sheds much light on Jefferson’s unique conception of the federal orientation of the United States. Can one imagine such a thing today? In the contemporary, not one person in the political class shares Jefferson’s perception of the federal union and its constitutional system. Through this extraordinary finding, Gutzman reveals a unique facet of Jefferson’s philosophy that has gone virtually unnoticed by scholars until now.

The second major breakthrough of Gutzman’s book comes through his illustration of Jefferson’s opinions concerning Native American policy. In general terms, Jefferson supported doing whatever was possible to integrate Native Americans into republican society. In pursuit of this aim, he supported peaceful relations, and diplomatic engagements that resulted in treaties between the United States and Native American groups. Jefferson’s disposition concerning Native Americans differed greatly from some of his presidential successors, such as Andrew Jackson, who favored removal over assimilation.

The only challenge to Gutzman’s central thesis worth mentioning is in regards to Jefferson’s traditional view of the originally ratified Constitution and strict adherence to federalism, which he believed were not such radical ideas. In this context, Jefferson viewed himself as one dedicated to preserving what he thought was the key foundation of the American political system – and not as a political revolutionary. On a federal level, Jefferson believed it was the countervailing interests of the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, that embodied actual radicalism. The implied powers doctrine, protectionist economic policies, calls for a central banking apparatus, the subversion of reserved state authority, and national judicial expansion, certainly did much to solidify Jefferson’s federal-level persuasions.

On a local level, on the other hand, Jefferson advocated for radical new ideas such as a rewrite of Virginia’s entire civil code, manumission and colonization efforts, and a severance of the state from Virginia’s established church, demonstrably radical approaches that invited the disdain of many of Virginia’s most powerful figures. Bolstering Gutzman’s perspective is the irrefutable fact that Jefferson’s attachments were always more local in the first place; he would have it no other way.

Making a compelling defense of his thesis, the writer most enthrallingly portrays Jefferson as a unique figure, whose transformational political ideas were often ostracized and met with scrutiny. Rather than an enigma, Gutzman concludes that there are specific tenets of the man’s outlook that are quantifiable and worthy of contemporary consideration. Even more captivating and valuable is his persuasive argument that has sufficiently convinced me to the extent that all Americans, whether we realize it or not, are Jeffersonians.

In the past, when acquaintances have asked me for a recommendation for a concise overview of Jefferson’s political philosophy, I have always pointed them to R. B. Bernstein’s Thomas Jefferson: The Revolution of Ideas. Taking away nothing from that work, I have now found an even superior alternative in Gutzman’s new offering – which does even more to expound upon the man the author deems to be the most significant statesman in American history. With the book’s release, few Jeffersonian stones are now left unturned.

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