Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle To Remake America


The author is, quite clearly conservative (though I read that he received no little flak for having admitted to having voted for Obama in 2008). Not a Republican writer, per se, but something one might find favorably mentioned by the folks at the James Wilson Institute. Unsettlingly, Gutzman, while (grudgingly?) acknowledging Jefferson’s fathering of Sally Hemmings children, he also writes sympathetically of unreconstructed historians who rejected the idea.

But, I should be fair. He does not shy away from criticism of Jefferson on issues of race and slavery. Indeed, he is rather cutting. For example, he notes that our third president wrote rather deceptively of Benjamin Banneker. He suggests without evidence that a white friend might have given him help in creating his almanac (specifically, in doing the mathematical calculations) and criticizes his writing style as being indicative of an average mind, whereas Gutzman found it to clearly be from a man of cultivated intellect and sensibilities.

The section which covers in the most detail Jefferson’s thoughts on race and slavery is, I found, one of the weaker sections. Gutzman’s heart is clearly in the first part, when he outlines the Virginian’s federalism. Yes, a little jarring that the party opposed to Jefferson’s politics was called the Federalist Party, but he is using federalism correctly, at least in current usage, which, is, of course, a strict view of the limitations on federal power, with the greatest balance of government authority in the hands of the states.

Some of the other sections lacked, I felt, partly because Gutzman’s ideas on Jefferson and federalism were relatively new to me and many other topics were not. Under a chapter on education though, there is a remark that Jefferson was a fan of Henry Home, Lord Kames. That particular Lord Kames was actually David Hume’s uncle (Hume changed the spelling of his name, because when he spelled it ‘Home,’ Englishmen kept mispronouncing it) and my interest was piqued not just because I have an interest in Hume, but because of a particular letter in which Jefferson roundly attacked him.

‘Conservatism: An Invitation To The Great Tradition’ By Roger Scruton


The Scruton-a-thon continues, which is both more fun and less dirty than it sounds.

Not unfairly, Scruton lays claim to Thomas Jefferson as one of his own because Jefferson’s radicalism was also a claiming of traditional custom and continuity which he saw as being threatened by the crown. Not unfair, as I said, but I am not certain that I am buying this particular bill of goods. Many of his positions, ideologies, and aims were, conservative (which is, also to say, classically liberal), but being so integral to a revolution that so altered the world… I can respect his effort and can, partly agree, but mostly feel that, in this, he missed the forest for the trees.

For an Englishman, Burke, of course, is a looming figure. And it is no surprise that Scruton, best known for his philosophical work on aesthetic theory should also be drawn to a man who is both considered a sort of founding figure of (post)Enlightenment conservatism and who made his reputation with an early work of aesthetic theory. And, on a personal note, I haven’t read Burke’s Reflections and I really need to.

His philosophical chops are shown off in some nice explication of the notoriously tortuous Hegel, who gets nearly equal billing with Burke as a founding father of conservatism. In his Hegelian interlude, he returns to something I noticed in an earlier book, Roman household gods. He seems to see this as being a very important example of how custom and tradition, even in the absence of genuine belief, are vital (and conservative) glues for societal cohesion.

When I read Scruton, I think of a good friend of mine. We met in a very liberal college environment and he felt a certain need to rebel, which meant playing up the more conservative aspects of his character. I have always believed that what he really wants to be is a Republican, but he is held back by the fact that Republicans tend to be so terrible and their ideas genuinely stupid. This friend would desperately love Republicans to be more like Roger Scruton instead of what they are, a collection of dimly thought-out ideas and a pathological commitment to giving money to the very wealthiest people and taking that money from the very poorest, laced with some shouted, but never acted on verbiage about abortion.

I listened to his lectures before reading any of his books and his sonorous voice comes through here, lightened with asides like calling John Ruskin a Protestant Chateaubriand, ‘but manifestly without the Frenchman’s immense sexual prowess.’ If Ross Douthat could produce clauses like that, I might think him less of a douchebag producer of notably thin and precious gruel (did I ever tell you about the time he came my church and got up and left early with his whole family, just before a second collection; maybe he had an unrelated reason but staying an extra ninety seconds would both have made him seem less a cheap hypocrite and me less likely to taste vomit every time he gets on his pious, ultramonatist high horse).

The Paris Years Of Thomas Jefferson


Jefferson’s time in Paris was, clearly, incredibly powerful influence on all the years the followed, especially aesthetically (reminding me to sit down with Thomas Jefferson Among the Arts, a book I bought on my last trip to visit Monticello, at a wonderful look riverfront bookstore in Yorktown).

It is not a chronological history, but rather picks up several topics and explores them in the context of his Paris interlude. Topics include the arts, science and philosophy, and… women (in the last one, the author claims that the mighty Abigail Adams was a disciple of Edmund Burke, which I loved).

Early in the chapter discussing his actual work as a diplomat (which was mixed with a role as sort of trade representative for the fledging nation), his little book, Notes on Virginia, is described as being as ‘a kind of philosophical blueprint to guide him in devising a coherent foreign policy.’

While emphasizing that (even noting that, to his friends, he seemed almost foreign, when he returned), William Howard Adams also returns to Jefferson’s… standoffishness? He was, in his own way, an introvert. He enjoyed the company of small groups of intellectuals rather than the stylish salons that Benjamin Franklin famously enjoyed during his years in Paris (possibly helped by his love of the company of women, compared to rather more ‘naive, as the author says, Jefferson). He even used to retire to a monastery for a week at a time when work was pressing

I suppose that I am seeing elements of myself in him. Which is probably why, in my inflated self-regard, I keep returning to him. And perhaps why his failings hit me so powerfully. What do his powerful and important failings say about me?

Finally, Adams quoted at length from the great American political theorist, Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition:

…deep ambiguities in his thinking, which made any effort of consistency impossible. Ever since Jefferson’s death, scholars have been trying to discern order in – or impose it upon – his elusive, unsystematic thought, but without much success. It simply dos not lend itself to ordinary standards of consistency.

Jefferson On Philosophy


This is, more properly, about my having finally finished my little collection of Thomas Jefferson’s writing (with a short, mostly hagiographic biography at the very beginning). I have, of course, been chronicling those things which struck me upon reading. I have also been putting this down for many other books, including many about Jefferson himself. Despite my wrestlings, he still occupies my mind, rent-free. Something he has really done since I was a young child and my mother took to Charlottesville, Virginia and up the mountain to see Monticello. She preferred the simpler beauty of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, but the erratic intellectual cacophony of Jefferson’s home stayed with me.

So what should I say about this book? I don’t know if the selected letters, which constitute the greatest part of the book, are the best selection possible, but I enjoyed them.

I can say that Jefferson is a fine writer. He has the belle-lettres excellence of the best eighteenth century scribblers and the clarity of the his English and Scottish Enlightenment influences (Locke, Hume).

I can say that he grew a bit resentful in his old age, with the late Alexander Hamilton still receiving approbation two decades after Burr’s ball felled him.

I suppose that I can say that I will continue to read his writings and writings about him.

And, that while not a philosopher, he might have made a fine one, except that his mind wandered towards too many other things. No matter. He has done enough to be remembered, loved, reviled, and revised without a philosophical magnum opus.

I do not think that it is a coincidence that the most obviously philosophical moments are from letters written later in life, when he stepped back from the business of being a revolutionary and a politician.

That said, in 1803, while president, he writes to Dr. Benjamin Rush about a conversation that they had in 1798-1799, before the contentious presidential election of 1800 about Jesus and moral philosophy. He begins to outline the ideas that would come to truest fruition in his ‘edited’ version of the Bible, but roams, comparing Jesus to figures of classical philosophy like Socrates, Epicurus (Jefferson, in other letters, suggests that he is an Epicurean), Epictetus, Cicero, etc, to the purpose of sketching out a moral philosophy (not theology) of Jesus.

He later writes explicitly about his sense of Epicurean philosophy.

Then, towards the end of his life, he wrote to John Adams and lays out an explicitly materialist epistemology (despite bad mouthing Hume and points, the Scotsman would have been proud, though its probably closer to Locke).

But even in the last case, the original topic or, at least, the topic which most directly led to his philosophical musings are religious ones. You cannot escape the conclusion that he is a Deist (in one letter, he praises the Unitarian Church for dispensing with the whole Trinity thing), but also that he ultimately considers religion to be a philosophical topic, rather than an issue of faith.

Jefferson On Epicureanism, In A Letter To William Short, October 31, 1819


In a letter to his friend, mentor, and former professor (from his days at William & Mary College), the Scotsman and an, by virtue of his teaching of Jefferson, important evangelist of the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment in American, William Short, Thomas Jefferson sums up his interpretation of the Epicurean philosophy:

Syllabus of the doctrines of Epicurus

Physical. – The Universe eternal.
It’s parts, great and small, interchangeable.
Matter and Void alone.
Motion inherent in matter which is weighty and declining.
Eternal circulation of the elements of bodies.
Gods, an order of being next superior to man, enjoying in their sphere, their own felicities; but not meddling with the concerns of the scale of being below them.
Moral. – Happiness the aim of life.
Virtue the foundation of happiness.
Utility the test of virtue.
Pleasure active and In-do-lent.
In-do-lence is the absence of the pain, the true felicity.
Activity, consists in agreeable motion; it is not happiness, but the means to produce it.
Thus the absence of hunger is an article of felicity; eating the means to obtain it.
The summer bonum is to be not pained in body, nor troubled in mind.
i.e. In-do-lence of body, tranquility of mind.
To procure tranquility of mind we must avoid desire and fear, the two principal diseases of the mind.
Man is a free agent.
Virtue consists in 1. Prudence. 2. Temperance. 3. Fortitude. 4. Justice.
To which are opposed, 1. Folly. 2. Desire. 3. Fear. 4. Deceit.

His description of how the gods interact with humanity does not just reflect the ideas of Epicurus, as we know them, but also deism (which, I would argue, reflects the beliefs of Jefferson and Washington, at least, among the Founders; though it is not typical of the mostly staunchly protestant thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, but rather of the French Enlightenment; of course, that greatest of all figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, was almost certainly atheist).

Some Peace Made, Some Peace Not


Did you know that Thomas Jefferson responded to Benjamin Rush’s letter suggesting rapprochement betwixt him and John Adams exactly two hundred years before Baiboon was born?

Which is important, but not exactly what first struck me.

While praising his erstwhile friend turned rival, he manages to get in a totally unnecessary dig at the late Alexander Hamilton of recent musical fame.

Another incident took place on the same occasion, which will further delineate Mr. Hamilton’s political principles. The room being hung about with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of Bacon, Newton and Locke, Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them. He paused for some time: “The greatest man,” he said, “that ever lived, was Julius Caesar.”

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, January 16, 2011

Thomas Jefferson & Doctor Dolittle


While reading it to my daughter (having not realized when I began it, how mightily I would struggle to skip over and elide the racist sections; though I will give some credit for a wonderfully concise criticism of colonialism: an African king says that the last white man to come through, dug holes all over his kingdom and took all the gold and killed all the elephants and took all the ivory and then left without saying this thank you; sadly, this moment of criticism was overwhelmed by subsequent racism, often of a most crudely worded kind), I saw a passage where Dolittle consults Buffon, looking to see if a particular animal is mentioned.

Surely this was the Comte de Buffon whose theory of the decadence of American animals and men had so inflamed Jefferson and inspired some of his most interesting taxonomic efforts?

Jefferson & Ethics


In a letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the Thomas Jefferson writes:

Under temptation and difficulties, I would ask myself what would Dr. Small, Mr. Wythe, Peyton Randolph do in this situation?

Letter to thomas jefferson randolph, washington, november 24, 1808

This struck me because I thought about a description of duty-based ethics that I once read. I wish I could remember where I read this, but the idea was that the follower of duty-based ethics would, when faced with a dilemma, ask her- or himself questions like, ‘what would a courageous person do?’ or ‘what would an honest person do?’ He seems to be proposing something similar.

For those who haven’t been reading too much by and about Jefferson for the last half decade, Dr. Small was Jefferson’s professor at William and Mary, Mr. Wythe was his mentor in the practice of law, and Peyton Randolph was the first President of the Continental Congress (who, incidentally, died of ‘apoplexy’ whilst dining with Jefferson).

On Not Getting Into Arguments


If a fact be misstated, it is probable he is gratified by the belief of it, and I have no right to deprive him of the gratification. If he wants information, he will ask it, and then I will give it in measured terms; but if he still believes in his own story, and shows a desire to dispute a fact with me, I hear him and say nothing. It is his affair, not mine, if he prefers error. -Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, November 24, 1808

Jefferson’s Religion


I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. – letter to Doctor Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803

Which, of course, is to say he was not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian.