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Eminent Democrat profiles - Thomas Jefferson

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Cleveland Rocks Donating Member (14 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-14-08 09:45 PM
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Eminent Democrat profiles - Thomas Jefferson
It was controversial back in the 1960s when Leonard Levy published Jefferson and Civil Liberties - The Darker Side, because the very idea of his having a darker side was shocking. Not so today - no longer do members of all political factions compete for the privilege of being his heirs. Jefferson-bashing is the rage, and the bold dissenting position has been to praise him.

So let me praise him. Just call me a bold dissenter.

Jefferson had his big three achievements inscribed on his tombstone - writing the Declaration of Independence, writing the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and founding the University of Virginia. Don't know about the University of Virginia, but the rest of that stuff was great.

The Declaration wasn't necessarily original, but it put together the best political ideas of the time and explained, in terms of these ideas, how a ruler named George had become oppressive and needed to be overthrown.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom articulated why religious freedom was part of God's plan.

Not noted on his tombstone is the law against the foreign slave trade, which took effect in 1808, the earliest date permissible by the Constitution. Jefferson never managed to get rid of slavery itself, but he did sign the bill to make importing slaves totally illegal.
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Zomby Woof Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue May-06-08 10:38 PM
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1. Jefferson and History's Verdict
Edited on Tue May-06-08 10:43 PM by ZombyWoof
I have always found the term "revisionist history" redundant, and a bit naive. All history by its very nature as a record of the past, is subject to constant revision, and rightfully considers new research, synthesizing it with older data, keeping what is useful, discarding what is not, understanding a subject's context, the prevailing mores, and cultural norms. It is an art more than a science. But it requires dismissing myth's seductions, with a willingness to look at people as they are, to cast off the plaster deities of old, and properly recast them as mere human beings of flesh and clay feet. Jefferson, clay feet and then some, was as flawed and complex and brilliant as any of the founders, which is why he constantly merits such scrutiny, and yes, revision.

A few rebuttals and addendums to your post:

When he was chosen to draft the Declaration, he included a call for the end of slavery, and placed the blame for its existence in the colonies sqaurely on King George III (never mind the Dutch role via New York, and that Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery, et al). Due to the inflammatory nature of his charges, and the unsupportability of his claims, the anti-slavery clause was struck from the Declaration. The committee was headed by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, whom ironically, were the closest to being abolitionists for their time, while Jefferson was the slaveholder. This committee's veto would hang with great peril over the republic until the thirteenth amendment passed in 1865.

In his "Notes on the State of Virginia", which in my opinion is his most important work, he discusses his views on slavery more candidly. Although the racial theorizing makes one wince - it is important to keep in mind that he was writing as a well-intentioned scientist and not motivated by hatred. He prophetically announced that slaves were destined to be freed. But as others of his time, would leave it for those in the future to decide. He never resolved his admittedly paradoxical views on the subject. Most memorable line: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that god is just." (God in the most deistic sense possible, as he was not a christian).

I do agree that his Statute for Religious Freedom in Virginia is a landmark, if for nothing else, influencing James Madison to include its core tenet in the first amendment of the Constitution some years later.

As a delegate in the Virginia Assembly, he and fellow delegate George Wyeth once considered the proposal of a bill which would outlaw slavery in three generations. They backed down and never introduced it, knowing they couldn't overcome the objections which would most certainly come from most quarters.

The University of Virginia was an important achievement. Jefferson wanted a national university, which would be more democratic in its objectives, affording a broader education (hence, being a true university as the name intends) than the usual law, Greek/Latin and rhetoric-centric coursework of his rather aristocratic alma mater William and Mary, or the equally effete Yale and Harvard institutions in New England. He wanted much more emphasis on science and mathematics than was the norm, being that he was America's truest embodiment of the Enlightenment principles of Locke and Newton (his two principal heroes).

Although it would be hard to argue that ending the importation of slaves was anything but a positive development, the fact is, it did lead to harsher fugitive slave laws, and did in no way improve the lot of slaves. Rape would now be the chief means of obtaining additional slaves, and hence slavery would continue to fester as a divisive wound. Still, ending the importation was an important step, but it was done for economic reasons, not humane ones. It was a form of protectionism, as a way for the slaveholders to rebuff the unpopular tariff. After all, even the Confederate Constitution of 1861 called for the non-importation of slaves.

Jefferson's greatest failure may very well have been the Embargo Act of 1807, during his second term as president - which is the reason that otherwise notable achievement did not make it to his self-inscribed tombstone. It took a prosperous country to the edge of permanent economic ruin, and nearly caused the New England states to secede. Jefferson's intentions, as always, were noble - it was a measure to maintain neutrality and avoid war - but the effects of the embargo were in many ways more ruinous than war may have been. Along with the devastation, it did nothing to achieve the ending of British impressment of American merchant seamen, a problem left for Madison - with war resulting after all. Jefferson left office the most despised man in the country, even moreso than the current White House occupant. Only time would soften his reputation, as the long shadow of the Declaration has protected him from the passions and preoccupations of the present.
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RoyGBiv Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed May-07-08 06:43 PM
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2. Revisionist History ...

I have always found the term "revisionist history" redundant, and a bit naive.

Thank you for expressing that.

That term, or more precisely many of its connotations, has long been one I despise.

The problem for many lies in the fact that the word "history" has multiple meanings that often become conflated. That is, the study of the past and "the past" are not the same thing, and many people fail (or flatly refuse) to understand that anyone's knowledge of the past is and will always be colored by perception. When many people use the term "revisionist history," particularly in its derisive sense, they are exposing themselves as married to a perception for which they are loathe to allow modification. They claim the perception is truth and that anyone who would question it is a liar.

The study of history, also known as "history" or our perception of historical events, is always subject to revision.

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