View of the West Front of Monticello
Jane Pitford Braddick Peticolas
Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc.
Thomas Jefferson always and ever enjoys a reputation as an authentic American radical, even revolutionary. Federalists feared, honestly feared him, and gruesomely predicted dwellings in flames, female chastity violated, and churches destroyed. Fisher Ames1 scented "the loathsome steam of human victims offered in sacrifice to the God of Reason." In truth, Jefferson deplored the excesses of the French Revolution; he never set out to destroy religion, the laws, the society, the calendar.
But his sentiments frighten people yet. They cite his advocacy of tiny ward/republics as the basic units of political life, or they quote his most incendiary observations:
"The earth belongs, in usufruct,2 to the living."
"I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."
"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."
"To attain all this, however, rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over; yet the object is worth rivers of blood, and years of desolation."
Two points here. First, Jefferson was habitually given to hyperbole and exaggeration. In the Declaration of Independence he accused poor George III of "works of death, desolation, and tyranny already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages." Rather than see the French Revolution fail he opined, "I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve, left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is." The world's population at the time was roughly nine hundred million, and there were, at best, fifty countries. Would Jefferson kill off 899,999,900 people?
Second, all these wild expressions of death and anarchy are contained in private letters–to James Madison, John Adams, and others. They were not intended for public consumption. They are known to us, now, but not to Jefferson's contemporaries. Who among us would wish their private, most intimate thoughts elevated into a public philosophy? The private Jefferson could be explosive; publicly, he was most often a practical, moderate, empirical statesman.
1. Fisher Ames (1758–1808) was a Federalist Congressman in the 1790s, an orator, and publicist, who favored a republic but feared democracy.
2. A legal term defining use but not ownership or destruction of property.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities