Past Imperfect

Thomas Jefferson, The Atlantic, and the mything of the past

By Dan Kennedy

Published October 14, 1996 10:33AM (EDT)

in the cover piece of the current Atlantic Monthly, Conor Cruise
O'Brien puts forth a controversial -- hell, heretical -- argument: that
Thomas Jefferson should be disqualified from civic sainthood because he was
a radical libertarian who cheered the worst excesses of the French
Revolution, and a racist even when compared with his fellow slaveholders.
In "Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist," O'Brien writes that the only
Americans who might properly keep alive the cult of Jefferson are
lunatic-fringe militia groups attracted to his nihilistic notions of
liberty and his unwavering belief in the supremacy of whites. And O'Brien's
certainly not afraid to drive the point home: he identifies Timothy McVeigh
as Jefferson's true ideological descendant.

Earlier this month in Faneuil Hall, perhaps about a mile from The
Atlantic's offices, two eminent historians, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Alan
Brinkley, and an economist who thinks like a historian, John Kenneth
Galbraith, sat down together to attempt to answer a question: Does history

With a painting of Daniel Webster sternly holding forth for "liberty and
union now and forever" overhead, and with busts of John Adams, John Quincy
Adams, and Frederick Douglass arrayed behind the speakers, the historic
hall was clearly not a setting in which anyone was going to answer that
question in the negative.

O'Brien's article, though, raised the stakes considerably for the panel,
which was co-sponsored by the Ford Hall Forum and Harper's Magazine, and moderated by
Harper's editor Lewis Lapham.

The mood was set by Brinkley, a professor at Columbia University whose
"Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression"
won the 1983 National Book Award. "History is, whether we like it or not,
an instrument of power," he said.

And in what O'Brien calls the "American civil religion," few icons have
been invested with as much power as Thomas Jefferson. So when a member of
the audience asked about O'Brien's thesis, the historians were ready.

First came Brinkley, of whom it might be said that the term "mild-mannered"
makes him sound more aggressive than he really is. It wasn't long before he
was contradicting himself: "Much of what he (O'Brien) says about Jefferson
is certainly true," Brinkley conceded, before quickly moving on to
O'Brien's perceived sins. "He compares Jefferson to the standards of our
own time instead of to his," Brinkley charged. He then immediately reversed
course by acknowledging that O'Brien had compared Jefferson with his peers,
but charging that his range was too narrow.

Brinkley, though, was strictly the warm-up act. Waiting in the wings was
the gnomish yet aggressively engaged Schlesinger, a JFK intimate best known
for his post-assassination biography "A Thousand Days."

There was nothing new in O'Brien's piece, Schlesinger sneered: "What
offended me was the sense that he was the great iconoclast, revealing
long-concealed facts." And though Schlesinger considers himself more a
Hamiltonian than a Jeffersonian, he nevertheless said he was deeply
offended at what he considered to be O'Brien's utter botching of the
historical record. "I thought this was a third-rate piece by a man who
doesn't know much about American history and is well-known for his
egotism," Schlesinger said, drawing a few laughs and a few "ooohs" from the
polite, tweedy crowd.

Galbraith stayed out of it, either not having an opinion of O'Brien or not
willing to share it.

If history is, as Brinkley said, an instrument of power, that power is
mainly symbolic, seen and felt in the myths by which a culture defines and
unites itself. Brinkley and Schlesinger may well have a better handle on
Jefferson than does O'Brien; yet O'Brien offers some pretty compelling
evidence that the symbolism surrounding Jefferson has been tampered with.
In particular, Jefferson's alleged ringing denunciation of slavery, carved
in stone at the Jefferson Memorial, is revealed to have been cobbled
together from two separate sources, taken out of context, and with
explicitly racist content edited out. "The distortion by suppression has to
be deliberate," O'Brien writes.

Or as Schlesinger put it Thursday evening: "The glorification of the past
is something to which all peoples are given."

Schlesinger also spoke of how amused he is when he hears anyone talk of the
"definitive" biography of someone, or the "definitive" history of a
particular time and place. Historical exercises are never definitive, he
said; historians are always revising the works of their predecessors,
applying newly discovered facts and new interpretations.

That's what Conor Cruise O'Brien has done with Jefferson. Next month his
book, "The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution,
1785-1800," will be published by the University of Chicago Press. Some
critics, no doubt, will join with Schlesinger and Brinkley in tearing it
apart. Others will praise it. What's certain is that it will force us to
rethink the life of a man whose place in the American mythology until now has
been as secure as Washington's or Lincoln's.

Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy is the media reporter for the Boston Phoenix.

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