the imaginative conservative logo

Thomas Jefferson

A Review of The Sage of Monticello, by Dumas Malone, Volume Six of Jefferson and His Time

In 1809 Thomas Jefferson yielded up the Presidency and crossed into Virginia. In the 17 active years remaining to him he never left there. The first volume of Malone’s masterpiece, published in 1948, was Jefferson the Virginian. The sixth and last is The Sage of Monticello. Jefferson begins and ends with Virginia. Keep this fact in mind. It will save us from many errors and lead us as near to the truth as we can get in regard to this sometimes enigmatic Founding Father.

No great American, not even Lincoln, has been put to so many contradictory uses by later generations of enemies and apologists, and therefore none has undergone so much distortion. In fact, most of what has been asserted about Jefferson in the last hundred years—and even more of what has been implied or assumed about him—is so lacking in context and proportion as to be essentially false. What we commonly see is not Jefferson. It is a strange amalgam or composite in which the misconceptions of each succeeding generation have been combined and recombined until the original is no longer discernible.

Presuming we wish to know Jefferson rather than simply to manipulate his image for our own purposes, Malone is indispensable. Jefferson and His Time is a conspicuous example of an increasingly rare phenomenon, genuine scholarship. I mean that term as a compliment—to denote a work that avoids the extremes of pedantry and superficiality, that is exhaustive, thorough, honest, balanced, felicitous, reasonable and executed on a noble scale.

From Malone, and especially from the latest volume, we can, if we wish, begin to discern the real Jefferson. And that Jefferson is, in the broad outline of American history, identifiable in no other way than as a conservative. The real Jefferson is most visible in his last years. I do not mean by this that Jefferson was one of those proverbial persons who was liberal in youth and conservative in old age. There is no conflict between the young Jefferson and the old Jefferson except in the perceptions of image-manipulators. Jefferson was of a piece, his main themes were constant. But I do mean that the conservative Jefferson emerged most clearly in the last years, when he was not in office, when he was not bound by the necessary compromises of leading a party or speaking in the voice of community consensus rather than his own voice, when he was down home in his natural environment.

How did we get so far afield that it has taken half the lifetime of a great historian to recover the wherewithal of a proper understanding of Jefferson? First, New Englanders, embittered by the half-century setback which Jefferson and his friends administered after 1800 to their political style and goals, painted him as an effete snob, a visionary, a kind of squeamish Jacobin. If the New England Federalists and their descendants lacked political power, they made up for it in cultural power. Their loss at the polls was turned into a victory in the sophisticated battleground of historical writing. The understanding of Jefferson and his accomplishments that was handed down to posterity was created by Henry Adams. Adams, with brilliance, painstaking care and a cunningly contrived pseudo-objectivity, structured a perception of Jefferson and his times from which American historians—until Malone—had never really escaped. Jefferson, even when viewed sympathetically, was judged by New England standards. This meant that the essential outlines of his Virginian frame of reference were obliterated. Thus the mainsprings of his belief and action could not be detected accurately.

Jefferson’s admirers have done him little better. It seemed that the Civil War and Federalist historians had repudiated and buried Jefferson forever. Then along came Vernon L. Parrington, the son of an English socialist (but raised in Kansas), who rediscovered Jefferson the agrarian liberal. But unfortunately what Parrington discovered was an imaginary combination of French philosophe and midwestern populist, not the planter of Albemarle County. Parrington, Claude Bowers and a host of other worthies soon turned Jefferson into the patron saint of Wilsonism, the New Deal and what currently passes for liberalism.

Thus, by a strange piling-up of ironies, the intellectual descendants of Jefferson’s opponents converted him into one of them, a kind of urban, liberal, puritan dogmatist of egalitarianism. More recently, some of them, like Fawn Brodie, have discovered that the evidence does not fit this image, that Jefferson never was a certifiable modern liberal. They should have admitted that they had been wrong all along. Instead they chose to brand Jefferson as an aberration and a hypocrite for not being one of them, that is for not being what he never was and never wanted to be. Jefferson was an American republican, not a European social democrat. Jefferson was agrarian, not urban and industrial. Jefferson was a gentleman, which the class of admirers I am talking about here certainly is not.

All of these distorted notions of Jefferson have been possible only because of a lack of context, plausible because they have extrapolated one small portion of Jefferson and built an image on that foundation. This has been most conspicuous in the peculiar, dogmatic, ahistorical rendering of one phrase of the Declaration of Independence as a piece of egalitarian revelation. Indeed, without this one distortion of Jefferson (and of American history) the contemporary American left could hardly be seen to have any legitimate tradition at all. (Even more peculiarly, the same dogma is embraced as a main tenet by one school of “conservative” political scientists.)

There is one other important reason for misreading Jefferson that must be taken into account. Jefferson can be misunderstood in the same way that any great writer is subject to conflicting interpretations. And Jefferson is important as a writer, a thinker and a stylist. If he had never held public office, the immense body of his private correspondence would still be one of the most important American cultural legacies of his period. In his correspondence he was imaginative, playful, speculative. He adapted himself somewhat to the person he was addressing. He liked to turn ideas around and examine them from all angles. Except in his most narrowly political activities he wrote as a philosopher, not as a tactician. Further, he was intellectually polite and magnanimous. Dogmatists found that Jefferson did not contradict them in person. When they later discovered that he disagreed, they called him a hypocrite. He was not; he was simply a polite listener, a gentleman. Thus Jefferson can be quoted against Jefferson. In order to see clearly the real Jefferson we have to know the context, we have to know the whole corpus of work, we have to know which were the constant themes and which the occasional ones. This Malone has made possible.

Who, then, was the real Jefferson? What were these constant themes? They are clear. None offer comfort to the contemporary left. First of all, Jefferson stood for freedom and enlightenment. That he is our best symbol for these virtuous goals is Malone’s central theme. That does not mean, however, that his thought can be twisted to support something that very different men with very different goals postulate to be freedom and enlightenment. His concepts of freedom and enlightenment were always rooted in the given nature and the necessities of his Virginia community and always balanced harmoniously against competing claims. Read Jefferson on the need for every citizen to be a soldier, on the prudential limits that should have been observed in the French Revolution, on the inappropriateness of liberty for a people unprepared for it; read of Jefferson’s approval of Governor Patrick Henry’s summary execution of a Tory marauder.

Jefferson favored the liberty of the individual and the community, and he had in mind certain reforms that he felt would enhance them. However, Jefferson was nothing if not the enemy of programmatic, government-imposed reforms. His whole career proved this. But read his reaction to the nationalistic program of our first “progressive” President, John Quincy Adams:

When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we have separated.

Jefferson is on record as fearing the harmful effects of slavery on the community. But he feared far more the harmful effects of political antislavery. Read him on the Missouri controversy and you will correct a thousand misrepresentations. Jefferson, it is true, wanted America to be an example to all mankind of successful free government. But when he said example that is just what he meant, example. He gives no comfort to those who want to impose democracy on others, but much comfort to those who want to defend American democracy from any and all enemies. Jefferson, it is true, mistrusted the clergy. In this respect he was typical of his generation. But Jefferson the citizen, as opposed to Jefferson the philosopher, lived within the church. Religion and piety troubled him not at all. What he feared was the sanctimonious, intermeddling, politicized Calvinist clergy—that is, what we would today call “liberal” churchmen.

Jefferson was the advocate of a free economy, but he was not doctrinaire about it. Like all his values, his belief in the free market was balanced against other claims. He believed in economic freedom within a stable society. Malone’s chapter, “The Political Economy of a Country Gentleman,” by simple adherence to the facts, corrects four generations of distortion. When viewed “in retrospect,” he writes, Jefferson’s “reaction to the economic problems of his day can better be described as conservative.

Jefferson championed public education, but it was not public education on the leveling Prussian-New England model that later became the American standard. The traditional classical curriculum was to be supplemented by more modern and practical subjects, but not jettisoned to make room for them. It was to be an education competitive, elitist, based on a belief in a natural aristocracy of talents and virtues. The rich would always take care of themselves. The purpose of public education was to make sure that the talented ones who appeared among the poor would not be lost. That is the exact opposite of what modern American public education aims at, for its goal is to reduce the educational level to the lowest common denominator—which, in effect, guarantees that the poor but promising youth does not learn enough to rise above his station or to compete with the privileged. “The natural aristocracy,” wrote Jefferson, “I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts and government of society. . . . May we not even say that the government is best which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?”

Dumas Malone has completed a great work—a work that is, like its subject, truthful, harmonious, balanced, fair, decorous, gentlemanly. What a rare thing for an American book in the 20th century, a book by a gentleman about a gentleman.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

This essay is an excerpt from From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition by Clyde N. Wilson which is highly recommended by The Imaginative Conservative.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
13 replies to this post
  1. splendid book review of Malone's classic work. I admire Jefferson LESS than I did as a young man (today I find Lincoln and TR more interesting)but hr still remains one of the most interesting American presidents to study. However, I have discovered curious, even strange things about Mr. Jefferson. For one, he read almost no fiction whatsoever. To some extent I understand this because aside from song and poetry which I love greatly I read more history and non-fiction than fiction. But I like good fiction -especially the classics-. Also I realize that Jefferson was a hypocrite on race, slavery and economics. He was, economically, a disaster. In a way he was a precursor to Mr. Obama except for the fact the was NOT a spendthrift as a public official only as a private individual. Today I think Mr. Jefferson would be a public intellectual living off a government pension. I also think much of our absolutism vis-à-vis the division of "Church and State" has it origins in Jefferson. I also believe that Jefferson was not as religiously tolerant as Washington or James Monroe. Jefferson displayed a deep distrust and hostility towards Catholicism in some of his writings that is, frankly, disturbing. For example, Washington attended Catholic Masses and Jewish services as Commander in Chief but it does not seem Jefferson was so inclined. Mr and Mrs. James Monroe had many Catholic friends and acquaintances -including priests like Father Dubois who lived with them in Richmond and at Highlands-and they allowed their daughter Eliza to be educated in a Catholic school and choose Catholicism as her faith (she had been raised an Episcopalian). Monroe allowed Eliza and his nephews James (Col Jimmy as he became known) and Andrew to hear Mass in his house. Both men were adult converts to Catholicism (after attending West Point and the Naval Academy respectively). Andrew went so far as to become a Catholic priest. But he was not the first religious in the family. His aunt Eliza, the daughter of the president, after she was widowed , joined a convent and died in Italy. As far as I know she is the only daughter of an American president to become a nun. Jefferson by contrast pulled his daughter from Catholic school because he feared she would convert to Catholicism or -God forbid- become a nun. Jefferson is a very contradictory individual. As time goes by I see that his contemporaries, Adams and Hamilton were worthy rivals of Jefferson. And I would definitely rank Washington as a man, as businessman and as a president much higher than Jefferson though I would rank Jefferson number two of the Virginia dynasty. But there is no question that Dumas Malone's biography is a masterpiece of literature and scholarship. I believe Malone is mistaken about Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings and I believe he portrays Jefferson as more tolerant and enlightened than he really was. And the sad truth is that if Jefferson had REALLY been a good and noble person he would have not sired (as he probably did) so many slaves and he certainly would have freed his slaves. But then he would never have become president and would never have had Monticello. Jefferson was too vain and ambitious to be a really great American

  2. Winston, thanks for posting this. One of my two advisors at IU, Bernard Sheehan, was a Ph.D student under Merrill Peterson, and he spoke very fondly of "The Sage." And, my ownership of the six volumes is a prized possession. I'm currently reading Gilbert Chinard's 1929 Thomas Jefferson, which is quite good and places Jefferson squarely in the English tradition of common law.

  3. And oh, alas, Jefferson approved of the French Revolution and did not approve of the Bible, at least until he edited it to a series of secular moralisms. I think we all would have liked to dine with Jefferson, but I hope it does not take a Yankee mentality to see that his republic, with all its contradictions, took us directly to Franklin Roosevelt.

  4. This post immediately grabbed my attention. As a student, I have long been confused as to the true moral and political compass of Mr. Jefferson. However, as much as I see the gentlemen and a scholar who supported free-markets and limited government described in this post, I am not yet convinced that Jefferson was a conservative. And to the comfort of Mr. Wilson, I say this from the perspective of a Southern conservative. I struggle to admire one who praises the bloodshed of French democrats and one who denies our divinely inspired Western Heritage. If these are not merely liberal quirks in the youthful and inexperienced Jefferson, as the author suggests (and to my dismay), then what are they? That said, I am nevertheless intruiged by the character of Mr. Jefferson, however historically distorted it might be. I suppose I will have to read this book before I make a final judgement.

  5. Mr. Groves, read also Forrest McDonald's The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, but even more importantly, read his correspondence with John Adams. You will find, I think, that it is hard to make a "final judgment." As dinner companions, I think I would have liked Jefferson, and Lincoln, and JFK. As Presidents, I narrow it down to Washington and Calvin Coolidge.

  6. I am not totally unsympathetic to David Barton however I don't think he is considered entirely credible and reliable. Dumas Malone is, within reason, though I think scholars have used Malone's research to show how very likely Mr. Thomas Jefferson sired most if not all of her children. 1) she was never pregant when Jefferson had not been there 9 months previously 2) all of her children were "wellnigh" White and most passed into White society 3) DNA evidence helps support this argument 4) she was his wife's younger half sister and was a part of the Jefferson inner circle and last but not least she is supposed to have been very beautiful and sexy. 5) she could have remained in France as a freewoman but Jefferson (apparently) was the reason she returned to the USA 6) Jefferson never married after the death of his first wife. Most would agree he was not celebate. He appeared to have had numerous love affairs some with married women. He had the time, the place and the means to keep Sally Hemmings as his private "squeeze." Did they love each other? Perhaps. We will never know. But there is no question Jefferson treated the Hemmings family in a very special way. Was this MERELY because they were his WIFE'S BLOOD RELATIVES or his too? We will never know for sure. As far as Jefferson's Christianity goes it is documented he didn't believe in the trinity, in any biblical miracles and essentially had a negative opinion of Roman Catholicism.

    • Please see “In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal” by William G. Hyland Jr. He completely refutes the arguments that Jefferson had an affair with Hemings. Forrest McDonald states that Hyland’s “approach to the alleged Jefferson-Heming relationship is ingenious and he has made an irrefutable case.”

  7. I am confident this statement from the historian David Mayer (author of The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson) well addresses this issue:

    Today many people – sadly, many historians and other scholars who should know better – believe that Jefferson was the father of one or more of the children of his slave Sally Hemings. Some of the newer Jefferson biographies assert a “consensus” among historians or Jefferson scholars in support of this paternity thesis, but there is no such consensus. Indeed, serious scholars who have objectively examined the claim, assessing all relevant evidence, have concluded that there is no credible evidence supporting it. Some Jefferson scholars (including myself) have concluded that the Hemings paternity claim is simply a myth – an allegation that is just as untrue today as it was when it was first claimed (by one of Jefferson’s political enemies) two centuries ago.

    Over a decade ago, I was privileged to be part of a distinguished group, the Scholars Commission, assembled by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Foundation to investigate the question whether Jefferson fathered one or more children by his slave Sally Hemings. We were an eclectic group of over a dozen senior scholars from a variety of fields – not just history and law but also political science, literature, and biology – who were commissioned to investigate the matter and given a free hand to follow the truth (and the evidence) wherever it may lead. It’s important to note that we were not all admirers of Jefferson; indeed, one member of the Scholars Commission – Professor Forrest McDonald, a distinguished historian at the University of Alabama – is a scholar of Alexander Hamilton who has been sharply critical of Jefferson in many of his writings. (That makes even more meaningful Professor McDonald’s brief separate report, noted below.) What we did have in common was a commitment to the truth – and to objective standards of historical scholarship. Moreover, we were all senior scholars (most of us being tenured full professors, with the academic freedom that status gives us), so we would not feel pressured by considerations of “political correctness” or other political concerns that would jeopardize our objectivity.

    After nearly a full year of correspondence culminating in a conference in the Washington, D.C. area in the spring of 2001, we issued on April 12, 2001 (the day before Jefferson’s birthday) our report concluding that the paternity claim was not supported by reliable evidence.

    As summarized by the commission’s chairman, Professor Robert F. Turner of the University of Virginia, in an op-ed published shortly after the report’s release: “With but a single mild dissent, the scholars’ conclusions ranged from `strong skepticism’ about the allegation to a conviction that the charge was ‘almost certainly false.’ They demonstrated that most of the `evidence’ cited to establish the relationship was either factually false . . . or was explained on other grounds” (“The Truth About Jefferson,” Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2001).

    (continued in next comment)

  8. (continuation of previous comment)

    Several members of the commission wrote their own separate, individual reports. Professor Forrest McDonald, a Jefferson critic (as noted above), wrote in his brief report concurring with the commission’s general conclusions that, as a self-described “Hamiltonian Federalist,” he had been “long disposed to believe the worst about Thomas Jefferson.” But having studied the subject as thoroughly as he could, he had “entirely abandoned [his] earlier assumption” and concluded “Thomas Jefferson was simply not guilty of the charge.” The late Lance Banning, a historian at the University of Kentucky and a distinguished Madison scholar, in his individual report, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Case Closed?” concluded that the case for Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’ children was “not proven” and relied upon a “lengthy list of radical implausibilities.” The individual report of Thomas Traut, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents a thorough dissection of the DNA analysis (which has been widely misreported by the news media). As Professor Traut reports, the DNA test shows only that “one current descendant of Eston Hemings [Sally’s youngest child] had the Jefferson DNA haplotype,” which strongly supports that Eston Hemings “also had the Jefferson Y DNA haplotype” and was likely fathered by a male Jefferson (that is, a male descendent of Jefferson’s ancestor Field Jefferson). Besides Thomas Jefferson, the father could have been his brother, Randolph Jefferson, or one of Randolph’s four sons, “other Jefferson males in the Field Jefferson family, or even male slaves sired by ancestors of Thomas Jefferson.” Other members of the Scholars Commission concluded that the historical evidence points to Randolph Jefferson as the most likely father of Eston Hemings. Paul Rahe, a historian at Hillsdale College, who wrote the sole dissenting report, concluded that the circumstantial evidence indeed does point to Jefferson as father of Sally Hemings’ children but conceded that “we still cannot be certain” as to the truth.

  9. Thomas Jefferson has never been viewed accurately as a conservative. The southern confederates denigrated him as a dangerous liberal for the simple act of writing the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson also was the founder of the first no-cost public university, a view conservatives today say is something else that doesn't jibe with the US Constitution, and would never endorse.

  10. Wouldn't Jefferson be considered conservative in his affirmation of individual "liberty of conscience" and his views of limited government and warning about foreign entanglements?

    One that is a Catholic would not consider "liberty of conscience" a conservative value, because conservatism accepts Tradition's authority via the Pope and Church Fathers. The review pointed out that Jefferson had no affinity with Catholicism nor did he have an affinity for scripture in the way that the Calvinist did. Jefferson's authority was his reason via his education. Religious authority held little power over him. He was a Free Thinker. So, he was not a religious conservative.

    But, he did promote individual liberty, limited government and supported property rights, which are core conservative political values. He was so concerned over the independence of the Judicary that he moved the Legislative Branch from the same building (if I remember correctly). In this sense, he was an originalist toward the Constituton's guidelines for protecting government. Even though he supported the American Revolution, he supported or defended the right to rebel on "God" via a natural rights argument. Government was not to be the authority to control people, but guarunteed liberty. He was a defender of "civil rights" in this sense. But, "civil" meant within the bounds of our nation state.

    Perhaps, I am not fully informed to make a judgment, but there are some arguments to be made that he was a conservative, but not in the religious/modern sense. He appealed to the Classics which are conservative, as to "tradition".

  11. According to Joseph Ellis (American Sphinx) and Ron Chernow (Washington: A Life), Thomas Jefferson was not truthful. He funded very harsh journalistic criticism of President Washington, and lied to him about it for years.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: