The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is a little different from the other great monuments of Washington, D.C. Standing apart from the bustle of the National Mall, it nestles peacefully amid the greenery ringing the banks of the Tidal Basin. The purity of its brilliant white dome makes for one of the city’s loveliest sights, particularly when framed in spring by the pink splendor of the Basin’s famous cherry blossoms. Such an exquisite natural setting for John Russell Pope’s stately neoclassical design has seemed to make the memorial an appropriate embodiment of the man it memorializes—elegant, poised, orderly, delicate, tasteful, self-contained, cool, and aloof.
Yet for all its beauty it is also among the least visited of the great monuments. Tourists rarely miss the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial. But they often will take a pass on visiting the Jefferson, being content to view it from afar, or to glimpse it fleetingly while driving across the Potomac River to or from Virginia. It is a little off the beaten path. But so are many of the world’s great shrines, and few are as restful and appealing. Why, then, this neglect of Mr. Jefferson’s place? Is this any way for us to treat the author of the most sacred of our civil-religious scriptures, the only American who has ever been seriously put forward as a candidate for “the man of the millennium”?
Part of the answer surely has to do with the steady erosion of Jefferson’s reputation in recent years. The Apollonian composure of the Jefferson Memorial represents only part of the Jefferson story. To call Thomas Jefferson a complex, paradoxical, and even contradictory figure is, by now, merely to repeat conventional wisdom that has become an idée fixe of Jefferson scholarship. Every biographer in recent years (including Michael Knox Beran in his new study, Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind) has been intent upon showing us a more human Jefferson—more conflicted, more tortured, more indecisive, more elusive, more Dionysian. Yet the humanity thereby exposed has come at the expense of his public stature. No one dares to speak anymore of the Sage of Monticello without using scare quotes. The historian Joseph J. Ellis, in fact, went so far as to reassign the title to Jefferson’s rival, John Adams, naming his study of Adams Passionate Sage (2001). Ellis’s biography of Jefferson? It’s called American Sphinx (1996).
Some of this reassessment is deserved. The excessive claims on Jefferson’s behalf for so many years, in both the popular culture and the scholarly literature, and especially by his liberal and Southern admirers, could not survive an honest reckoning with his genuine failings and inconsistencies, especially with regard to his own slaveholding. Truth be told, there is precious little of Jefferson’s specific legacy as a political thinker that has survived intact into the twenty-first century. The Civil War demolished the concept of state sovereignty and undermined the “compact” theory of the Constitution. The rapid disappearance of the Western frontier, the growth of massive cities and a huge industrial economy, and the growing consolidation of agriculture put paid to Jefferson’s fervently held agrarian ideals. The Progressive movement and the New Deal—both championed by a political party that looked to Jefferson as its progenitor—brought an end to the Jeffersonian ideal of a minimal state. Jefferson would not have approved of the nation assuming the burden of world leadership in the years after the Second World War, or the burden of sustaining a massive standing armed force. By using the power of the national government to break down racial segregation in the South, the country renounced the racial separatism that Jefferson had insisted upon. Even Jefferson’s status as a principal figure in the American Enlightenment has suffered from the more general disparagement of the Enlightenment in the postmodern academy. Perhaps only Jefferson’s reputation as an advocate of free speech and religious liberty has survived, but even that record has been badly distorted by those who mistakenly make Jefferson into a militant partisan of the naked public square.
Still, the criticisms have gone too far. Jefferson is, in some ways, a victim of the present age’s small-minded rage against the very idea that imperfect men can still be heroes—and that we can need such heroes. Perhaps we live in an era that finds so little to admire in itself that it feels compelled to cut the storied past down to the size of the tabloid present. Certainly our era is only rarely capable of a mature exercise of the historical imagination, particularly when still-sensitive issues of race are involved. But when all is said and done, Thomas Jefferson deserves to be remembered and revered as a great intellect and great patriot whose worldwide influence for good has been incalculable and whose belief in the dignity, wisdom, and unrealized potential to be found in the minds and hearts of ordinary people is at the core of what is greatest in the American democratic experiment. It is in this sense that James Parton, one of Jefferson’s early biographers, was correct when he declared: “If Jefferson is wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.”
Michael Knox Beran seems to understand much of what is at stake here, and although Jefferson’s Demons can best be described as yet another study of Jefferson’s psychological and philosophical complexities, it is at least not an effort to debunk or degrade him. True, it is a book that is relentlessly situated in the psyche of its subject, with all other concerns tending to take a backseat. In that sense, it does not deviate much from the conventional pattern of recent years. Still, it often points us usefully toward a more seasoned and realistic understanding of the heroic, and for that reason, it is a valuable undertaking. It aims at a view of Jefferson that is genuinely admiring without skirting his faults.
But Beran’s Jefferson is nothing like the serene and composed presence suggested by the Jefferson Memorial. He is a man subject to remarkable internal conflicts, whose life moved in fits and starts, whose temper alternated between sunny optimism and black despair—between periods of frenetic public activity and times of intensely private (and often anguished) withdrawal, followed then by a burst of recovery and renewal of the cycle. Some of the most interesting observations offered by the book come in Beran’s discussion of Jefferson’s years in Paris from 1784 to 1789, when he was dispatched by the fledgling U.S. government to negotiate commercial agreements with the European powers. Jefferson had been sent abroad partly to help him shake off the despair that had enveloped him after his frustrating and tumultuous years as the governor of Virginia, followed by the devastating loss of his beloved wife. And the cure worked, bringing Jefferson a new energy and sense of purpose which would in turn fuel the most productive years of his public life.
Clearly a part of the cure was Jefferson’s infatuation with the Italian-born (and married) artist Maria Cosway, with whom he had a passionate but seemingly unconsummated involvement. That part of the story is well known, and its effect in reawakening Jefferson’s dormant passions and sentiments seems incontestable. But Beran also places great weight on the salutary effects of Jefferson’s grand-tour travels through the ancient towns and picturesque ruins of Mediterranean Europe, where he encountered evocative remnants of the old pagan civilizations of the distant past. Jefferson kept copious records of these encounters and recounted them with gusto. Beran argues that the experiences provided him with an infusion of élan vital, Dionysian energy to counter a gloom to which Apollonian rationalism had no answer. Beran adduces some evidence for the lingering effect of these experiences—at Monticello, for example, where Jefferson included griffins and images of blood sacrifice in the decor of his parlor, or in the imagery of Jefferson’s famous statement that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
It is not clear how important these claims are, even if they are true. But their plausibility tends to evaporate when they are considered in context. The decor of Jefferson’s parlor (as of 1809) was a hodgepodge of artifacts, featuring some forty-one paintings, including prominent portraits of Locke, Newton, Bacon, Columbus, Magellan, Washington, Franklin, and Madison—all figures important to Jefferson as conquistadors for the empire of reason. Jefferson’s house was filled with all kinds of bric-a-brac—telescopes, microscopes, clocks, musical instruments, card tables, Indian pipes, buffalo robes, antlers, bones, maps, and so on—suggestive of his immense curiosity and his wide interest in natural science, natural history, technological innovation, domestic amusement, and the great variety of human cultures and practices, past and present. Given Jefferson’s fascination with Native American culture, it is not really very surprising that images suggestive of pagan practices such as those Beran describes would be of interest to Jefferson. Almost everything else was, too. Attributing such overriding importance to just these particular things seems wildly arbitrary. Nor, for that matter, is there much significance to be derived from Jefferson’s image of “the blood of patriots and tyrants,” in which Beran claims to detect, in a particularly ingenious move, the influence of Mediterranean fertility mysticism, traceable to the cult of the Phrygian king-god Attys. It seems far more plausible, and much simpler, to call it a commonplace figure of speech.
Such is the pattern of much of Beran’s book: it piles up mountains of impressive but gratuitous erudition, expressed in exceptionally florid prose, to support arguments that are either familiar or slightly absurd, and that give us, in any event, an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the whole man. There is a thesis-driven quality to his use of such tangential evidence which leads to serious distortions. Almost absent from his portrait, for example, is a consideration of Jefferson’s overarching and unflagging interest in science, which was consistent throughout his adult life, as evidenced by his service as president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1815, years that encompass his two terms as President of the United States. Nor is proper attention paid to his overwhelming passion for gadgetry, which so impresses a visitor to Monticello: the revolving bookstand, the dumbwaiter, the copying machine, the automatic double doors, the Great Clock, the triple-sash window, and countless other gizmos that Jefferson himself either designed or adapted.
Perhaps even more importantly, Beran has nothing to say about the fact that beneath all of Jefferson’s varied interests was a robust and foundational concept of nature as a normative and intelligible force ordering the world. Jefferson’s commitment to a liberal and tolerant political order has nothing in common with postmodernism’s moral relativism and indifference to considerations of truth. On the contrary, his ideal political and social order is everywhere securely grounded in a normative understanding of nature, which supplies us with unproblematic, “self-evident” moral truths that are universally accessible to unaided human reason. Hence Jefferson saw nothing to fear from the unimpeded exercise of reason, since it would inevitably carry us all to the same safe harbor, in a way that the divisive, superstition-laced dogmas of tradition or revealed religion could not. Indeed, there was more to be feared from such dogmas, he thought, precisely because their acceptance might foster in the national character passivity and dependence, instead of the vigorous and independent “spirit” that democratic self-rule requires. To leave his concept of nature out of an account of Jefferson’s philosophy is like leaving God out of an account of John Calvin’s.
There are, however, two areas in which Beran’s account of Jefferson is very acute and well worth taking to heart. First, he stresses the centrality of Jefferson’s emphasis upon the “small platoons” of social existence, and the fact that this part of Jefferson’s philosophy still has much to teach us. For all his reclusiveness, Jefferson knew that public life was a kind of school of the soul and thought it crucial to preserve the vitality of local institutions, precisely because a constitutional order grounded in federalism and decentralization would allow citizens to perfect the full range of civic virtues through the exercise of their natural right to self-government. A consolidated national state, which eliminated such opportunities in the name of cultural unity and centralized efficiency, was not only constitutionally suspect and politically unwise in Jefferson’s eyes. It was morally wrong, since it deprived Americans of the proximate public venues in which they would have the opportunity to exercise their public selves. “Jefferson’s insight into the nature and function of the little community in a modern world,” Beran rightly concludes, “was full of moral intelligence.”
Bearn’s second useful point carries implications that take us far beyond Jefferson, to the roots of modernity itself. “He loved to play the child of light, the rational illuminato,” Beran writes. “Yet he drew on the very traditions he censured in order to tread out his own prophetic wine.” Exactly right. The sentence is an example of Beran’s tendency to overwrite, and to let his thoughts get obscured by mixed metaphors and convoluted syntax. But the thought behind it is not only correct but profound.
One cannot forget this tacit dependency on the past, not only in understanding Jefferson, but in assessing the careers of that gallery of conquistadors on his parlor wall, and with them, much of the intellectual history of modernity and postmodernity alike. We still live under the political and moral canopy of certain eighteenth-century documents, notably the Declaration of Independence itself, and it is therefore incumbent upon us to know what these documents mean and what beliefs they silently presume. Among these is a belief in the normative order of nature, without which Jefferson’s central commitment, and ours—to the dignity, wisdom, and unrealized potential to be found in the minds and hearts of ordinary people—is unlikely to have much of a future.
Wilfred M. McClay teaches history and humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His most recent book, co-edited with Hugh Heclo, is Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).