The Revolutionary Thomas Jefferson

Posted on August 4, 2013


On July 30 the columnist Cal Thomas, with whom I share some similar political and religious sentiments, got on a roll and knocked Ho Chi Minh for expressing admiration of Thomas Jefferson in Ho’s early revolutionary years.

Cal basically said that Ho, the man who led North Viet Nam into the Communist camp and kicked the Americans out of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, was simply a brutal dictator, tyrant, and oppressor and no one with his record can legitimately claim to be an admirer of our Thomas Jefferson.

But may I suggest that Thomas Jefferson, a revolutionary and a traitor (to the British of course) in his own time, has inspired revolutionaries of all stripes–including Ho– across the last two centuries.

That Ho was moved by political sentiments of equality and liberty–both espoused with almost fanatical devotion by Jefferson in his lifetime—is quite probably true.

What followed afterwards in Vietnam, the crafting of an authoritarian Communist state was no fault of Jefferson, or of his principles which inexorably coupled liberty and republicanism.

This was obviously not the case with Ho. He certainly desired liberty for his people, especially from French colonial rule, which fit in right well with Jeffersonian principles. But what Ho established after French rule was not what Jefferson and the founding fathers established in this country.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh

Cal is somewhat right in pointing to various evil political figures in the world who have occasionally mentioned Jefferson and other American virtues to cover their sins. The old saying is imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

What is crucial to understand is that our nation was born in a revolution, and so revolutionary causes—good or bad—often see in our beginnings, and especially in the writings of a Jefferson, elements they lift and draw into their narrative of revolution, liberty, and freedom.

But those are volatile ingredients if not handled correctly.

What Jefferson did was to connect freedom (and liberty and revolution) to the establishment of a republic ruled by the people.

The very word republic comes from joining the Latin “res” or matter, affair or thing with “publicus” or people. In a republic, power rests with the people. It is not inherited such as in a monarchy where the nobility have power by virtue of their birth.

Jefferson was adamant on that point.

His notion that power lay with the people, and the people chose their leaders and legislators in periodic elections, was subversive in the world of the eighteenth century where all nations, with a few odd exceptions like Switzerland, were governed by emperors and kings, and nobles by virtue of their birth.

The brilliant political architecture that Jefferson left us was no less successful than what he did as a practical politician, a leader amazingly successful in putting his ideas to work in the landmine strewn world of applied politics.

jefferson-draftingThomas Jefferson, perhaps drafting the Declaration of Independence

There are several distinct sides to Jefferson, and Ho and others have not always linked them successfully like Jefferson did.

One principle, for example, was Jefferson’s devotion to liberty.

Another side of him despised hereditary monarchies and nobilities and so he was drawn to the notion of a republic governed by the “people,” a slippery term that has been employed over the centuries to justify rule by a lot of tyrants and dictators, such as Ho.

And we should add a few other principles that drove Jefferson, including the curious, and subversive, notion that all men are created equal and have equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

That principle was considered preposterous and totally subversive of God’s order as interpreted by the Church of England. But a lot of Americans believed in it and it became imbedded in our collective political psyche as the critical prologue to the best form of government–a republic–devised by man.

Jefferson also was wedded to the notion that ultimate truth and progress was embodied in the rational mind of man. He was a child of the Enlightenment and thought that organized religion, such as the Church of England, which supported the monarchy and established order, needed to be removed from participating in public life.

So he became a lifelong advocate of the church separated from the state. And he is still quoted, and misquoted, by those holding fast to the strict separation of church and state in public life

He was a Deist, he believed in a Higher Order (the Christian God by and large) that ruled the universe, and by extension, also man’s world. He received the final rites from an Episcopalian priest on his death bed July 4, 1826.

To write that he was a complicated man is understatement.

Some of his principles contradicted each other, plain and simple. He believed in the liberty of all men, and yet he held slaves and even sired children by his slave mistress Sally Hemings, although years after his beloved wife died.

He wanted to rid America of slavery, a moral evil, but he didn’t know how, even when he held power as president for eight years, 1801-1809.

To bring about liberty, the old British monarchy and its handmaiden, Parliament, had to go in the colonies and be replaced by a republic.

But a government responding to the “people,” whether indirectly like in presidential or senate races, or directly for those running for the House of Representatives, was a nasty business. While the franchise was rather narrowly limited by sex (no women voted), race (no slaves voted), and even by property, these early elections were every bit as mean and vicious as todays.

Jon Meacham’s new biography of Thomas Jefferson especially focuses on not only Jefferson the great political philosopher who crafted the Declaration of Independence, but also on the man. It is sensitive, sympathetic and takes realistic stock of a monumental man, but still a man.

We often point to the “Founding Fathers” as we do to great monuments. These Jeffersons and Washingtons and Adams are all categorized as heroic, their political truths distilled into the founding documents like the Constitution.

They are in fact frozen in time. But as Meacham reminds us in his biography, and as Cal Thomas reminded me in his little rant on Jefferson and Ho, Jefferson is far too human and complex and ambiguous to be easily classified.

Just like Ho, Jefferson was a revolutionary, but revolutionaries take us down many different roads.

And, as Jefferson expressed in a famous letter to his friend and fellow Viriginian, James Madison, “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” It was written about property but it has a broader meaning I think.

Each generation has a right to determine its destiny. But, equally, each generation owes its plenty to past generations, and is entrusted with the earth as stewards in the Bible are entrusted with God’s goodness.

What is brilliant about Jefferson is that he captured some of the most abiding of Christian principles—equality of all before God for example—with the loftiest of secular sentiments of his times—reason occupies a space as important as faith—and forged them into creeds we still abide by today.

Whether they have lasted this long is Providential, or a paean to reason, is probably disputable. That they were given voice by Jefferson is not.

And that a Ho Chi Minh found them desirable is not unusual either. Jefferson was a revolutionary for all seasons.

Posted in: History