A slave to liberal passions

Godfrey Hodgson dethrones a Founding Father; The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution by Conor Cruise O'Brien, Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 25

Three monuments dominate the Mall in Washington, celebrating the trinity of the American civil religion. A tall obelisk commemorates George Washington, father of American independence. A porticoed temple celebrates Lincoln, the renewer of the covenant. And a dome, reflected in the Tidal Basin, glorifies Thomas Jefferson, near-holy spirit of the American ideology.

Inside the Jefferson memorial, a number of texts were inscribed, including three about slavery: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free."

The last sentence, taken from Jefferson's Autobiography, is incomplete. It continues, as Conor Cruise O'Brien points out, to state that "Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Native habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them."

The suppression of the second half is only a detail in the long campaign to conceal the awkward fact that the imperishable author of the ringing declaration that all men were created equal was not only a slave-owner but also a racist.

Nor can this be brushed aside with the defence that he only reflected the prejudices of his time. George Washington did not share Jefferson's racism. Jefferson believed, as Washington did not, that there was no future for black people in the United States and he therefore advocated that. freed slaves should be sent "back where they came from", in the phrase beloved of modern British racists.

The evidence O'Brien deploys has been painstakingly accumulated by a whole younger generation of American historians. It includes the fact that Jefferson tried to write into the laws of Virginia two proposals that were too strong even for his fellow-slave-owners. One would have made it illegal for free Negroes to enter the state, or to stay there once freed. The other would have removed from "the protection of the laws" any white woman who bore a black man's child: an invitation to lynching.

Thanks to earlier southern historians, it is widely believed that Jefferson, although a slave-owner, wanted to abolish slavery. He did condemn slavery, and no doubt he hated it, if only because of the contradiction between his ideology of liberty and the reality of his life. But he went to great lengths to recapture and punish his own runaways.

Unlike Washington, he did not free his own slaves in his will, with the exception of four who were probably his own children. O'Brien accepts that we shall not know for certain whether Jefferson was the father of Beverley, Harriet, Madison and Eston Hemings, the children of his servant Sally Hemings, until DNA testing has been carried out on their remains. The guardians of the Jefferson cult have always poured scorn on the tale that Sally was Jefferson's mistress. But what is not in doubt is that Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson's own wife, daughter of a liaison between Martha Jefferson's father and a slave.

It is not the chief purpose of O'Brien's book to portray Jefferson as a racist or a hypocrite. Its theme is his role as the principal champion in America of the French Revolution. Although generations of Jeffersonians have portrayed their hero as a pillar of an American democratic tradition far removed from the ferocity of Robespierre, O'Brien notes that Jefferson continued to defend the atrocities in France. After the king's execution, Jefferson as Secretary of State wrote to his charge d'affaires in Paris that "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 until long after the Terror did Jefferson condemn the Revolution. And then, suggests O'Brien, one significant factor was Robespierre's proposal, in response to the slave rebellion in Haiti, to emancipate the slaves in all French and British colonies.

"How is it", Dr Johnson asked, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?" The remark has usually been dismissed as a cheap shot from a resentful Tory. But O'Brien suggests there may indeed have been a connection between the cult of Liberty in Virginia and slavery. Liberty to white Virginians included the liberty to own slaves.

Nothing can now change the fact, he believes, that the US will increasingly be a multi-racial society. The mainstream will therefore soon eject Jefferson from the American trinity. He will be left to that minority who defend white supremacy and States' Rights. Both suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing claimed him as an inspiration. Timothy McVeigh, when arrested, was wearing a T-shirt inscribed "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

The traditional view of Jefferson is that he was a passionate advocate of liberty for all trapped in the position of owning slaves. O'Brien brings to Jefferson his suspicion of the harm done by revolutionary rhetoric in Ireland and his sympathy for Edmund Burke's negative view of the French Revolution. Making allowance for that, he has put the torch of his persuasive gifts to the evidence heaped up by revisionist historians. Together they have scorched the marble statesman of the Tidal Basin. The questions about Jefferson's ideological legacy raise questions about the nature of US civil religion - and the extent to which it extends its offer of equality to those who are not white North Americans.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing