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How Radical Was Jefferson?

Philosopher David Hume in “Of the Original Contract” speaks out against the revolutionist proclamations of many of the Whigs of his day, because they reify “liberty,” or see it as either some sort of telos toward which humans are moving or some sort of guiding principle that inevitably leads to happiness. Whig liberty promises instability, and bodes the possibility of degeneracy or anarchy. Even when he considers the numerous merits of republicanism—and he considers himself in some measure a republican and even champions the American cause for independence—Hume never countenances extreme liberty—i.e., revolution as an expression of liberty or with liberty as its telos. “The people must not pretend, because they can, by their consent, lay the foundations of government, that therefore they are to be permitted, at their pleasure, to overthrown and subvert them. There is no end of these seditious and arrogant claims.” He adds: “In reality, there is not a more terrible event, than a total dissolution of government, which gives liberty to the multitude, and makes the determination of choice of a new establishment depend upon a number, which nearly approaches to that of the body of the people.” The issue, for Hume, is that when one leaves it to the masses to both overthrow a government and determine a new one, the result will likely be anarchic.

Hume’s objections seem to apply neatly to Jefferson, who lists liberty as one of the fundamental rights in his Declaration of Independence and argues that citizens have a right to “alter or abolish” any government that fails to secure its citizens’ fundamental rights. Moreover, Jefferson argues vigorously for the benefits of periodic rebellions. To Edward Carrington (16 Jan. 1787), he says that turbulence, through rebellion, “prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.” To James Madison (30 Jan. 1787), he says: “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishments of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Later in the year (Nov. 13), he says in a letter to William Stevens Smith: “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion [as Shay’s]. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” The last sentiment is astonishingly bold: Periodic rebellion, even when acting on misinformation, is preferable to inactivity. To William Short (3 Jan. 1793), Jefferson thus laments the gross loss of life in the French Revolution. “My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, 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 as it now is.”

Such passages have convinced some scholars—e.g., Conor Cruise O’Brien in The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800—that Jefferson was an extreme liberal, at least in some phase of his life, for whom the prize of liberty was so great that any means of attainment, however sanguinary, was warrantable.

We must be mindful not to conflate “rebellion” and “revolution.” In the letters to Carrington, Madison, and Smith, Jefferson writes of rebellion, not revolution. To Smith, Jefferson adds concerning the worth of rebellions in a thriving republican government. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.” Manure is needed for healthy governing because those governing will tend to govern in their own interests if not carefully watched. Moreover, those governed will assume mistakenly that rights once granted will be rights always granted. Rebellion is the mechanism whereby those governing are periodically reminded that government in a Jeffersonian republic is of and for the people. Such manure, used in a non-sanguinary manner, is perhaps much needed today to counteract the inveterate complacency and political disconnect of most Americans.

Revolution for Jefferson is a complex phenomenon. He writes in his Declaration of Independence, “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Thus, a revolution is never to be undertaken for slight reasons or because of singular cases of governmental abuse.

To John Adams (4 Sept. 1823), Jefferson writes of the beginning, sustainment, and resolution of revolutions. “The generation which commences a revolution can rarely compleat [sic] it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified, when called on, to think and provide for themselves, and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often, in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides to defeat their own rights and purposes.” Revolutions cannot be expected to establish a sustainable, free government in the first effort. Moreover, the revolutionary generation is generally suited to begin and sustain the revolution, but not resolve it. It is, for Jefferson, incapable of fixing a viable republican constitution.

In sum, there are generational responsibilities for a Jeffersonian revolution to succeed. The role of the first generation is inchoate. Subsequent generations must sustain and complete the initial effort to usurp the coercive government. In the final stage, there is implementation of a constitution, reflective of the will of the people.

Thus, a Jeffersonian revolution is not impetuous. Generated by the indignancy of injustice, it is sustained by such indignancy, and it aims at the just instantiation of a government reflective of the will of the people. Yet its success, like success at war, requires systemic planning, and that rules out any form of revolution that, in Hume’s words, gives liberty “to the multitude” and “makes the determination of choice of a new establishment depend upon a number, which nearly approaches to that of the body of the people.”

Thus, a Jeffersonian revolution—a revolution against a tyrannical government with the aim of republican governing—is a process that is well planned and tardigrade. As T.V. Smith says in “Thomas Jefferson and the Perfectibility of Mankind”—a paper whose arguments have lost none of their cogency over time—“Jefferson saw that when you have discounted the reaction which revolution always provokes, the long way of gradualism through compromise is ordinarily a shorter path to progress than any short cut of revolution.” He sums, “Jefferson’s philosophy of means—gradualism by majority rule through the strategy of compromise—reduced ‘the perfectibility of mankind’ to a faith in the snail-like pace of evolution.”

In that regard, Jefferson, like Hume, grants the weighty difficulties in beginning, sustaining, and succeeding with a revolution. He thinks that the reward of a successful revolution, if motivated by release from long abusive government, is always worth the sanguinary effort. Yet he cautions in his Declaration, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Given this cautionary remark and other statements concerning revolution and war, Jefferson does not seem so far removed from Hume.

Yet Hume would counter that appeal to actual revolutions shows Jefferson’s notion of revolution is quixotic. For Hume, revolutions are philosophically founded on the sort of frenzied, false philosophy which feeds on enthusiasm, contagious to the masses, but often rapidly extinguished. One such fiction is the seemingly innocuous, even manifestly hale, notion of absolute human rights. Another fiction is the progressive unfolding of liberty—“a latter-day ‘refinement’ of that Whiggism against which Hume carried on a lifelong struggle.” A third fiction is that government can be founded on the consent of the people, which presupposes “all men [being] possessed of so perfect an understanding, as always to know their own interests.” Jefferson bought into all three Humean fictions. No civil society for Hume can conform to any once-and-for-all prescribed set of rules any more than one can fit once-and-for-all rules to a language. In the end, a revolution for Hume, because it is actuated by principles, almost always leaves a nation worse than it was prior to it.