Thomas Jefferson, the American Revolution, and the Creation of a Republican World

Postwar Politics (>1783)

September 13, 2017
by Zachary Brown Also by this Author


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In popular understandings of the three Atlantic Revolutions of late eighteenth century, the American Revolution (1765-1783) is often regarded as the least radical and transformative. If the American Revolution was, as Carl Becker put it in 1909, just as much about “who should rule at home,” as it was “home rule,” observers were quick to note that it was not until the 1820s that the people involved in colonial governance lost their stranglehold, a development which horrified the colonial elites who had orchestrated the Revolution.[1] While arguably true in practice, the theory of the American Revolution was, in fact, uniquely ambitious and sophisticated. Many of the American revolutionaries saw their project in global and historical terms from the very beginning. They called not just for separation from the British Empire and the creation of a republican government but also the far more transformative re-ordering of society along republican lines that would provide a model for the rest of the world.

No one was more invested in this conception of the American project than Thomas Jefferson. Particularly as time progressed, Jefferson understood the Revolution as primarily a social project, the logical culmination of the Enlightenment, that had more to do with a refashioning of society along new republican axes and axioms – for example, facilitating the transfer of cultural and intellectual power to the new world – than enshrining political rights and republican government. Furthermore, Jefferson’s contributions to the Revolution, while often caricatured as advocating for locally and agrarian oriented democratic populism, were, in fact, often directed by his international ambitions for American republicanism and a belief in an enlightened natural aristocracy, that is to say people like him, as its proper leaders. Critics have often rebuked this understanding of the Revolution, and Jefferson’s contributions to the project, as quixotic and contradictory, or, alternatively, charged him with only advocating for change that was more apparent than real. Nevertheless, he believed that his contributions to the Revolution, education and agrarian reform in particular, were the essential components needed to create the virtuous and economically independent citizenry, and as a result the proper mores, morals and social hierarchy, required for a lasting republic to flourish. Regardless of the criticisms leveled against him, Jefferson, by melding classical republican theory, historical conceptions of British liberty, and Enlightenment principles, created a uniquely American conception of an ideal republican society that remained influential well into the nineteenth century.

Jefferson’s understanding of the American Revolution as a project for social reformation, which was of global importance, had foundations even in his earliest contributions. In his 1774 pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British North America, initially written as a proposed message to King George III for the First Continental Congress, Jefferson contextualized the ongoing transatlantic debate over the British constitution in a far more ancient discourse about the basis of social and economic organization. Much of his argument appealed to the British constitution and natural law; however, much more importantly, he portrayed the very essence of American society as fundamentally distinct from Britain or anywhere else in Europe. As he explained in detail, unlike Britain, “America was not conquered by William the Norman, nor its lands surrendered to him, or any of his successors [thus feudal law was never established]. Possessions there are undoubtedly of the allodial nature. Our ancestors … who migrated hither, were farmers, not lawyers.”[2]

While Jefferson’s distinction between Saxon and Norman landholdings, and lawyer and farmer, may seem to be superficially arcane and technical points, it is revealing that he afforded such great emphasis to fundamental dissimilarities between the societies of the colonies and the metropole. The Americans are associated with the free Saxons, and the British, with the oppressive Normans, who, in Jefferson’s view, had profoundly corrupted the purity of Anglo-Saxon law. The distinctions Jefferson made were distinctly British, but this dichotomy provides a clear precursor to the emphasis Jefferson would later place on knowledge and enlightenment as essential parts of the Revolution.

Furthermore, as typified much of his later thought on the purpose of the Revolution, A Summary View implicitly argued that the future success of the American project, which Jefferson imagined would define the progression towards enlightened modernity, paradoxically required a return to the simple purity of the past. Regardless, while Jefferson claimed, “it is neither our wish, nor our interest, to separate,” A Summary View suggested that even at this very early stage of the Revolution he conceived of the American project as fundamentally and irrevocably distinct from that of the mother country.[3] It is thus unsurprising that once the Revolution transformed from a debate over the British constitution to an opportunity to fashion new republics, Jefferson immediately sought to cleanse society of its metropolitan “corruptions” in favor of creating a new and enlightened world that would provide a novel model for the construction of free societies everywhere.

Jefferson’s finished Declaration of Independence (1776), and the republic building that followed, reveals that independence was the crucial turning point in his thinking about the purpose of the burgeoning Revolution. He cast off any remaining pretensions of being a part of a uniquely British debate, one which he had albeit reluctantly upheld in the Summary View, and put the new American project in distinctly global and broad historical terms. Jefferson placed the Declaration’s sweeping discussion of the natural rights of all men and the purpose of all government as a product not of the Magna Charta (1215) or the ancient British constitution, but of the “course of human events,” and submitted the facts of British tyranny not to the people of the metropole, but to a “candid world.”[4] While his appeal to the world and history had an obvious practical purpose, to declare independence and attract potential allies in the struggle against Britain, it represented a substantial change in the scale and scope of American ambitions and self-importance, which Jefferson took to heart while drafting laws for the newly declared Commonwealth of Virginia.

Once the American colonies abandoned the confines of the British Empire, Jefferson saw the Revolution as a globally important opportunity to completely refashion American society by throwing off the ancient and irrational shackles of British law and customs, and in its place, positioning the new republics as the natural leaders of a worldwide and irresistible trend towards enlightenment. Jefferson’s A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, presented to the Virginian House of Delegates in 1778, captures the centrality of enlightenment and America’s potential global importance in shaping his understanding of the Revolution. The bill laid out a sophisticated and multi-tiered educational plan that emphasized a curriculum clearly influenced by the Enlightenment, calling for education in math, ancient, American, and European history, and Latin and Greek language.

As he described in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson believed that such an education would create ideal republicans by “provid[ing] [Virginians] an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness,” as the people would become the “safe depositories” of free government “without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.”[5] Consequently, he saw the education of the populace as so fundamental to the purpose of the Revolution that in his 1786 letter to George Wythe he called his education law “the most important bill in our whole code.” Furthermore, he claimed that it made America so distinctly free and enlightened in comparison to the rest of the world, particularly England and France, that “a thousand years would not place them on the high ground on which our common people are now setting out.”[6]

Even by 1810, Jefferson maintained and expanded upon the this view telling John Tyler that education was one of the “great measures” at the heart of any republic and that the administrative districts created by his plan would result in “little republics [which] would be the main strength of the great one.”[7] Clearly, Jefferson thought an educated populace to be essential to any republic and, even more importantly, that it was what made the new-founded United States distinctly more free, progressive, and enlightened than any other nation on earth both present and past.

Consequently, by Jefferson’s logic it was only natural the United States and its leaders, like Jefferson himself, would become the leaders of an increasingly rational and cooperative world once other nations followed their example. This interpretation of Jefferson’s intentions for the American Revolution helps to explain many of his opinions regarding foreign policy, for example, the promotion of American support for the French Revolution even when it descended into anarchy and violence. In Jefferson’s mind, if the French Republic succeeded, especially with the help of American patronage, it would be a powerful vindication of his belief that the American Revolution was the first step in inaugurating the rise of the United States as a global intellectual and political leader and its new republican society as a successful model for the rest of the world to emulate.

Jefferson believed that the cultivation of the ideal republican mind and social order could only fully succeed if the land was properly cultivated as well. Consequently, tightly connected to Jefferson’s education plans were his agrarian reforms, meant to ensure that citizens remained virtuous and economically independent. While, as his August 13, 1776 letter to Edmund Pendleton suggests, his calls for land reform had roots in the very British distinction between Saxon and Norman landholdings that he made in A Summary View, they took on new life with independence that had far more to do with creating a new republican society than restoring ancient British freedoms. For example, his well-known advocacy for the abolition of primogeniture and entail primarily sought to address a much broader problem than purifying or dismantling British legal infrastructure. Instead, it also sought to remove what Jefferson believed to be a critical force for unnatural despotism and ignorance. As he put it in his autobiography, “the abolition of primogeniture, and equal partition of inheritances removed the feudal and unnatural distinctions which made one member of every family rich, and all the rest poor, substituting equal partition, the best of all the Agrarian laws.”[8] Once again, Jefferson made a point of arguing that this reform was not only a necessity for creating a new society independent of Britain, but also something that made the United States far closer to the ideals of the Enlightenment and republicanism than European states and people. Echoing the French philosophe Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755),[9] his 1785 letter to James Madison depicted the French populace as oppressed and subjected to ignorance as the French state denied their “natural right [to land holdings] … [as] the earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on.”[10] In light of this broad statement that connected land holding to natural rights, rather than just classical republican theory, Jefferson’s justifications for agrarian reform then become far more interesting and speak to the heart of how he understood the purpose of the American Revolution.

When he exclaimed in the Notes that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of god … whose breasts he made his peculiar deposit for the substantial and genuine virtue … [as the] corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example,” Jefferson was justifying the progress of the American Revolution on two separate fronts.[11] First, he was making a classical republican argument. Unlike the people of the manufacturing-oriented and crowded cities of Europe, independent agrarian landholders could avoid the “dependence [which] begets subservience and venality, suffocating the germ of virtue,” a necessity for maintaining a republic as it prevented the “degeneracy [that] is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”[12]

Far more intriguing however, is Jefferson’s second point that is implicit in calling agrarian farmers the “chosen people of god,” that went beyond merely describing what was required of a republican state and, instead, grounded the American project firmly within the framework of Enlightenment thought. A proponent of stadial theory, a product of the Scottish Enlightenment and French phsyiocrats which proposed a deterministic model of socioeconomic development in a series of stages from hunting-gathering to commerce, Jefferson believed that Europeans had in a sense become too refined and developed within the “commercial stage.” For Jefferson this dilemma was unsurprising, as he believed that all human societies, as Algernon Sidney explained in his highly influential Discourse Concerning Government (1698), “are subject to corruption and must perish unless they are timely renewed and reduced to first principles.”[13] However, in contrast to Europeans, agrarian Americans were uniquely well situated to use the opportunity provided by the Revolution to restore society to the freedom and equality that characterized the Rousseauian conception of the state of nature, or “first principles” as Sidney put it, by eliminating the corruptive influences of millennia of social development.

Jefferson saw the upheaval of the American Revolution as creating the conditions necessary for a republic by allowing for the great social reform project of the Rousseauian Enlightenment, as the French philosophe described it, “to disentangle what is original [within society] from what is artificial in man’s present nature.”[14] It was these “unnatural” influences, embodied by institutions like primogeniture and entail, which had always made establishing a republic so difficult and its institutions perpetually fragile.[15] Jefferson believed that once these corruptions ceased to exist, an educated and virtuous citizenry, a development already assured by his education bill, could recreate society along lines favorable for the lasting success of a republic and provide a model for other countries to eventually do the same. Paradoxically, like in A Summary View, true progress towards enlightened republicanism required society to return to the literally prehistoric first principles of the state of nature. This belief in a need to fundamentally reconstitute the foundations of society, rather than simply create a republican government, clearly played a central role in how Jefferson imagined the purpose of, and designed his contributions to, the Revolution.

With these considerations in mind it is easy to understand why Jefferson has often been caricaturized as a nigh utopian, democratic populist with a naïve faith in the masses to become virtuous republicans. However, this oversimplifies what Jefferson believed to be the purpose of the Revolution and how he thought he was contributing. Jefferson’s faith in the potential of the common people was tightly connected to his deterministic understanding of socioeconomic development and a hierarchical conception of how “enlightened” societies should and would operate. While it is appealing to see his proposed measures as the actions of a great democratic leveler, Jefferson clearly designed them with a set of hierarchical assumptions in mind, particularly, his belief that in a meritocratic society such as a republic, a small number of elites, what he called the natural aristocracy, would inevitably emerge as its leaders. It is for this reason that his education plan sought to educate fully only a small number of those “whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue,” and partially educated the rest so that they became “guardians of their own liberty,” because, as Jefferson imagined, they could recognize the benefits of being governed by their intellectual and cultural superiors.[16] As he described in an 1813 letter to John Adams, education enables the mass of the people to rise “to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety and to orderly government … qualifying them to select the veritable aristoi.”[17] Importantly, the kind of education, qualifications, and interests that Jefferson associates with the naturally endowed geniuses unmistakably mirror his own, thus positioning him and people like him as the new republic’s ideal leaders if the Revolution was to fulfill its purpose. Similarly, when Jefferson abolished primogeniture and entail, his purpose was not to replace unnatural distinctions with perfect equality, which he believed to be both impossible and undesirable but, instead, through the creation of independent landholders, to provide the foundations which would enable the right kind of hierarchy for a republican and enlightened society to flourish.

Jefferson’s support for a natural republican hierarchy within the United States mirrors the role he envisioned for the American project internationally. Far from emphasizing populist leveling, Jefferson thought that it was only through the establishment of a natural aristocracy that the Revolution could truly fulfill its purpose, not only to refashion society but also to eventually spread American republicanism beyond the United States. He developed this idea furthest in his famous 1813 letter to Adams, describing the establishment of a republican American society as starting a much broader and important development in world history that was still ongoing well into the nineteenth century:

With respect to Aristocracy, we should further consider that before the establishment of the American states, nothing was known to History but the Man of the old world … steeped in the vices which that situation generates … But [after the American Revolution] … a change has sensibly taken place in the mind of Man. Science had liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and the American example had kindled feelings of right in the people. An insurrection has consequently begun, of science, talents and courage against rank and birth, which have fallen into contempt.[18]

This excerpt celebrating the novelty of what American founders had accomplished reveals the considerable extent to which Jefferson believed the Revolution’s primary purpose to be the creation of an entirely new society with no precedent in all of history, governed by the natural, rather than long dominant unnatural, aristocracy, and based on republican and Enlightenment principles. Even more importantly, it suggests that Jefferson believed that the Revolution, particularly his own contributions, was inaugurating what he hoped would become a long lasting and worldwide movement of social and intellectual reform with the natural aristocracy of the United States as its vanguard, culminating in transfer of global leadership to the new world.

Few individuals, if any, played as vital a role in shaping the American Revolution as Thomas Jefferson. Yet, the ambitious scope and scale of how he imagined the Revolution’s purpose is often obscured. While it arguably never resulted in transformative change once put into practice, the theory behind Jefferson’s contributions to the American project were undeniably radical. The establishment of republican institutions of governance was just one small part of what he hoped Americans could accomplish following independence. Rather than solely advocating for the establishment of new government and enhanced political rights, Jefferson, influenced by Enlightenment thinkers like Sidney and Rousseau, imagined the Revolution as an opportunity to completely reorganize the very foundations of society by purging it of corruptive elements, which had for centuries enabled the triumph of unnatural despotisms where republics could otherwise succeed. Furthermore, Jefferson believed that the Revolution should not only create an unprecedented model of republicanism for the rest of the world but also that an enlightened social, intellectual and political hierarchy ought to be encouraged to underpin this new republican society with a natural aristocracy at its top. This conception of the American Revolution heavily influenced Jefferson’s actions and beliefs throughout his life and, through his influence, played a critical role in shaping the development of the United States throughout the antebellum period.


[1] Carl L. Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1909), 22.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, “A Summary View of the Rights of British North America,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 119.

[3] Ibid., 121.

[4] “The Declaration of Independence as Adopted by Congress,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. James P. McClure and J. Jefferson Looney (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008–2017).

[5] Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia: Query XIV,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 272, 274. Thomas Jefferson, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” in ibid., 365.

[6] Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, August 13, 1786, in ibid., 858-859.

[7] Jefferson to John Tyler, May 26, 1810, in ibid., 1226-1227.

[8] “Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, August 13, 1776,”; Thomas Jefferson, “The Autobiography,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 44.

[9] Importantly, it is unclear if Jefferson had in fact read Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, but his language and logic suggests some influence even if this is only through an intermediary source. In a 1771 letter to Robert Skipwith he does claim to have a copy of Rousseau’s novel Eloisa, suggesting that he was likely familiar with the French philosophe’s more famous works.

[10] Jefferson to James Madison, October 28, 1785, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, in ibid., 842.

[11] Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia: Query XIX,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, in ibid., 290.

[12] Ibid., 291.

[13] Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (London: Printed for A. Millar, 1751), 117.

[14] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau: “The Discourses” and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 125.

[15] To further support this interpretation of Rousseau’s influence on Jefferson’s thought, it is worth noting that he, particularly to differentiate himself from Europeans while in France, occasionally refers to himself affectionately in correspondence as a “savage” (e.g. Jefferson’s September 30, 1785 letter to Charles Bellini), a trope often associated with Rousseau’s optimistic portrayal of humans in the state of nature. While this could merely be a coincidence, it seems to suggest that Rousseau’s depiction of the state of nature, even if encountered by Jefferson indirectly, was an important force shaping his conception of republican identity especially in contrast to European societies. Additionally, it would be hard to imagine a more fervent critic of primogeniture and entail than Rousseau who wrote sardonically, “the first person who, having enclosed a plot of land took it upon himself to say this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (New York: Dover Publications, 2012), 27.

[16] Thomas Jefferson, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 365. Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia: Query XIV,” in ibid., 274.

[17] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813, in ibid., 1305-1306.

[18] Ibid., 1309.



  • I read this story the same day I read the story about “protesters” covering the statue of Jefferson at the University of Virginia. The discussion here and there seem diametrically and paradoxically opposed.

    1. Indeed. The article above uses “liberty” twice and “freedom” three times, but “slave(ry)” never. Those concepts are two sides of the same coin, and they’re both undeniably part of Jefferson’s life and thinking. The article discusses Jefferson’s faith that the U.S. of A.’s republican government would become a model for the world, but not his negative response to the second republic formed in the New World—in Haiti.

      The people protesting [I don’t understand the need for scare quotes] the reverence for Jefferson in Virginia and America as a whole may feel that for too long we’ve focused only on his high-minded ideals and not on how or whether he put those ideals into practice in his life and policies. No article can address everything about such a complex and well documented person as Jefferson, but this one doesn’t even acknowledge relevant aspects of his life and thinking. And in that respect it does seem diametrically and paradoxically opposed to current discourse.

  • I think that the “protestors” absolutely need the scare quotes. After what we’ve witnessed everywhere from the Jefferson memorial to the University of Virginia itself, these aren’t peaceful types. Certainly they have a strong case against the Confederacy, but Jefferson was not that and, in any event, as Lincoln showed so well, those folks twisted his own words every chance they got while claiming to be his lineal descendants, as well as those of the other Virginia Founding Fathers. They cannot distinguish between Jefferson, who at least understood that slavery was wrong and that it was (he hoped) on the way to eventual extinction, and John C Calhoun and those of the next generation, which treated it, philosophically and politically, as an existential “good” and wished it expanded. I don’t see this article as being any more or less representative of Jefferson’s thought, and there’s nothing wrong with it being included here. The writer has a whiff of Merrill Petersen’s thought about Jefferson here, but it’s not like people haven’t read many books on Jefferson, from Peterson’s many books, to Dumas Malone to, more recently, “American Sphinx” by Ellis. I recently saw an article in The National Interest detailing him as our worst Secretary of State by a fairly learned writer, and others have talked ad nauseam about the practice of TJ weighed against his philosophical leanings. So, I guess I’m just wondering why all the hyperbole? The young man wrote a fairly decent essay. It was limited in scope, but that’s no knock against the subject matter.

    1. Please explain again why people protesting (even if one disagrees with their cause or approach) can’t simply be called protesters. Why the scare-quotes, with the implication that they’re merely so-called protesters?

      In asking “why all the hyperbole?” do you refer to hyperbole in the characterization of Jefferson as “worst Secretary of State”? That article ( is by Stephen Knott, a Hamilton biographer. It criticizes Jefferson for his leanings toward France and deceiving his colleagues about his political activities. Those reasons are of course quite different from the slavery issue that the campus protesters highlight. It’s possible to see all those criticisms as different aspects of a larger trend to downgrade Jefferson and uplift Hamilton, a repeated cycle in American historiography, but really they’re coming from different places.

      As for saying, “there’s nothing wrong with it [this article] being included here,” I don’t believe anyone said there was. I pointed out how the article omitted aspects of Jefferson’s life and career that are relevant to its topics. Those aspects are also closely related to the protest mentioned in the first comment.

  • As an alumnus of Mr. Jefferson’s University (albeit one who more closely aligns with Jefferson’s political adversaries, Washington and Hamilton, and therefore well versed in Jefferson’s shortcomings), I am distressed at the “demands” of the “protestors” at my alma mater to have UVA declare Jefferson’s statue at the Rotunda “an emblem of white supremacy”. That’s not an academic exercise, calling something “an emblem of white supremacy”. Such hyperbole — included alongside the loaded terms “racist” and “rapist” — is a pretext for removing that statue.

    The sight of these “protestors” covering Jefferson’s statue in a black shroud amid signs referring to him as a “racist” and a “rapist”, while demanding that the University “recontextualize” the statue as an “emblem of white supremacy”, indicates that we are much further down that so-called “slippery slope” with regard to the Founders than perhaps we’d like to believe. Of course, I find it interesting that some of the same people who have spent the past several months telling us that the “slippery slope” doesn’t exist because distinctions can be drawn in favor of the Founders are now to be found among those defending the actions of the “protestors” who wish to blur those very distinctions.

    Interesting, but hardly surprising.

    1. “Please explain again why people protesting (even if one disagrees with their cause or approach) can’t simply be called protesters. Why the scare-quotes, with the implication that they’re merely so-called protesters?”

      Happy to. Peacefully protesting something that one is against is far different from tearing down statues that were erected, lawfully (at the time) by city municipalities or spreading graffiti on public monuments. Once you engage in physical destruction of public objects, it’s not a protest: it’s *vandalism.* This is not the spirit or the actions of those who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr, but rather those of the Black Panthers, and there’s a huge difference that is plain to see for all (we all have access to both online news and cable news, just as colonialists had access to the pamphlets, I presume).

      Now, I personally am happy to see many of these Confederate monuments come on down, and some have due to local decisions made by lawfully elected authorities (the same which put them up), but my point is the idea of the article and the references made to its subject matter, and it’s thus:

      The author was speaking of the Mind of Thomas Jefferson and his vision of what the new Republic would be about, not the actions of Thomas Jefferson and how they differed from whatever he himself acted, publicly and privately, in the actions he took (for good and ill) in actually making that Republic. So, that’s the title of the piece, and I think the young man did fairly well in explicating the subject of the piece, so I thought your criticisms of him were off-base in that small context. Now, if the young man were writing about “Thomas Jefferson: Theory and Practice,” and didn’t mention the word slavery once in his piece, well, then, you’d have a point. But, since he was writing on the intellectual writings and thought processes of Mr. Jefferson, and what he envisioned (I didn’t write bring into practice; I wrote envisioned), it seems to me that he was perfectly in line with the stated premise of his piece.

      As far as the larger political context that we’re living in today, yes, of course, there are cycles where certain Founding Fathers are put on a pedestal, and then taken down, and then put back up a notch, rinse and repeat. What we’re witnessing now, though, is far different: these vandals (and that’s what these Antifa radicals are; let’s not bandy about the bush giving them an undeserved respectability any more than we do the tinier but still as grotesque neo-Nazis) are attempting to deny Jefferson any public role *whatsoever* in public memory of the nation he helped found, and lead, and they’re doing it by public vandalism and, essentially, historical airbrushing VIA that vandalism that everyone outside of the radicals knows quite well when they see it, and we all see it, given the news cycles, social media, and quick independent videos on-scene of such events, not to mention the written ones).

      It cannot be stated enough: Jefferson and the Founding Fathers are QUITE different from their spoiled children, the Confederates. We had an original sin, slavery, at the founding of this country, and all of the Founding Fathers knew it. They pushed it to the side to found the nation first, but they knew that the original sin had to be expiated at some point, and it was, brutally, because the peaceful means that they’d hoped for didn’t pan out. But, that is not because that THEY didn’t recognize it as our original sin; it’s because their errant offspring (Calhoun, etc) transposed and subtly tried to airbrush their writings (just as the Antifa vandals and radicals are attempting to do now with some Founders) and tried to turn slavery into a positive good (this is why they hated Abraham Lincoln so much; he knew the Founding Fathers’ actual writings and arguments better than their lineal descendants, and that’s why he had to be assassinated, in the end).

      If we wish to be correct with history, then we need to have it around to argue over it. Those vandals are trying to airbrush it precisely *because* they were never taught the distinctions WITHIN the historical profession, and I have no problem with them taking all the time that they need to catch up and have a conversation about which public monuments are worthy, and which aren’t. I DO have quite a problem with them lumping everyone together – Founders and Confederates – and taking down all of the monuments in an unlawful and violent way, and unless we’ve surrendered to the mob, finally (pace Adams), in this current, quite misinformed (partially) generation of the American nation, I do not think they should ever have the last word on the finality of what our history is. Antonio Gramsci hasn’t conquered us all YET, and I think we should be (I certainly will be) on our guard against our own, homegrown French Revolutionaries (with nods to Jefferson), even if they don’t use guillotines.

      Meantime, the young lad had a good article, and thank you, Mr. Anderson, for your response as well.

  • The first comment above was about “‘protesters’ covering the statue of Jefferson at the University of Virginia.” As news reports make clear (, those people put a black shroud over the Jefferson statue during their event. The shroud was later removed, and the statue undamaged.

    Yet Aaron L lumps that action together with “tearing down statues” (presumably without legal authorization) and “spreading graffiti” on them. I believe fair observers can discern the difference between those actions and recognize that temporarily shrouding a statue is more akin to the “peacefully protesting” he praises. It’s ironic that someone upset by others grouping slave-owning Founders and slave-owning Confederates together simply because they all owned slaves would casually group all protests against statues together regardless of how people treat those statues.

    As for the follow-up argument that acts of vandalism can’t also be acts of protest, that doesn’t seem like a tenable historical position. I’ll offer an alternative thesis: Commenters above put scare-quotes around the word “protesters” because they oppose those protests and want to delegitimize them. But that’s not how historical writing works.

  • Identifying himself as an alumnus of the university Jefferson founded, Jay Anderson objects to the argument that it should “‘recontextualize’ the statue as an ’emblem of white supremacy’,” saying “That’s not an academic exercise.”

    In fact, the exploration of Jefferson’s ideas about whites and blacks is a topic that many academics have tackled. One of the main texts in that inquiry is Jefferson’s own Notes on the State of Virginia, and it’s impossible to read that book without concluding that Jefferson believed whites were intellectually superior to blacks. I choose not to quote the relevant passages, but they’re easy to find.

    Since Jefferson clearly stated that whites were superior to blacks, how is it hyperbole to call him a “white supremacist”? Rather, it seems to require a very large helping of denial not to.

  • As to the scope of Zachary Brown’s article (I won’t refer to him as a “young lad” since that feels as condescending), it’s called “Thomas Jefferson, the American Revolution, and the Creation of a Republican World.” The title doesn’t limit itself to “the Mind of Thomas Jefferson.”

    The article concludes that Jefferson believed the Revolution should “create an unprecedented model of republicanism for the rest of the world” and that “This conception of the American Revolution heavily influenced Jefferson’s actions and beliefs throughout his life.” It thus explicitly points to Jefferson’s actions toward the rest of the world.

    In the creation of a republican world, Jefferson’s actions toward other newly created republics are obviously pertinent. He applauded the republic in France. He opposed the republic in Haiti. So how did Jefferson’s conception of the American Revolution influence his different actions toward those nations?

    A main thrust of Brown’s argument is that Jefferson believed “in an enlightened natural aristocracy, that is to say people like him.” Again, asking what defined “people like him” in Jefferson’s mind is clearly relevant to this topic.

    As I wrote in my first comment above, no article can cover everything about Jefferson. I think it would have taken just one or two additional sentences to acknowledge how his vision of the American Revolution inspiring republics around the world ran smack up against his prejudices.

  • Thomas Jefferson. Always the controversial figure, if it isn’t a wall of separation between church and state, it must be the need for standing armies or internal improvements. Jefferson stood squarely opposed yet remained totally at ease with his position on each of these extremely hot topics of the day He took his opponents on with logical arguments and consistent positions yet, once his ideas proved ineffective, Jefferson displayed willingness to learn from his mistakes and adapt his thinking. It was likely this attribute that made education such an important part of his life. Of all his accomplishments, I suspect Jefferson was most proud of his establishment of the University of Virginia. He spent his entire adult life seeking to learn new things and expand the body of knowledge in the USA during his time. Perhaps that love of education makes Jefferson the perfect subject for yet another important debate in our nation’s history, slavery and our monuments to historical figures.

    As one who spends a great deal of time contemplating history on a regular basis, I think it is important that historians speak up and help the public come to an understanding or other place of comfort with our past, both the good and the bad. We can help provide context and correct mistakes often caused by pre-determined conclusions based upon the passion of the moment instead of cool reflections based upon patience and reason. Sometimes I believe it would help modern man very much if the internet weren’t so prompt and efficient at response. Imagine, Jefferson’s day when letters were delivered by horseback and men took pride in the public nature of their correspondence. Public debate on issues went deep and took men beyond mere sarcasm and catchy phrases in their political discourse.

    Recent news covered a demonstration at the Univ of VA campus, directly in front of the Jefferson statue. It seems his position as slave holder and sex partner to Sally Hemmings has once again placed Jefferson in the center of controversy. So far the debate has stirred passion but little that would pass as intellectual discourse. Pro-statue conservatives (even some of our own) have trouble referring to peaceful demonstrators as protestors, instead using quotation marks that fail to mask disdain and insult. Anti-statue protestors throw around terms like racist and rapist knowing these modern definitions have little application in the context of early America, knowing these terms will blind their political opposition with rage and prevent the very intellectual discussion so sadly lacking in the current conversation. I advise historians to relax a bit, take the discussion in stride. We can help by starting with an attitude of understanding and explanation instead of stating conclusion with passionate declaration or ultimatum.

    We can open a conversation about Thomas Jefferson. The 18th century man whose writings reflect one of our most complex and complete characters. In fact, in my opinion, we love to study Jefferson because of his complexity, which, of course, his many detractors prefer to refer to as hypocrisy. We can discuss this freely and openly, with an honest admission of his faults. And, then, perhaps with even a gleam of enthusiasm in the eyes, go beyond those faults and point out his growth of ideas and many positive accomplishments. Yes, we can admit to Jefferson’s 18th century belief that white people were intellectually superior to black people, and yet, also point out the problem with suggesting that Jefferson was a white supremacist. You see, unlike the supremacist, Jefferson believed all men should be treated equally under the law regardless of race or creed. Of course we realize that modern understanding of legal equality are far beyond Jefferson’s and make him almost hopelessly naïve. But that doesn’t change the fact Jefferson was far advanced for his time. We criticize him for not leading the nation toward abolition but still should remember the incredible difficulty of such a thing. Jefferson could have given up his influence in public life and lose elections, or, go along with slavery in recognition of its unfortunate entrenchment in southern economics. Even the great abolitionist leaning Ben Franklin understood the hopelessness of taking on slavery in the early republic. There would have been no early republic to mold.

    There is so much more that can and should be said in defense of Jefferson, and in prosecution of Jefferson. I would like to see the conversation literally take place right before his statue, perhaps even in the Jefferson Memorial alongside the Potomac River, the very shadow of the White House and Capital buildings, erected on the backs of black slaves. Naturally, in the end, I would personally like to see the debate favor Thomas Jefferson. As a researcher and biographer, he is a dream come true. So full of contradiction, so full of controversy.

    We should continue to celebrate Thomas Jefferson in the way he would appreciate most, by using his example as one to learn by, to educate ourselves, and to teach others what we think we know. However, if nothing else, it would be extremely Jeffersonian for the fate of his statues and monuments to fall to a democratic vote, where informed people decide what comes next for Thomas Jefferson. Will he be preserved as our favorite founder or will he be recontextualized into Simon Legree? I am very interested to find out what happens next for Jefferson. However, as a history lover, let me just state with confidence that history will not change, Thomas Jefferson will not change, this debate will only shape what happens next to a few pieces of iron and plaster, not what has already been.

    1. “You see, unlike the supremacist, Jefferson believed all men should be treated equally under the law regardless of race or creed.”

      That statement seems to rest on a narrow definition of “supremacist,” bumping up against what Josh Marshall recently called “a largely meaningless distinction between people who support white supremacy and say so openly and people who support white supremacy while denying that they do.” (

      Jefferson indeed wrote about natural equality for all men under the law. However, he lived under a legal system that clearly didn’t provide for such equality, a legal system based on de facto and de jure white supremacy. His own writings helped build a quasi-scientific argument for perpetuating that system.

      So we should ask what Jefferson actually did to attain the equality he claimed was natural and ideal. We can point to a few actions he took as a politician and a private citizen. But we also have to take in the actions he declined to take, the whole context of how he lived, and what other people were doing at the same time.

      That’s a big discussion that’s been going on since Jefferson’s own lifetime. At many times the discussion has been stifled by too much reverence for Jefferson as a Founder and too little respect for African-Americans. It would indeed be good to see the discussion continue and blossom. Jefferson statues provide a venue, and in some cases even a forum (

  • Thank you both for the kind words. I just can’t help but believe those of us with enough knowledge to discuss and educate in a calm and rational manner need to become firemen instead of arsonists. My response did not come only from this thread but from watching this debate heat-up on social media and the nation in general. In some ways, I don’t see an attack on history but an opportunity to bring it back in focus, maybe even help Williamsburg return to that million visitor per year mark.

  • This is an excellent and civil discussion, especially when you look at some of the internet comment sections, for instance, those related to the recent actions of NFL players with respect to the national anthem. That’s why this is a great site. I’d like to add an opinion that I hope will not be too incendiary.

    I’m generally not an advocate of “slippery slope” arguments. But as far as the Confederate statue issue does anyone think that if the historical revisionists get their way and get the statues of Lee and the others removed, that they will stop there? I don’t, though they will deny it all day. Give them an inch and they will take the proverbial mile. Readers of this site well understand as one commenter put it very well “It cannot be stated enough: Jefferson and the Founding Fathers are QUITE different from their spoiled children, the Confederates”, but I don’t think it is even grasped by these protesters and historical revisionists. Even if they did grasp it, I don’t think it would matter a wit to them.

    All historians or fans of history should be appalled by what is going on and should do what they can to stop it in its tracks. This is not the Soviet Union (at least not yet).

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