Review: Jefferson and the Virginians

W. Bland Whitley

Bland Whitley is Senior Editor for the Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University.

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W. Bland Whitley, "Review: Jefferson and the Virginians," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Peter S. Onuf. Jefferson and the Virginians: Democracy, Constitutions, and Empire. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018. 216 pp. 978-0-80716-989-6.

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This slim but potent volume by Peter Onuf puts Thomas Jefferson in conversation with the three other Virginians of his era who played outsized roles in the American Revolution and in the establishment of the early republic: Patrick Henry, James Madison, and George Washington. With the first and last of these men, Jefferson was aligned at different points of his career before becoming a critic—bitterly in the case of the former and regretfully in the case of the latter. Although Jefferson’s ideas did not always exactly match those of Madison, the two forged the most important political partnership of the era, both in their native state and in the nation they helped define and govern.

Onuf posits Jefferson’s first inaugural address as the essential summation of his republican political philosophy. Republican government encouraged people to become “conscious of their own rights” and to respect the rights of others (20). Ideally, it allowed citizens to exercise sovereignty through ascending layers of governing units—from the “ward republics” that Jefferson favored, to counties, states, and the national government. Stripped of the unnatural hierarchies and arbitrary powers of the monarchical regime, Americans were free to experiment and to let reason guide them toward ever more perfect forms of government. Onuf ties this notion of perfectibility to Jefferson’s deistic theology. Through the Trinitarian mystification of Jesus and their monopolization of religious authority, “priests” (and here, Jefferson included both Catholic and Protestant divines) had supported ignorance. Stressing the ethical teachings of Jesus, which all people could grasp, would foster greater understandings of “Nature’s God.” Governance and religious understanding both lay within the capacity of ordinary citizens.

Onuf next turns his attention to Jefferson’s peers. Radical revolutionary though he was, Henry was the most conservative in his approach. Through close observation of his fellows, he developed a kind of organic connection to everyday people and a distrust of efforts to systematize political conduct. He opposed Jefferson’s and Madison’s efforts to devise new rules for Virginia and the United States. In many respects, he remained very much devoted to the English constitutional approach—of “real checks and balances” (69) developed over time as opposed to the idealized alternatives proposed under the U.S. Constitution. Still, although he had been Virginia’s leading anti-federalist, he ended his life a committed Federalist, loyal to Washington and antagonistic toward the party system that Jefferson and Madison were creating, which he viewed as a divisive mobilization of self-interested actors and not the “union of patriots” (78) that emerged during the Revolution.

Perhaps because Henry competed with his own self-conception as a tribune of the people, Jefferson came to resent his fellow revolutionary, often in petty and bitter ways. Madison, annoyed by Henry’s opposition to reformist measures such as Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom, joined him in this stance. Madison’s drive for a new national compact was in one sense profoundly anti-democratic. The people, as represented by state governments, were given to misrule and sometimes to anarchy. Through a new constitution, Madison hoped to create a nationalized people, who could overwhelm the more parochial concerns of localized bodies. The Constitution, however, compromised this vision—Madison was forced to sacrifice his original plan that would have given the federal government authority to veto legislation passed by individual states. Jefferson, looking on from Paris, was mostly pleased by the final result. Although recognizing the need for a strong national government capable of dealing with other countries, Jefferson saw no need to weaken the states as self-governing bodies. Where the two saw eye to eye was in Madison’s expansiveness. Jefferson recognized that an inversion of classical and early modern doctrine about the appropriate size of a republic—from small to big—was ideally suited to the United States.

This continental vision of an expanding republic brought Jefferson into partnership with Washington. Trained as a surveyor in late colonial Virginia and always an energetic land speculator, Washington seems never to have lost his eye for land acquisition and settlement as an essential goal of statecraft. The British had mismanaged this effort and trampled on citizens’ rights, but Washington was fully comfortable with empire. An active federal state became part and parcel of this vision, and the states mere “wretched fragments of Empire” (121). For Jefferson, however, states remained essential units of governance. Moreover, territorial expansion need not require the overweening, British-style state that Jefferson perceived as the goal of Federalists. All that was required was a proper framework for settling new lands, which would enable republican citizens to start constituting local governments. Jefferson’s and Madison’s innovation of a party system through which citizens would act signaled their break from Washington’s attempt to create a unified republican state commanding the respect and obedience of all Americans.

As the above summary indicates, Onuf’s work is very much a history of ideas. Those seeking an analysis of how Jefferson interacted with other, non-famous Virginians should look elsewhere. Although Onuf does pay some attention to the late colonial Virginia elite that shaped his subjects and to the system of slavery that each oversaw, his concern throughout is in the kind of republicanism that each promoted. Consider that both warning and praise. No scholar working today is better suited than Onuf to offer a deep appraisal of Jefferson’s ideology, and his choice to bounce Jefferson’s ideas off those of his allies and sometime rivals illuminates what made those ideas so powerful to his fellow Americans, then and now.