Thomas Jefferson: Champion of liberty or dangerous radical? — with Robert Bork (1994) | THINK TANK

Thomas Jefferson: Champion of liberty or dangerous radical? — with Robert Bork (1994) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. On July 4, 1776, our Founding Fathers cut
America’s ties with England by adopting the Declaration of Independence. The author of their manifesto was only 33
years old: Thomas Jefferson, philosopher, diplomat, president, slaveholder, and sometime
radical. Who was Thomas Jefferson, and what would he
think of our nation today? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Judge Robert Bork of the American Enterprise Institute and author of
“The Tempting of America”; Professor Peter Onuf, the holder of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Foundation chair at the University of Virginia and editor of “Jefferson Legacies”; James
Oliver Horton, a scholar of the Jeffersonian era, professor of history and American studies
at George Washington University, and author of “Free People of Color: Inside the African
American Community”; and Jan Lewis of Rutgers University and author of “The Pursuit of
Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson’s Virginia.” The question before this house: What about
Jefferson? This week on “Think Tank.” In 1962, at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize
winners, President John F. Kennedy said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection
of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House,
with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Some historians say that Thomas Jefferson
was the last Renaissance man. The author of the Declaration of Independence
and third president of the United States spoke six languages and was an accomplished inventor,
naturalist, mathematician, and architect. Jefferson personally designed his home, Monticello,
as well as the University of Virginia. Jefferson’s greatest legacy, of course,
is the Declaration of Independence. It is probably the single most recognized
and copied political document in the world. Its powerful words still resonate everywhere:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they
are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Now, how could the man who wrote those stirring
words own 150 slaves? And unlike George Washington, who freed all
of his slaves upon his death, Jefferson freed only five. But he thought slavery would not last, declaring,
“Nothing is more certainly written in the Book of Faith than that these people are to
be free.” Political life was not easy for Jefferson. His hatred of aristocracy made him a strong
supporter of the French Revolution. His enemies charged that he was too fond of
popular uprisings, calling him “Mad Tom” and “the Robespierre of the American mob.” But supporters hailed him as “the mammoth
of democracy” and as “the man of the people.” He died on July 4, 1826. On his tomb, he asked to be remembered as
“the author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia,
and author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.” Professor Onuf — Peter Onuf, let’s start
out. What kind of a man was he? Peter Onuf: Jefferson was an extraordinary
man, as your list of his achievements indicates. We still don’t know what to make of him,
though. I think the notion of Renaissance man is a
kind of fudge. He’s everything, which means that we don’t
really know what he is. What’s most remarkable about Jefferson the
democrat is that if anybody represents the aristocratic impulses in America before the
Revolution, it’s Jefferson and his class in Virginia. In effect, he’s the cream of the Virginia
aristocracy, and it’s remarkable that he could embrace these ideas that we now take
to be the defining ideas of democracy. Ben Wattenberg: Jim Horton? James Horton: Jefferson is an extraordinary
man — was an extraordinary man. He was also a very complicated man. In that regard, I think he becomes the personification,
really, of American society. He is a person of great principle, but a person
who cannot always achieve that which his principles would dictate. I think the same can be said of our society
— great principles, but we don’t always live up to them. Ben Wattenberg: Jan Lewis? Jan Lewis: I’d like to go back to a point
that Peter made and talk about this conundrum or paradox that Jefferson is the exponent
of democracy, yet in many ways he comes from an aristocratic background. Historians, I don’t think, have ever been
able to explain fully that paradox. How a man of such privilege — and he in
many ways maintained privilege in that beautiful setting at Monticello — how he was able
to go beyond his background and come up with ideas that are supposed to apply to all people
and that all people have chosen as their banner. Ben Wattenberg: Bob Bork, Judge Bork, lawyer
Bork. And you are surrounded by historians here. What do you make of Jefferson as a lawgiver,
law writer? I mean, that’s what he is principally known
as, I guess. Robert Bork: Well, if you mean the Declaration
of Independence, of course that is really in part a propaganda document; it’s a rhetorical
document. It’s not really part of our law. I suppose to the Virginia Statute of Religious
Freedom was a great achievement, but I don’t think of Jefferson primarily as a lawgiver. Ben Wattenberg: Why not? I mean, he — Robert Bork: Well, for one thing, you know,
if Jefferson’s principles had prevailed, they would have destroyed the United States. The Union would have been gone. He thought, for example, that the states could
nullify acts of Congress if they thought they were — if each state thought it was unconstitutional. He didn’t believe in judicial review. He thought each branch of government could
decide constitutionality for itself. Ben Wattenberg: That was the great fight with
Chief Justice Marshall? Robert Bork: Yes, that was part of the fight
with Marshall. He wanted a new Constitutional Convention
every 20 years. James Madison talked him out of that one. But obviously, if these principles had prevailed,
we would have —the states would have fragmented, and the Union would have been destroyed. Peter Onuf: I think it’s only fair to say,
Bob, that if Hamilton’s principles had prevailed, the same thing would have happened. Robert Bork: Well, that could well be. Ben Wattenberg: Was Jefferson a radical? Is that fair to say? I mean, all this stuff about “watering the
tree of liberty with human blood every 20 years,” that sort of stuff? Peter Onuf: Well, I think some of his rhetoric
was radical. And just to get back to the point you were
making here, his notions about being able to review — each state being able to review
and to decide congressional rulings for themselves. I mean, that comes in the context of the fear
that he had that the Federalists at the time of the Sedition Act were really concentrating
power in the hands of the federal government to a dangerous extent. So in some ways, that was a reaction. I’m not sure that if the context had been
different, he would have held to that belief. Robert Bork: Well, certainly when he interpreted
the Constitution, he interpreted federal power very narrowly, and this would have been a
very different nation if he had prevailed. Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask you a question. If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, would
he be a Democrat or a Republican, Jan? Jan Lewis: My son — I have to introduce
this by saying, my son, who is 16 and was attending many of the festivities around Jefferson’s
250th birthday last year, got so frustrated with this question that he insisted, if Thomas
Jefferson were alive today, he’d be 250 years old. [Laughter.] And I think I have to resist that sort of
question because the times were so extraordinarily different. That much said, I will say that we can follow
different parts of the Jeffersonian legacy, and they go in very different directions. As Bob has suggested, there is a states’
rights Jefferson that leads to nullification and to the Southern side of the Civil War,
and you can see those ideas developing. At the same time, there is Jefferson the rights
giver, and who leads to the sort of rights consciousness that we associate with liberal
Democrats. So there are different parts of his legacy
that lead in very different directions. Ben Wattenberg: How could a man who — I
mean, at times when you read about him, he sounds like sort of an agrarian nut. I mean, he hates cities. He hates mobs. He hates people in cities. How could a man like that be a member of the
Democratic Party today? James Horton: He distrusts cities. Peter Onuf: I think that’s misleading, in
any case, that notion of his hating cities. He’s a very urbane man. He loves urbanity and civility — that is,
the good things that cities bring. His political project is in opposition to
the metropolis, the concentration of power that he resisted in the patriotic resistance
movement before the Revolution, and the danger that such concentrations would be — emerge
in America under the aegis of a Hamiltonian system. James Horton: And to show you how complex
and how contradictory he was, you’re absolutely right that he feared the concentration of
federal power. But he used federal power when he was in the
federal office, when he was president of the United States — for example, the Louisiana
Purchase, which expanded the size of the United States several times. Ben Wattenberg: And which was unconstitutional. James Horton: Which was — at least he was
not sure that it was constitutional and said that, that he was not sure it was constitutional. Ben Wattenberg: Judge Bork, was it unconstitutional? Robert Bork: Probably was, probably was, but
there was a great disconnect between Jefferson’s words and his actions as president. In fact, when he was president, he had to
evade all of the principles that he had laid down before he became president. Not only the Louisiana Purchase, but he sent
out the Navy and the Marine Corps to Tripoli to attack the Barbary pirates. Ben Wattenberg: Without getting congressional
approval. Robert Bork: That’s right. One of the earliest precedents for a president
initiating hostilities without a declaration of war. Ben Wattenberg: What about his attitude toward
race and slavery? How do we deal with that now? James Horton: Jefferson — well, he was obviously
a slaveholder, obviously a man who was uncomfortable with the institution of slavery, who thought
the institution of slavery was wrong, and even so, could not bring himself to free his
own slaves. He only freed eight slaves his entire — well,
three during his lifetime, five in his will. A man with some 200 slaves who never moved
to the position of liberalism on the question of slavery that many in his own time, in his
own region did. So that although he was in some ways a leader
in terms of democratic thinking, he was — he lagged behind more progressive thinking on
the question of slavery, even for his time period. Robert Bork: Well, I think early on he proposed
a measure that no slavery would be allowed in new states, and he lost that by one vote
in the Congress. James Horton: Sure, but when the new states
were actually opening up — 1820s — he went exactly in the opposite direction. He denounced all that, said that slavery ought
to be allowed wherever it would expand. Peter Onuf: I think we have to understand
the limits of the notion of equality, and to some extent, we have to accept that when
Jefferson articulates universal principles, he comes up against a difference which he
can’t accommodate in his scheme. That is, it’s one of the aspects of liberalism
to generalize and universalize rights that we define ever more clearly the boundary between
those who are capable of bearing rights and those who are not. This is where Jefferson’s racism comes to
the fore — what we would call his racism. He naturalized difference. He couldn’t accept artificial difference
— that is, aristocracy — where privileged families would rule over others. But there were differences, for instance,
in the family, between men and women, parents and children, between races. He believed that African Americans were naturally
inferior. Jan Lewis: Yeah, I think when we read his
statement in the “Notes from the State of Virginia” about blacks, they make us extremely
uncomfortable today, and that this is a paradox with Jefferson. I mean he knows — he absolutely knows that
slavery is wrong. Everyone at the time knows that Jefferson
is opposed to slavery, particularly at the time of the Revolution. There is no question where the Declaration
of Independence leads: that it will lead to the elimination of slavery. At the same time, Jefferson plays around with
and creates a racism today that makes us, I think, very uncomfortable when we read those
words. Ben Wattenberg: Did Thomas Jefferson have
an affair with Sally Hemings, a slave on his plantation? James Horton: Obviously, we don’t know the
answer to that question. There is lots of circumstantial evidence that
he did, but there is no smoking gun. I don’t know of anybody who could testify,
“Yes, I know for sure that he did.” Peter Onuf: The only argument I would make
against the relationship — and I don’t like to put myself in the position of defending
Jefferson on this, but I think the main reason why it’s not likely to have happened is
that he was such a racist. And for him, miscegenation, mixing the races,
blurring the line between black and white created this unbearable dissonance and tension. Many of the people in the Hemings connection
were light-skinned; they could have passed for white. And to perpetuate that confusion of the races
while you’re claiming that the races are so distinct in their capabilities is to make
an unbearable situation for James Horton: Yes, but it would have been
very much in keeping with the kind of ethical dilemmas and inconsistency that we know Jefferson
had routinely in his life. Ben Wattenberg: Jan, you have written about
family life of Jefferson and his times. Where do you come out on the great Sally Hemings
mystery? Jan Lewis: Oh, I blame the nephews. Ben Wattenberg: You blame the nephews. Jan Lewis: The family, in fact. Ben Wattenberg: Well, wasn’t there one child
that was born exactly nine months after he returns as ambassador to France? Jan Lewis: Well, the timing is thought that
Jefferson might have been the father — that he was in the vicinity nine months before
the birth of each of Sally Hemings’ children. Ben Wattenberg: But so were the nephews, you’re
saying? Jan Lewis: No one’s done the research on
the nephews. The family thought that it was the nephews,
and in fact, many years afterwards, they would say, well, we know it was Uncle Peter. It was Uncle Sam. And what I found significant about that is
that even if Thomas Jefferson himself were not the father of Sally Hemings’ children,
which I think I would agree with Peter — not likely. Could be, but not likely. Even if he weren’t, by the family’s own
admission, these children would have been Jefferson’s great-nephews and nieces. They were family. And I think that this is a metaphor for race
relations in this country in that we’re all in some way family, and we should all
acknowledge that we are all related, that all of us are the descendants of Thomas Jefferson,
if not literally, metaphorically. Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask a question here. Here you have — as we’re talking here,
you have a man who certainly on the race issue does not seem like the great exemplar and
trumpeter of human liberty. And yet around the world — forget about
America for a minute —Jefferson, not Washington, not Hamilton, is — every revolutionary in
the world, the good guys as well as the totalitarians, waves the Declaration of Independence and
says, “All men are created equal,” “self-determination.” Where is that hypocrisy? I mean — Robert Bork: Well, Forrest McDonald, who was
an historian, said that Jefferson combined deviousness, slipperiness, hypocrisy with
charm and grace and a sure sense of his own purposes, which are priceless assets in a
politician. So that he did say a lot of — Ben Wattenberg: Does that remind you of anybody? [Laughter.] James Horton: Well, you know, here you have
the difference between his actions and his words. There is a great reverence within 19th-century
black society for his words. The conventions of blacks that were held throughout
the 1830s and the 1840s started off every meeting with the reading of the Declaration
of Independence. So that in terms of his words, they were revered
within the black community because, after all, those black people did believe all men
were created equal and so on. Actions — Robert Bork: He was a great rhetorician, and
he got off a lot of phrases that today we would identify with the new left, which is
why I think a lot of his rhetoric is so popular in an egalitarian age. But he was not an egalitarian. He referred to the people — when he opposed
the idea of direct election of senators, he referred to the people as “the swinish multitude.” Ben Wattenberg: “The swinish multitude.” That’s a pretty good bumper sticker for
a politician. Peter Onuf: I think the problem is not formulated
properly when we talk about the disjunction between words and actions. I think we’re looking at the outside in. We’re saying, what are the boundaries? How far do you go, Jefferson? Aha, we’ve found you. We’ve caught you out. These are the limits. You can’t be serious. This is just nonsense. But if we start with Jefferson’s own experience
of his world and talk about what his aspirations were, then it looks differently. Take the whole idea of equality. Equality is the buzzword of the revolutionary
period. Now we have appropriated it for our own multifarious
purposes now, but for Jefferson and his fellow patriot leaders, equality refers specifically
to their status and the status of their colonies in the British Empire. It was grounded in the notion of English rights. It was very specific. And what Jefferson did was try to reach beyond
that — not as far as we would like him to, perhaps, but the idea that you could form
even a union of liberty-loving, free Americans was itself an act of faith, an intellectual
leap. So if we look at it from Jefferson’s perspective,
inside out, then I think we have rather a different view than if we take this perspective
of why isn’t he good enough for us today? Why doesn’t he do what we do, we politically
correct moderns? James Horton: But let’s not judge him by
the standards of our time. Let’s judge him by the standards of his
own time. There are people in his own time who risked
their careers, who risked their fortunes in ways that are far more egalitarian than Jefferson
was willing to do. Ben Wattenberg: Let’s move on for a moment
to the legacy of Jefferson. There is this big argument between Jefferson
and Hamilton about what kind of America are we going to have, Jefferson sort of taking
his rural, agrarian view, and Hamilton writing the — what is it called about manufacturers? “The Report on Manufacturers,” looking
toward a booming, muscular sort of industrial society. Is it fair then to say, given what America
is today, that the true father of this America is Hamilton, not Jefferson? Jan Lewis: It seems to me that they both are. I mean, what we get out of the Hamiltonian
legacy is a strong, active, huge federal government — a centralized government. But we still have also the Jefferson suspicion
of a strong government. And it’s in the space between those two,
the actuality of a centralized state and an American suspicion of a centralized state. That’s where American history is made. Robert Bork: And I think it’s wrong to think
of either of them as the father of the country. This country would have developed as it did
if Jefferson and Hamilton had never existed. Jefferson’s idea of an agrarian society
was doomed from the beginning. You couldn’t succeed and live in this world
as an agrarian society. I mean, we’d be overrun by other powers. And the growth of the central government was
a natural development. People wanted it. George Washington immediately began proposing
projects that were well outside the federal power in the Constitution. Ben Wattenberg: So your current argument that
you make these days — you would have been making that in 1790 — that these guys are
using too much federal power, more than the Constitution gave them? Robert Bork: Well, the Constitution certainly
doesn’t give the federal government the power it now has. But the Constitution could not stop the federal
power from growing. There is no way it could stop it. I think the strong central government was
in the cards whatever the Constitution said. Peter Onuf: I think we misunderstand Jefferson’s
legacy if we think of him simply as an agrarian, this quaint figure who’s attached to a romanticized
past, who resists modernity and all the ills associated with it. I think Jefferson instead — his impact on
American history has been to authorize and license private initiative. A release of energy. His preference for agriculture is a preference
for commercial agriculture and the initiatives of individual farmers, and then traders as
well. He believed that the force to develop manufacturers,
as Hamilton was going to do, would in fact be retrograde; it would not contribute to
the wealth of the nation or its future prosperity. You could argue that through much of the 19th
century, until the great concentrations of capital that emerged in the Civil War and
afterwards, that this was the prescription. This was the formula that was going to make
America the way it was. So I think there was a choice early on, and
it is significant that the Jeffersonians emerged in power with the so-called Revolution of
1800. Ben Wattenberg: What about Jefferson and the
world? I mean, what would this — what did that
piece of paper mean, that Declaration of Independence? Forget America for a minute. It’s complicated and we just — Peter Onuf: Forget America. [Laughter.] Ben Wattenberg: Yeah, forget America. Bob, is that the revolutionary document of
the world? Robert Bork: Well, I think as the world becomes
increasingly egalitarian, the Declaration becomes an inspiration to people. And that’s true I think throughout Western
civilization. Ben Wattenberg: And it’s been used by good
guys and bad guys? Robert Bork: Oh, sure. James Horton: But I think that probably the
most important thing here is that it provides the touchstone for those people who are oppressed. It is a document to which they can turn, to
which they can appeal. It becomes a way of appealing to the conscience
of the nation. And without that document, without us saying
to the world, this is what we believe, it becomes very difficult for oppressed people
within the country to appeal to a conscience. To say, if you say you believe that, you must
act in that way. And it seems to me that that’s the importance
of the Declaration. Jefferson didn’t always do it, but the fact
that he put this declaration there makes it possible for us to have a touchstone. Peter Onuf: I think there’s another dimension
of Jeffersonian thought having to do with equality that relates to this, and that is
the equality that Jefferson hoped to achieve, as I mentioned before, was the equality of
the American colonies. And that notion of equality applied to states
and to nations is I think probably the most significant Jeffersonian legacy. On the level of rhetoric, it’s human equality
that we refer to. But it’s really national self-determination,
nation-making, the independence of states that’s been, I think, the great legacy of
the American Revolution and of Jefferson’s Declaration. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you, Professor Peter Onuf, Professor
James Horton, Professor Jan Ellen Lewis, Judge Robert Bork. And thank you. We have appreciated hearing from you very
much. Please send any comments or questions to the
address on the screen. For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

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About the Author: Oren Garnes


  1. I’m torn. On one hand, your calling a founding fucking father a radical. On the other, it’s important for America not to canonize the founding fathers like saints. They were humans with flaws like anyone else.

  2. I miss such balanced discussion among historians. What a precipitous fall the discipline has endured in recent decades

  3. It's interesting to think that Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Paine and all the rest were considered "Bad Actors" and an "Extremist Threat" and maybe even New World "Anglophile Nationalists" to the King of England. Looks as though not much has changed in 230+ years, only the players and those who craft the narratives from the top.

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