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Was Jefferson an 'Implacable Racist'? : THE LONG AFFAIR: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800. By Conor Cruise O'Brien (University of Chicago Press: $29.95, 367 pp.)

November 10, 1996|Joyce Appleby

As if the slurs and mudslinging of a prolonged presidential campaign have not caused pain enough, along comes Conor Cruise O'Brien, the distinguished Irish journalist and diplomat, with an urgent demand to eject Thomas Jefferson from America's pantheon of national heroes. Mindful that our "deluded" admiration of Jefferson might be viewed as a purely domestic matter, O'Brien globalizes the stakes: Democracies around the world depend on the United States for leadership that must be "unequivocally multiracial," he writes, making Jefferson "a most particularly aggressive and vindictive racist."

"The Long Affair" of the title refers to Jefferson's ardent embrace of the French Revolution, which O'Brien converts into a sinister ploy. The book is best read as a lawyer's brief, or better yet, a prosecutor's summary to the jury. First there is the matter of charges: Jefferson was "a determined and implacable racist" and a "ruthless prophet" of liberty. The motivation: Virginians, fearful that slavery was threatened by the power of Northern cities (5% of the population in 1790) and reluctant to defend their institutions, openly looked for "a general topic . . . which would enable the South to take the high moral ground against the North," which it was the political genius of Jefferson to find in the cult of the French Revolution.

The proof: a hodgepodge of Jefferson's statements about the French Revolution, liberty and slavery set forth in a forensic narrative. As prosecutor, O'Brien treats his readers like the captive audience a jury really is, banging away at the accused while introducing lengthy extracts from 18th century documents, interspersed with tendentious interpretations.

Not having much in the way of hard evidence for his charge, O'Brien makes the most of some lines Jefferson wrote to his former secretary, who had remained in Paris after Jefferson returned home in 1789. Chiding William Short for becoming alarmed by the increasing violence in France (this was before the Reign of Terror), Jefferson revealed the depth of his commitment to the revolution: "The liberty of the whole Earth was depending on the issue of the contest and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the Earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country and left free, it would be better than as it now is."

Not being able to separate rhetoric from reality, O'Brien concludes--in an amazing stretch--that the Oklahoma City bombing would find favor with Jefferson, a judgment confirmed in his eyes by the fact that our contemporary militiamen admire him! Relying on this striking piece of Jeffersonian hyperbole, he goes on to say, " . . . revolutionaries of any stripe, whether right or left, have equal entitlement to his blessing, provided they are prepared to kill and die for whatever version of liberty they happen to believe in."

Historians have never been shy about discussing Jefferson's support of the French Revolution. His Federalist opponents harped on it endlessly and commentators ever since have recognized that the revolution represented a symbol of universal emancipation to Jefferson. Once back at home as secretary of state in Washington's administration, he was slow to criticize its excesses, linking the fate of freedom in France and the United States in a way that seems strange to us now. What O'Brien has added to this consensus is a bizarre reaction best captured in his remark that he finds it difficult to resist "the conclusion that the 20th century statesman whom the Thomas Jefferson of January 1793 would have admired most is Pol Pot."

Presenting Jefferson's revolutionary enthusiasm as an idiosyncratic infatuation, O'Brien treats the French Revolution frivolously, as if it were a football team: One is either for it or against it, and Edmund Burke becomes the ultimate handicapper predicting its losses. The author provides no explanation why passionate believers in natural rights thrilled to a popular uprising that brought down a decadent monarchy. Stripped of such context, there is no hint of why contemporaries loathed the old regime.

How might one illuminate the muddle O'Brien makes of the Founding Fathers and the meaning they drew from the American and French revolutions? We could begin with the mixed and powerful effect of the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.

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