On “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson”

American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis cover

In the prologue to his biography of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Ellis shares several anecdotes about people who, upon learning that he was writing the book, volunteered their input into how he should approach his subject.

If you’ve spent any time at all on political blogs, you’ll recognize some of the characters. One in particular jumped out at me. He forwarded to Ellis three (!!!) copies of a no-doubt-self-published book titled Revolution Song, which professes to offer a Jeffersonian-based alternative to communist ideology. It reminded me of the well-meaning folks who post misattributed Jefferson quotes on online forums; in a kind of a naive Internet primitivism, they hold the man up as a one-dimensional small-government/individual-freedom demigod. Despite the fact that he held slaves and advocated, rather cavalierly, periodic returns to bloody revolution (“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” How’s that for a pretty Jefferson quote?)

T. Jefferson was, in reality, a complex man, to put it lightly. His positions on issues were often muddy, the product of personality more than ideological purity, and sometimes downright contradictory. Ellis makes this all amply clear in the book.

And so Ellis has little patience, understandably, with people who try to appropriate Jefferson in service of overly simplistic political ideologies. He dismisses Revolution Song, for instance, as “propagandistic,” with a “hyperventilating tone . . . reminiscent of those full-page newspaper ads in which Asian gurus or self-proclaimed prophets lay out their twelve-step programs to avert the looming apocalypse.”

I should break here to note that Ellis is a wonderful and engaging writer. My copy of American Sphinx came to me courtesy of my dad (thanks, Dad!); he went on an Ellis jag a year or two ago, kindly passed the books along to me when he’d finished them, and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve read so far. They are truly lovely, and for the most part I trust Ellis’ perception of his subject matter. He’s steeped himself for decades in Revolutionary-era scholarship, and it shows; he moves deftly, brushstroke by brushstroke, detail to context back to detail again; you feel history wash over you as you read.

And yet. Wonderful as he is as a historian and a writer, Ellis strikes me as out of touch, in some respects, with contemporary political thought. He states bluntly, for example, that Jefferson’s ideology from a policy perspective has no relevance today. “After the New Deal,” he writes (tellingly, in a sentence that is uncharacteristically awkward)

no serious scholar any longer believed that the Jeffersonian belief in a minimalist federal government was relevant in an urban, industrialized American society.

Ah. I see. And the quote unquote libertarians out there who do believe in minimalist federal government don’t count, of course, because they, presumably, aren’t “serious scholars.”

Ellis has every right, of course, to place a high value on formal scholarship. It beats t.v. history any day of the week. But Ellis overreaches when he dismisses Jefferson’s relevance to current political affairs. You can see it here, in the paragraph just prior to the one from which I pulled the above sentence:

The main story line of American history . . . cast Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in the lead roles of a dramatic contest between the forces of democracy (or liberalism) and the forces of aristocracy (or conservatism). While this formulation had the suspiciously melodramatic odor of a political soap opera, it also had the advantage of reducing the bedeviling complexities of American history to a comprehensible scheme: It was the people against the elites, the West against the East, agrarians against industrialists, Democrats against Republicans.

Ellis’ definition of “liberalism” and “conservatism” are 19th century definitions, not 21st century definitions.

Today, it’s the elites who advocate large government.

Our academics are overwhelmingly Democratic, for example, as are our journalists: two sectors which dominate mainstream intellectual thought and discourse — surely one measure of elite status.

Our politicians — elites by virtue of wielding political power — overwhelmingly support increasing government (the Republicans as well as the Democrats). They know how to butter their bread, after all: by delivering goodies, one at a time, to specific constituencies in exchange for blocs of votes. You can’t play that game and shrink government at the same time.

And business — elites via $$ — take advantage of increasingly centralized political power to align itself with it. They support the Dems, therefore, when the wind’s blowing that way: in 2008, 55 percent of political donations from businesses went to the Democratic party, for instance. So you can no longer argue that business sides with democracy over aristocracy. On the contrary. It supports the party that would see Caroline Kennedy appointed to a NY Senate seat, while one of its own, billionaire Paychex founder Thomas Golisano, managed but a measly 14 percent of the state vote when he last ran for governor.

These are the facts of today’s political landscape, and so while Ellis’ neat Democrat v. Republican line-up may have made sense 150 years ago, today those words mean something entirely different.

Those of us who do not believe that minimalist federal government is “irrelevant” are, in fact, politically marginalized. The GOP once paid lip service to reducing the size of government, but they are liars for the most part and nobody believes them any more. As the bailout debacle in Washington makes perfectly clear, both parties are perfectly happy expanding both the size and scope of government.

Jefferson, on the other hand, shrank it.

MonticelloOf course, the task was immeasurably simpler when he assumed the Presidency in 1801. There were but 130 federal employees in Washington. Federal government revenues (raised “mostly from customs duties and the sale of public lands”) totaled only $9 million annually.

Yet in Jefferson’s eyes, the beast was already too large and too intrusive. He hated the national debt, and commissioned his treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, to formulate a plan to retire it over a 16-year period. He took a dim view of taxes as well. He wrote that no American should never see a “tax-gatherer,” and in his first speech to Congress as President, in 1801, advocated abolishing ALL “internal taxes.”

Can you imagine? No taxes. An America with NO taxes.

So yeah, Jefferson deserves to be held up as an ideal by small government advocates. What politician today would dare to suggest such a thing?

American Sphinx was first published in 1998. Two years later, Ellis made news when it emerged that he’s a liar himself. He had claimed in a number of venues (including press interviews) that he’d served in Viet Nam as a paratrooper, and had been active in the civil rights and peach movement activist. The claims were fabrications. When asked to explain them, he told the AP that he’d done it because of his dysfunctional family and alcoholic father.

For me, this scandal doesn’t necessarily detract from the pleasure of reading Ellis’ books. But it does suggest a curious parallel between Ellis and his subject. Jefferson railed against the national debt, for instance, but was in his personal life a profligate spender who never lived within his means; he was consequently bankrupt at the time of his death. His words “all men are created equal” are so much a part of the American mind that people who can’t even name Obama’s vice presidental candidate could no doubt recite them. Yet Jefferson not only held slaves himself, he refused to tackle the problem of slavery as a politician, preferring to bequeath the issue to future generations — who consequently fed his tree of liberty with the blood of some 620,000 Americans between 1861 and 1865. Nice work, TJ.

Ellis ascribes Jefferson’s tendency to self-contradiction to his character, as suggested by the book’s subtitle. For instance, Ellis writes that Jefferson’s duplicity on slavery was “more self-deception than calculated hypocrisy.”

Then Ellis gets truly weird, writing it was “the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart.”

Come again?

One wonders of whom Ellis was really writing, when he penned that sentence. Himself, perhaps?

And so we look with fresh eyes at Ellis’ statements equating liberalism to “the people” and conservatism to “elites.” Ellis, himself an elite, dismisses the advocacy of minimalist government as “irrelevant;” in so doing, he sweeps aside the policy preferences of “the people,” if by “the people” you mean folks who are by definition not elites, because they don’t have connections in high places, they aren’t represented by Congressional caucuses or national get-out-the-vote organizations: small business owners, the middle class — people who don’t hold advanced degrees, who aren’t held in esteem by the press, who have no friends in Washington because they don’t have the money, pooled or individually, to buy them.

I’m an optimist by nature, so I won’t give up on the notion of minimalist government. But things do look pretty grim. We’re gathering momentum by the hour toward what Peter Wehner and Paul Ryan, writing on Friday’s WSJ op-end page, called “a tipping point for democratic capitalism:”

The last several months are a foreshadowing of a new era of government activism, rather than an unfortunate but necessary (and anomalous) emergency action. We will soon shift from a market-based economy to a political one in which the government picks winners and losers and extends its reach and power in unprecedented ways.

Mmmm. That’s exactly what is worrying us — we, “the people” — a.k.a. the adults in the room.

So. Joe. Loved the book. But advocacy of small government isn’t irrelevant. It’s just politically inconvenient. And elites like you who want to brush it aside are guilty of abetting those in power — those who hope Americans have forgotten their roots and will continue to trade their hard-won income for big government promises of everlasting existential peace.

He was a hypocrite, yes, but on the subject of the size of government, Jefferson’s public persona got it right.

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