Monday, September 24, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: CONOR O'BRIEN'S THE LONG AFFAIR

REVIEW OF CONOR O'BRIEN'S THE LONG AFFAIR BY JOHN CHUCKMAN, February 25, 2005


This is, quite simply, one of the most important books ever written about Jefferson. It redresses the terrible imbalance created by American historians who think of the Founding Fathers as the Twelve Apostles re-incarnated. Critics of the book should understand that O'Brien is a world-class scholar.

When O'Brien published "The Long Affair," about Thomas Jefferson and his peculiar admiration for the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, the Sage for Archer Daniels Midland (aka George Will) went into a word-strewn fit over the book. I think Will's excesses speak to the quality of most criticism of the book.

Perhaps, the single thing about the book that most upset George was O'Brien's comparison of a statement of Jefferson's to something Pol Pot might have said. Jefferson wrote in 1793, at the height of the Terror, "...but rather than it [the French Revolution] should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is." George wrote off Jefferson's brutal statement as "epistolary extravagance," and attacked O'Brien for using slim evidence for an extreme conclusion about an American "hero."

George went so far as favorably to compare the work of Ken Burns with that of O'Brien, calling Burns "an irrigator of our capacity for political admiration," as compared to one who "panders" to "leave our national memory parched."

I mean no disparagement of Ken Burns, but he produces the television equivalent of coffee-table books. O'Brien is a scholar, the author of many serious books. The very comparison, even without the odd language, tells us something about George.

But language, too, is important. The irony is that George's own words, "irrigator of our capacity for political admiration," sound frighteningly like what we'd expect to hear from the Ministry of Culture in some ghastly place (dare I write it?) such as Pol Pot's Cambodia.

But George should have known better. This letter of Jefferson's is utterly characteristic of views he expressed many different ways. Jefferson quite blithely wrote that America's Constitution would not be adequate to defend what he called liberty, that there would have to be a new revolution every 15 or 20 years, and that the tree of liberty needed to be nourished regularly with a fresh supply of patriot blood.

Jefferson's well-known sentimental view of the merits of sturdy yeomen farmers as citizens of a republic and his intense dislike for industry and urbanization bear an uncanny resemblance to Pol Pot's beliefs. Throwing people out of cities to become honorable peasants back on the land, even those who never saw a farm, was precisely how Pol Pot managed to kill at least a million people in Cambodia.

What is it about many of those on the right relishing the deaths of others in the name of ideology? You see, much like the "chickenhawks" now running Washington, sending others off to die, Jefferson never lifted a musket during the Revolution. While serving as governor of Virginia, he set a pathetic example of supporting the war's desperate material needs. He also gave us a comic-opera episode of dropping everything and running feverishly away from approaching British troops in Virginia (there was an official inquiry over the episode). Jefferson turned down his first diplomatic appointment to Europe by the new government out of fear of being captured by British warships, a fear that influenced neither Benjamin Franklin nor John Adams.

But real heroes aren't always, or even usually, soldiers. Jefferson, despite a long and successful career and a legacy of fine words (expressing thoughts largely cribbed from European writers), cannot be credited with any significant personal sacrifice over matters of principle during his life. He wouldn't give up luxury despite his words about slavery. He never risked a serious clash with the Virginia Establishment over slave laws during his rise in state politics. And in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, he lamely and at length blamed the king of England for the slave trade, yet, when he wrote the words, it was actually in his interest to slow the trade and protect the value of his existing human holdings.

Unlike Mr. Lincoln later, who had none of his advantages of education and good social contacts, Jefferson did not do well as a lawyer. He never earned enough to pay his own way, his thirst for luxury far outstripping even the capacity of his many high government positions and large number of slaves to generate wealth. Again, unlike Mr. Lincoln, Jefferson was not especially conscientious about owing people money, and he frequently continued buying luxuries like silver buckles and fine carriages while he still owed substantial sums.

Jefferson spent most of his productive years in government service, yet he never stopped railing against the evils of government. There's more than a passing resemblance here to the empty slogans of government-service lifers like Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich who enjoy their government pensions and benefits even as they still complain about government. Jefferson's most famous quote praises the least possible government, yet, as President, he brought a virtual reign of terror to New England with his attempts to enforce an embargo against England (the "Anglomen" as this very prejudiced man typically called the English).

Jefferson, besides having some truly ridiculous beliefs, like those about the evils of central banks or the health efficacy of soaking your feet in ice water every morning, definitely had a very dark side. Any of his political opponents would readily have testified to this. Jefferson was the American Machiavelli.

It was this side of him that put Philip Freneau on the federal payroll in order to subsidize the man's libelous newspaper attacks on Washington's government - this while Jefferson served in that very government. At another point, Jefferson hired James Callender to dig up and write filth about political opponents, an effort which backfired when Callender turned on Jefferson for not fulfilling promises. Callender famously dug out and publicized the story about Sally Hemings, Jefferson's slave-mistress, his late wife's illegitimate half-sister (slavery made for some amazing family relationships), a story we now know almost certainly to be true (by the way, dates point to Sally's beginning to serve Jefferson in this capacity at 13 or 14 years old). It was this dark side of Jefferson that resulted in a ruthless, years-long vendetta against Aaron Burr for the sin of appearing to challenge Jefferson's election to the presidency.

Jefferson expressed himself in embarrassingly clear terms about his belief in black inferiority. And it is important to note that in doing so, he violated one of his basic principles of remaining skeptical and not accepting what was not proved, so this, clearly, was something he believed deeply. There is also reliable evidence that on one occasion he was observed by a visitor beating a slave, quite contradicting Jefferson's public-relations pretensions to saintly paternalism.

When Napoleon sent an army attempting to subdue the slaves who had revolted and formed a republic on what is now Haiti, President Jefferson gave his full consent and support to the bloody (and unsuccessful) effort.

Hero? I have no idea how George Will defines the word, but by any meaningful standard, Jefferson utterly fails.

Read the book, and decide for yourself.

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