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Thomas Jefferson: A Scientific Man — Aug.-Sep. 1978

T.J. is less Locke, and more Hobbes.

By From the August-September 1978 issue

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In honor of president's day, the Spectator will be republishing this week essays and reviews on our nation's best — and worst — leaders.


Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence
By Garry Wills / Doubleday / $10.00

Garry Wills has probably always been most comfortable in the past. I first heard some of the ideas that found their way into Inventing America in the course of a Jefferson seminar Wills taught my freshman year at Yale; I also heard an account of Wills' first meeting with William F. Buckley, Jr. Wills, 23, was on the threshold of a ten-year association with National Review. At some point in their talk, Buckley asked Wills whether he was a conservative. "I'm a Distributist," Wills replied, "is that conservative?" Buckley considered—"Hugh Kenner tells me it's not"—but hired him anyway.

The past Wills inhabits in this book is the 18th-century world of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration—originally a propaganda piece whose drafting the powerhouses of the Second Continental Congress ceded to a young Virginia stand-in for Peyton Randolph, while they pursued more urgent matters—has since become a totem, potent and meaningless. Liberals, Wills argues, construe the preamble—"the pursuit of happiness"—as mandate for big government; while anti-Communists put the myth of America's special mission, of which the Declaration has become the seminal symbol, to even more heinous uses—"napalm and saturation bombing...or a Chile putsch." Inventing America seeks to recover the Declaration's original meaning, and to disarm the intellectual imperialists who have annexed it.

Whatever one thinks of Wills' purpose, one must admire his performance of the task. Wills' examinations of 18th-century thought and feeling have been painstaking, even painful (he has studied the paintings of Jean-Baptiste Greuze), and he catches less meticulous scholars in embarrassing postures. Wills perhaps has most fun with careless psychohistorians. Fawn Brodie, counting eight uses of the word “mulatto" in a twenty-five-page description of a tour through Holland, concludes that Jefferson was already in emotional travail over his quadroon slave, Sally Hemmings. But, Wills points out, in each case "mulatto" is a technical term for the classification of soil colors—one of a set of eight which Jefferson used on all his travels—and if it appears more frequently in the Holland journal than in, say, the French, that is because the soils of the two countries are different. "On the Holland tour, he used the word red only seven times in seven weeks; but in France he used it thirty-eight times in nine weeks. Does that mean he was entertaining incestuous anticipations of the arrival of his red- haired daughter?" Erik Erikson gets equally low marks. In Dimensions of a New Identity, Erikson huffs and puffs over a description of the Natural Bridge in Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia: "note, if you please...the juxtaposition of height and downfall, of sublime emotions—and the violent pain in the head." With a little less psycho, and a little more history, Erikson might have realized that all these elements were conventions of 18th-century descriptions of the "sublime"; to clinch the point, Wills quotes the Marquis de Chastellux, visiting the same spot, with the same reactions.

Wills has harder work attacking some older notions: that Jefferson was either an idealist (vague/visionary—pick one), or a disciple of Locke. The author of the Declaration, Wills maintains, was a scientific man who framed his document with a scientist's precision; while his chief intellectual creditor was not Locke, but the Scottish Enlightenment: Hume, Smith, and Francis Hutcheson.

In documenting Jefferson's scientism, Wills exposes a number of foibles which latter-day Jeffersonians have preferred to hush up. Jefferson's famous comment on Shay's insurrection— "God forbid he should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion"—strikes most modern admirers as a fine burst of anarchist sentiment. The number twenty, however, was not lightly chosen. Jefferson had deduced it from an analysis of French actuarial tables. At any point in time, Jefferson decided, half the people over age twenty-one (the age of legal majority) could expect to be dead "in 18 years 8 months, or say 19 years at the nearest integral number....Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right." If anything, Jefferson's rounding of nineteen to twenty was uncharacteristically loose.

The first draft of the Declaration expounded an equally eccentric theory. That Britain's rule was oppressive and unjust, and that the colonies had therefore the right to throw it off, were commonplaces of the revolutionary party. Jefferson added a further refinement: that the colonies had put themselves under British rule in the first place. Indeed, Americans were not "colonists" at all, but "emigrants." "Our ancestors," he declared in 1774, "before their emigration to America...possessed a right, which nature has given to all men... of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies....Settlement having been thus effected in the wilds of America, the emigrants thought proper to adopt that system of laws, under which they had hitherto lived." In the Declaration, this came out: "We have reminded [our British brethren] of the circumstances of our emigration & settlement here...that in constituting indeed our several forms of government, we had adopted one common king." Jefferson's fellow delegates were not persuaded, however, and in the final version the argument was cut—a bit of editorial license which Jefferson never forgave, and which he tried to emend by mailing copies of the first draft to his friends.

Wills explains the emigration theory with the help of his second point—that Jefferson as no Lockean. Locke's greatest hit in the eighteenth century was not the Two Treatises anyway, but the Essay concerning Humane Understanding (Wills digs up library figures to prove it); and Jefferson did not own a copy of the Treatises after 1815, perhaps even after 1770. More important, Wills reexamines Jefferson's work, where he finds little Locke, but generous helpings of Scottish Enlightenment. Following Hobbes, Locke maintained that men draw together into societies out of self-interest, to escape the risks and burdens of the state of nature. The Scots supplemented self-interest with a "moral sense"—a disinterested pleasure in observing and performing benevolent actions. "Moral goodness," wrote Francis Hutcheson in 1725, "procures approbation and love toward the actor from those who receive no advantage by the action." Hume (in 1740) put it more strongly: "The approbation of moral qualities most certainly is not derived from reason, or any comparison of ideas; but proceeds entirely from a moral taste." From this, it is but a step to Jefferson: "He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science....Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object....The moral sense, or con- science, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm." The importance of the emigration theory to the original draft of the Declaration now becomes clearer. The Americans severed all ties to England by emigrating, but restored them out of brotherly feeling—"adopted one common king, thereby laying a foundation for perpetual league & amity...." Yet British tyranny destroyed this amity; and so America was obliged to go its separate way. "These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unfeeling brethren." The Revolution, in Jefferson's view, was a consequence of abused sentiments, not broken contracts.

Wills explores a dozen other matters with like precision—how the Fourth became a holiday, though nothing was signed on it; why Jefferson opposed both slavery and individual manumission. Indeed, so thorough is his acquaintance with the eighteenth century, one hopes he will soon visit the twentieth.

For Wills has been suffering from a case of ideological chorea for ten years now, the symptoms of which include praising Lillian Hellman, excoriating smokers, and scoffing at any thought of a Soviet threat (except to the blue whale). Wills' condition is well known (he advertises it in a copious journalistic output); I mention it here only because Inventing America recalls to mind a particularly choice instance, and one in which I happen to have been marginally involved.

In the fall of 1973, the Yale Political Union invited William Shockley, inventor of the transistor and bizarro geneticist, to expound his views (other guests over the last five years have included members of the Spanish Communist Party and the PLO). Shockley, as everyone outside of Bhutan that season knew, believed that blacks were genetically less intelligent than whites, and that the government might be advised to consider eugenic measures. Incensed, the liberal members of the Union called for a referendum, and the Shockley invitation was rescinded. Yale's usually comatose YAF chapter then invited Shockley to a debate with publisher and columnist William Rusher, in order to establish two facts: 1) that private campus groups have a right to be addressed by whomever they choose; and 2) that Shockleyism is best refuted by conservatives. Shockley's "results," Rusher argued, were irrelevant; the state (or anyone else, for that matter) had no right to arrogate control over human lives. Campus tension built until the two opponents met in April, when a chanting, heckling mob shouted them down.

Wills wrote two syndicated columns on the subject. "The more respectable Right Wingers," he explained,

assure us they do not agree with Dr. Shockley— they just (shades of Voltaire) agree with his right to express his own views. They must pardon us if we doubt their total indifference to what Shockley is saying....

The university is not perfectly "value free" as some liberal theorists claim. Those universities in Germany that tolerated anti-Semitic teaching were not living up to some ideal of Socratic self-evaluation, but down to the lowest common denominator of that era's politics. Under cover of free scrutiny, they helped pave the way to a slaughter of Jews by the millions.

Then came the Yale contretemps.

Since YAF is a Right-wing organization, you might think it was sponsoring Shockley's views; but no, it claimed to be exposing him to the withering confutations of the Right....Somehow, that offer did not quite grab the Yalies where they live. When the debate was announced, people dissolved into laughter at the billing of racist Shockley as the liberal, to be debated by the conservative Rusher. [YAF indeed contended that Shockley, as a social engineer, was most accurately described as a liberal.] If you liked semi-fascism, you'll love the real thing. [Wills' prose gets a little woozy here— who is he calling semi-fascist? Shockley? Rusher? The liberals? Maybe he should take some stylistic lessons from Jefferson.]

Rusher assures us he would have argued that the government has no right to interfere with people's breeding habits... [but] what if Shockley proposes a system of bonuses and voluntary incentives?...No big government at all. A racism of the private sector. [Such a] neat package of prejudice and free enterprise might constitute an offer much of the Right-wing constituency could not refuse.

Ignore for the moment (it is not difficult) the argument. Consider only the epithets, rattling like cans tied to a stray dog's tail: "prejudice"; "racism"; "semi-fascism." This is a down-the-line smear, the kind of thing angry writers reserve for monsters, and sober writers reserve for their waste- baskets.

But if Wills gets so hopped up over YAF (which, after all, wanted Shockley beaten), what will he have left someone who writes things like this?—

Comparing [blacks] by their faculties of memory, reason and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to whites; in reason much inferior...; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.... Never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw even an elementary trace of painting or sculpture....They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.

The author, of course, is Thomas Jefferson (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV). Believing all this, Jefferson could still write that "all men are created equal." As Wills shows, he held with the Scots that intellectual and physical qualities were secondary to the "moral sense"; and since blacks (and Indians) possessed the moral sense to the same degree as whites, they were equally en- titled to freedom. "Whatever be their degree of talent," Jefferson wrote Bishop Henri Gregoire in 1809, "it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others." Jefferson's "understanding" has since been discarded (as will Shockley's); the best defense of human dignity (for any race—Shockley has also frowned on the genes of white Appalachians) is not scientific, but moral—precisely what Rusher would have said, if Wills' kids had let him.

But Rusher was not born in 1743, so Wills' patience and empathy do not extend to him. There is a certain vestigial civility in Wills' attitude—don't kick a man when he's dead. It could be worse—Hillaire Belloc spent an entire career kicking 16th- century Protestants. Though Wills' journalism is as shoddy as Belloc's, we can be all the more thankful for history as marvelous and exciting as Inventing America.

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About the Author

Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review.