the imaginative conservative logo

Woodrow Wilson and Thomas JeffersonThe crybullies currently raging through American campuses collecting scalps (oops! microaggression) have set their sights on dead villains as well as live ones. The motivation is the same, of course, to harness the resentment they have learned in school as a tool of self-aggrandizement in power, influence, and cheap pride. This will not end well for America, or for most of the crybullies. Those unable to land jobs as community organizers or teachers will walk out of college with increasingly useless college credentials and further education in the politics of resentment—hardly useful anywhere His Petulancy (our current president and Social Justice Warrior-in-Chief) has not brought utterly under the heel of the federal government. In the meantime, however, it has made for interesting viewing for those of us interested in how civilizations fall and how history is rewritten through the will to ignorance.

Some see in these campaigns of vilification a cry for “safe spaces.” I am convinced we actually have the same old ideological campaign, begun by the French revolutionary Jacobins to consign our entire tradition to oblivion as a means of freeing the crybullies themselves from all constraints. Not just free speech but due process and the rule of law in general, along with traditional institutions and the merit system on which our prosperity and sense of justice rest are to be dismissed as products of oppression. The result will be a mad, merciless grab for power throughout a delegitimized society.

Two dead white males under particularly strong attack have been Woodrow Wilson (now in danger of being erased from much of the university he once led) and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Conservatives have shed few tears over Wilson, whose racism was part of a broader but consistently dehumanizing Progressive vision. Several commentators on the right have expressed the frustration that Wilson’s overall legacy of coercive government and monarchical administration has not been recognized as the root of his warped vision and conduct. None I know of has seen fit to defend him.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson statue at William and Mary

It is too early to tell what will be left of Jefferson once Mr. Obama’s much-pined-for reprise of 1960s radicalism (without the free love, of course) has spent itself. Calls for removal of Jefferson’s statue from the campus at William and Mary probably are just the beginning of his reputational downgrading. But it seems unlikely that Jefferson will join those, like Andrew Jackson, who have been reduced to villain status by his ideological children. On a recent trip to Monticello with my family I was treated to a docent’s speech about the tragedy of Jefferson’s failure to read the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal” to mean what the docent thinks it means, or should mean. The docent also acknowledged, with teary-eyed regret, Jefferson’s siring of children with a slave mistress. My family passed on the slavery tour but it was clear that the Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello, is striving mightily to save their rather massive tourist attraction from bad publicity through the addition of a few ashes and a bit of sackcloth, without stripping Jefferson bare of his ideological and intellectual finery.

Far be it from me to attempt to save these scions of the Democratic Party from the cannibalistic hunger of their own misbegotten children. Jackson acted well beyond his constitutional authority in transporting the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears and set a pattern of presidential overreach through his exercise of the veto power that Wilson found highly useful in his own grandiose agenda-setting, draconian “anti-espionage” efforts, and in laying the groundwork for the administrative state. As to Jefferson, while I understand some conservatives’ fondness for his agrarian mindset and opposition to federal power, he hardly can be considered a model of constitutional probity (Louisiana Purchase, anyone?). And his support for the murderous French Revolution, long past the time when the facts of its radical nature were clear, is a stain on his honor that cannot be removed. Moreover, Jefferson was genuinely a rather bad fellow, a hypocrite of the first order who squandered his fortune on dilettantish pursuits, leaving his slaves (with the rather limited exceptions of his slave mistress and his illegitimate children) to be literally sold down the river after his death to pay his debts.

And yet I write in defense of the memory of these men. Why? Because they were in fact important leaders in American politics. Campus radicals provide little in the way of reasoned arguments as to why Wilson, Jefferson, or Jackson should be vilified; they simply hold up a standard of personal virtue so absolute and anti-contextual as to damn everyone who came before them, and then apply it without pity to prominent figures from the past. Beyond the self-righteous posing is little thought save that of their teachers, who for decades now have sought to portray our history as evil in order to empower those who wish to rule without the limits of American traditions, laws, and Constitution. Were the issue one of truth we would be having a reasoned debate over which facts of Jefferson’s life to emphasize and how much. But today’s outbursts are not about adding facts to the stories of America’s past. They are about wiping away the inconvenient narrative of America’s constitutional founding within a tradition of ordered liberty. They are not about knowing more about our history, but about increasing resentment against its inevitable failings so as to justify dismissing it and marching off into a future ruled by the emotions and will of the loudest and most self-righteous among us.

Even Wilson, who spent the bulk of his career undermining the American tradition of ordered liberty and subverting our constitutional system of separated powers, checks and balances, and above all limited government, must, for our own sake, be defended against the attempt to erase our past. A proper reappraisal of Wilson would leave relatively little to admire. But he must be reappraised in light of the tradition in which he worked, and which he sought to transform. As to Jefferson and Jackson, despite their flaws, each understood that he had duties and a tradition to uphold that limited his right to act.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

For too long, now, American academics and public intellectuals have been pretending to teach difficult truths when in fact they have been simply using stories about our past to stoke resentments and build within us a will to ignorance. The more we see our past as the source of pain rather than inspiration, of the contemptible rather than the exemplary, the more we will seek to put it behind us, along with its legacies of constitutional order and personal virtue. Wilson, Jackson, and Jefferson all bear some of the blame for today’s Jacobins (my apologies for Claes Ryn for appropriating his term). But we cannot let them—not even Wilson—be simply dismissed as statesmen on account of their personal failings, for that way lies chaos.

I am no fan of civil religion. Confusing necessarily flawed political leaders and programs with the things of God empowers the state at the expense of the souls of the people. But a decent respect for one’s forebears, the sense of gratitude that alone makes peace possible, and the sense of duty to further one’s traditions, rather than simply throw them on the bonfire of one’s vanities, requires that we seek in those who shaped our way of life those virtues and accomplishments from which we can learn, and to re-examine our own conduct and values in light of the examples bequeathed to us.

For too long we have allowed fixation on the injustices of the past to poison our public life, a stimulant to the worst aspects of our natures. It has been used to justify assaults on constitutional procedures and due process to “get” the institution or person currently deemed evil. It has spawned radicalism rooted in hatred of who we are, rather than that virtuous determination to correct abuses within the tradition we have been given that makes for better lives within a civil society of ordered liberty.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
5 replies to this post
  1. Why does anyone on this website accept the assumption of a Jefferson=Hemings liaison?. Even some historians who are not partial to Jefferson have looked at the evidence and denied the probability. The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society many years ago demolished it in The Jefferson-Hemings Myth..

  2. I would like to know why Mr. Frohnen has so thoroughly disagreed with “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, Report of the Scholars Commission” edited by Robert F. Turner? They voted against Jefferson’s paternity except for one dissent? They also demonstrated that Gordon-Reed falsified evidence in a very important letter. That Report, first released as a summary article around 2001, became a complete book in 2011.

  3. Mea culpa, gentlemen. I should have noted that there is continuing controversy on the subject of Jefferson and Hemings. That said, my main concern in this piece was to point out that the existence of a long term relationship between the two (I think “concubinage” would be the appropriate term) would not justify the current, highly convenient, outrage. The crybullies fasten upon anything they can to de-legitimize great figures from the past because they want to de-legitimize the past. The goal is not “mere” truth, but justification for a radical, self-interested restructuring of American society. The selective memory and selective use of absolute, a-historical standards of judgment are intentional, intended to take from us our tradition, which certainly is not perfect (what human creation can be?) but which has bequeathed to us a way of life that is quite literally too good for the crybullies.

    • I understood your article to be what you have stated. I took most of your article that way and very much agree. But calling Jefferson “genuinely a rather bad fellow” and “a hypocrite of the first order” are terms even Abigail Adams would not countenance about him. And her husband would batter you about for them.
      Thank you for your reply. I appreciate your writings and look forward to reading them as they come along.

  4. As far as I know, the evidence flies in the face of a “concubinage.” If some has been uncovered proving otherwise, I would appreciate its being put forth. This reminds me of an Alexander Hamilton biographer who went with a later birth date for him. Admitting that she chose it because she liked seeing him as a boy wonder, or something of the sort. The motives in this particular attack on Jefferson probably are many and fascinating, and are the real story worth exploring here.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: