I came across a (the?) letter where Thomas Jefferson speaks of watering the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots. I do not know if this is only or even first time he used such a phrase (I found it in a letter to Colonel William Stephens Smith, John Adams’ son-in-law, dated November 13, 1787 and written when Jefferson was still in Paris). Read more
Thomas Jefferson was frequently accused of being an atheist (I tend towards those who suppose him to be a particularly secular Deist), but usually avoided commitment and included references to God (or someone similar) in his writings, particular the more or less public (I have been reading so much 18th century English writing that I almost spelled that ‘publick’) ones. An obvious example is the capital C Creator referenced in The Declaration of Independence. Read more
Gentle reader, you have no doubt noticed that I am a fool for a new take on Thomas Jefferson, one that dodges standard biography. This one dodges so far as not to be sure what to make of itself.
It is sort of a history of the founding University of Virginia; sort of history of education in Virginia during Jefferson’s lifetime; and sort of a collection of anecdotes of Jeffersonianisms, towards the end of compiling an unsystematic intellectual biography of the planter philosopher. And a surprising quantity of text devoted to Jefferson’s extended family, hangers on, and the financial ruin of his family.
In an otherwise only marginally interesting answer to the question of whether the United States should renounce its treaties with France until it had established a government. While it’s not clear who needs to establish a government, because both countries had some ups and downs, the date of 1793 suggests it was France that needed to sort itself out.
In terms of practical politics, of course, America needed to adhere to its earlier treaties, barring some truly exceptional occurrence (the French Revolution, arguably, would qualify).
Here is what caught my eye:
The law of nations, by which this question is to be determined, is composed of three branches. 1. The moral law of our nature. 2. The usages of nations. 3. Their special conventions.
It’s an interesting bit of morality, couched in enlightenment terminology (Lockean?), which seems out of place in the Jefferson I have been reading.
You can see Jefferson’s regular topics and conceits clearly here. A chapter on religion is mainly about the religious freedom he so assiduously (and successfully; he wrote the statute) championed in Virginia. On education, it reflect the inadequacy of both the physical and curricular structure of William & Mary, then the state’s only college; arguments no doubt in support of his quest to establish the University of Virginia at the base of his mountain. You see Jefferson the amateur scientist (and a fascinating digression into some amateur archaeology that he undertook on a Native American burial mound.
On manufacturing, his disdain for large scale production is clear (despite the fact that very nearly his only profitable venture was a nail factory he built on his lands). It feels a little naive, to disdain creating finished goods here, beyond basic items, but it fits with his pastoral/agricultural republicanism. Like Socrates, he seems to think smaller polities are better.
On race… the less said the better. He was at a point where his views were evolving and not for the better. He is open to the idea that the native peoples could achieve a cultural status close to whites, but that “generosity” only reminds the modern reader of the anti-black racism running through his brain.
Takeaway quote (from the religion section):
It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.
And you know what? In this day, his vigorous, anthropological critique of religious oppression may seem commonsensical today, in the eighteenth century it was far more daring and outre.
Doesn’t make up for the racism, though.
From Thomas Jefferson’s Autobiography:
This slim book, which or may not have been intended for publication, is quite modest and circumspect. He does not speak much of personal matters (alluding obliquely to his wife’s death) but much of legislative comings and goings and you would barely know he was key figure in American history if this was all you had.
A surprising volume of the Autobiography is dedicated to the back and forth of government ministers, popular leaders, and nobles during the early stages of the French Revolution. While now it is common to give Mari Antoinette the benefit of the doubt, he explicitly blames the Queen and says there would have been no violent revolution if not for her vicious counsel.
He ends upon his appointment as Secretary of State. If there is some finger pointing and political score settling, it might be within asides about monarchial tendencies among some individuals who might be Hamilton or Adams (I suspect Adams).