Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Thomas Jefferson --- Revolutionary, by Kevin R.C. Gutzman

Americans have made quite a cult of the Founding Fathers, the political and military leaders who led the Atlantic colonies to throw off British rule – a remarkable achievement that often is used to support the similar idea of American exceptionalism: that America is a country unlike any other, thanks in large part to the wise choices made by the equally exceptional Fathers.  
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that at least some of the Fathers were pretty amazing. George Washington, for instance, had exactly the aristocratic character that was needed to lead a new republic in the 18th century. But his ability to charm and impress his contemporaries is now entirely mysterious to us.  If he showed up in modern America he would have no hope of a political career.  It's hard to imagine what kind of role he could find in public affairs.  Aristocratic, eccentric rich guy, perhaps a shadowy investor in cutting edge tech firms?
An amazing FF that we can partially understand is Thomas Jefferson.  He gets credit for a wide selection of contributions to the American character and American institutions over more than 50 years of public life.  We appreciate and praise his constructive efforts, the importance of which is pretty obvious (freedom of religion); what we wonder is how he addressed all of those issues. 
Kevin Gutzman may not have an answer to this question, but he gives a pretty good analysis of what he considers Jefferson's key achievements.  This is not a full biography – there are good biographies and they are massive –it's a portrait.  Gutzman compares Jefferson to a pointillist painter who created a political philosophy by dealing with one issue at a time.  Gutzman himself has a pointillist approach in describing Jefferson, and it works for him.
Gutzman identifies five areas that Jefferson dealt with in the course of  his career:  Federalism (his opposition to centralized power),  Freedom of Conscience (his opposition to  established churches), Colonization (what might be better called Deportation, meaning the elimination of racial conflict by eliminating the slaves), Assimilation (of the Native population) and "Mr. Jefferson's University" (the most important piece in Jefferson's desire for public education).  Put those 5 issues together and you find yourself treading surprisingly familiar paths through a political landscape that maybe has changed less in the past 200+ years than we might first think.  I am particularly thinking of the issue of "federalism," meaning not  centralism (as it does in Canada) but quite the opposite, which Jefferson supported because he believed in the legitimacy of the separate states, with their differing institutions and "values" as people say today.
One issue that Gutzman says little about is Jefferson's relationship with his slave mistress, Sally Hemmings.  It's a tough question for an alumnus of Jefferson's own university, but I do have to wonder if she would have been deported, if colonization of slaves and ex-slaves had ever taken place.  Is this so ridiculous a question?  I think this is just one way that the contradictions of the Founding Fathers' position can be expressed.
So:  a book of reasonable length, well-written, with the power to inspire serious contemplation  about both Jefferson's time and America's present.

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