Editor’s Note: Due to an unfortunate glitch in production, two lines are missing from the printed version of Daniel Lazare’s essay. They have been restored in this version.
Perhaps the best way to understand the history of the early American Republic is as a prolonged variation on the theme of the French Revolution. Although the starting date for that event is usually given as 1789, the process actually began a year or two earlier with a strange aristocratic prelude. Up in arms over royal centralization, the French nobility seized on the state’s growing fiscal crisis to call for a return to the “balanced” Constitution of more than a century earlier when the aristocracy and the church had served as an effective counterweight to the power of the throne and the provinces were able to hold their own against Paris. In order for society to advance, the theory went, it needed to go back to some golden age in the past. This position was not unpopular. But then the third estate–the commoners–began asserting its power, arguing that the purpose of revolution was not to turn the clock back but to turn it ahead to some brave new world in the future. For a time, backward and forward, progress and regression, were all bollixed up. But then the radicals were able to consolidate their power beginning in mid-1792, and the process of sorting out one from the other got under way.
A similar process occurred on this side of the Atlantic, only here it has taken a little longer. Most people in British North America–most white people, that is–believed their way of life to be the very definition of freedom until London started tightening the reins in the mid-1760s. Consequently, their goal in rebelling against the stamp tax, the tea tax and other “intolerable acts” was not to go forward but to return to some halcyon age in the past when imperial oversight was minimal. America’s restorationist revolution led to a looking-glass system of politics in which progress and retrogression, left and right, were jumbled, just as they were in the initial stages of the French Revolution. The confusion persisted right up to the Civil War, but even then the sorting-out process was cut short when the Radical Republicans lost their grip in the late 1860s. Only with the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ’60s did the great sorting out of left and right, Jeffersonian regression versus Hamiltonian progress, start up again, and only since the 1990s has it really begun in earnest.
American history, as a result, has been stood on its head–or on its feet. Federalists formerly dismissed as conservative elitists have been rediscovered and rehabilitated. David McCullough’s celebratory biography of John Adams was a surprise bestseller, as was Richard Brookhiser’s 1999 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Previously regarded as yet another stuffy Bostonian, Adams’s son, John Quincy, emerged as an unexpected moral hero in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad owing to his legal efforts on behalf of a group of slaves fighting for their freedom.
Jefferson, that erstwhile champion of American liberalism, has meanwhile come in for one thrashing after another, of which Garry Wills’s “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power, is merely the latest. Wills is the author of two previous, largely positive books about America’s third President, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1978) and Mr. Jefferson’s University (2002). But he opens his latest with an apology: “I have admired Jefferson all my life, and still do–though some may question that statement after reading this book.” And, indeed, “Negro President” is an extended study in moral hypocrisy. Where previously Jefferson had been seen as a high-minded philosophe torn between the conflicting goals of slavery and freedom, it’s now clear that protecting slavery was always his top priority. Even his championing of the University of Virginia, one of his proudest achievements, was not quite as selfless as it seems. Rather than spreading the light of education for its own sake, Jefferson’s real aim, to quote Wills, was to turn out “educated defenders for the extension of slavery westward” and provide “good southerners” with an alternative to abolitionist bastions like Harvard and Yale.