American politics operates through building narratives to create certain impressions that spur people to action. Stories about our history, particularly “the Founding,” have long shaped our self-understanding and influenced government. Was the American Revolution radical or conservative? Was the U.S. Constitution a counter-revolution to the Declaration of Independence? Was the Union formed in 1776, in 1781, or in 1789?
Controversy over each of these questions has a history dating back to the early years of the Republic. Partisans of each position crafted an account that supported their answers and used it to explain the way that U.S. politics and institutions developed, thus providing meaning to the American past. Given their rhetorical power and ubiquity, narratives about American history and significant individuals comprise important and interesting topics for historical inquiry.
What Robert M.S. McDonald intends with his erudite new book is “the first extended analysis of the growth and development” of Thomas Jefferson’s image during his lifetime. McDonald, a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy, moves chronologically through Jefferson’s career from the 1780s through his death in 1826. He places Jefferson in the context of the political culture of the early Republic and demonstrates how Jefferson cultivated and shaped his image within his cultural confines.
The thesis of the book is that Jefferson’s image travelled along a path from Enlightenment liberalism to early Romanticism. Jefferson and his political movement first celebrated the victory of the rule of principles over kingly rule. Eventually, however, the Jeffersonians settled on a new narrative: celebration of the political hero who embodied the principles of the nation. McDonald clearly demonstrates that this image of the heroic political leader, usually associated with the movement led by Andrew Jackson, in fact entered our politics during Jefferson’s presidency.
Interwoven throughout Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time is the subject of the authorship of the Declaration of Independence, which McDonald uses to measure changes in political culture. Initially, Americans understood the Declaration as a collective statement. The notion of a people united around common principles countered monarchy, in which subjects derived their political identity from the person of the king. During the 1790s, the Jeffersonians who stood against Federalist control of the government frequently argued that they supported “principles and not men,” a signal of their continuing revolutionary loyalties. The Federalists, they argued, were re-creating an aristocratic and monarchical political culture.
McDonald posits that, while Jefferson’s authorship of the first draft of the Declaration had been mentioned publicly in a 1783 sermon by Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, public claims that Jefferson “authored” the document did not become common until the mid-1790s. Jefferson’s defenders stressed his authorship to deflect Federalist characterizations of him as un-American, a covert or even not so covert French Jacobin. By the time he entered the White House, invoking his authorship of the Declaration became a way to insist that the nation’s third President was a man of principle.
During the Embargo Crisis of 1807 to 1809, Republican partisans demanded public support of the controversial embargo of Britain and France by the United States because Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, had enacted the measure against these two European belligerents for the good of the country. Jefferson had moved from the faceless contributor to a revolutionary statement of common principles to a heroic individual whose identity demanded political deference. McDonald establishes that during his retirement Jefferson himself promoted his role as author of the Declaration in order to secure his historical reputation. The Virginian’s death on the 50-year anniversary of the Declaration solidified the new narrative.
Another theme of the book is that interpretations of history and of historical figures are not simply the work of one person or one side but emerge out of the contested nature of republican politics. As McDonald provocatively argues:
A number of factors, including his own actions, contributed to his rise to national prominence, but the most important was the scorn of Hamilton who, tirelessly and almost single-handedly, savaged Jefferson’s character in printed attacks.
Seeking a lightning rod for public criticism, Hamilton created the caricature of Jefferson as “an ambitious demagogue, servile to France and subversive to the American government.” He also accused Jefferson of being an out-of-touch philosopher and atheist who lusted after power. Secretary of State Jefferson offered a spirited response to these attacks. While he did not publicly defend himself, he encouraged others to do so. McDonald concludes:
Hamilton’s attempt to discredit Jefferson backfired. Instead, by criticizing Jefferson’s conduct and character, Hamilton thrust him to the forefront of newspaper readers’ political consciousness.
As Jefferson became the symbol of the opposition to Federalist measures, he attracted supporters, who portrayed him as a “defender of liberty.” The circumstances of Hamilton’s attacks, rather than Jefferson’s efforts alone, built the narrative that Jefferson would have to engage.
McDonald details Jefferson’s participation in building his own counter-narrative. Limited by the expectation that political leaders should be uninterested in attaining power, Jefferson could not forthrightly defend himself publicly without appearing to be hungry for office. He had to work behind the scenes and through allies to present a different image of himself.
The reader is given two minor, but revealing, examples.
First, when Jefferson ran for the presidency in 1796, a garbled letter emerged in the Federalist newspapers that he had written to his old neighbor Phillip Mazzei. In the Mazzei letter, composed during the Jay Treaty negotiations, Jefferson had insinuated that President Washington had betrayed the Revolution. Confronted with this political dynamite, Jefferson maintained public silence but used gossip to defend his reputation with important people.
Jefferson also had a scrape with the tempestuous Luther Martin, who accused him of falsifying some of the history in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia. Again, Jefferson forbore to say anything publicly but did collect firsthand accounts of the disputed incident and included them as an appendix to a subsequent edition of the Notes. His public silence deprived his enemies of more opportunities to attack him, but his actions behind the scenes showed a man insistent on protecting his public image.
President Jefferson actively cultivated a republican image. He adopted a simple style of manners and dress. McDonald notes that Jefferson consistently portrayed himself “as the people’s agent.” By accepting tokens of appreciation from the people (we read of the “mammoth” block of cheese sent to the White House from some Massachusetts supporters), Jefferson offered an image of himself as “the representative of common people’s power.” In other words, he began to see himself as a representative of the nation. Thus, he could frame Federalists’ attacks on himself as attacks on the people of the United States. Jeffersonian partisans put this emerging narrative to political use later, during the Embargo Crisis. McDonald writes that for his defenders, “Jefferson was not merely the agent of Republicanism” but “its embodiment.” To oppose Jefferson was to oppose republicanism itself. This position “flabbergasted Federalists,” notes McDonald. But this notion endured, and was a powerful political weapon.
In a particularly illuminating chapter, McDonald explores the effects of Federalist attacks on President Jefferson’s character, especially the charge that he fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. “Even after widespread circulation of the Hemings allegations,” he writes, “Jefferson’s image remained largely unscathed.” McDonald believes that the context shaped the response. Jefferson remained mute in the face of the notorious charges by James Callender. By doing so, he seemed to “reflect a cool-headed disregard for the charges and indicated that he maintained firm control over his passions, his slaves, and himself.”
Many people, McDonald contends, tolerated master-slave sexual activity. But they did not tolerate public corruption. Callender also asserted that Jefferson in 1768 had attempted to seduce the wife of a neighbor. Even as he said nothing about the charges regarding Sally Hemings, Jefferson admitted in private letters the truth of his 1768 “impropriety.” McDonald notes that after the Callender story appeared, Jefferson did attend religious services at the Capitol with his daughters. He understood public perception well and took the opportunity to counter with his actions Callender’s attacks on his character.
McDonald relates that in retirement, Jefferson contributed materials to authors writing about the history of Virginia so as to respond to, and exonerate himself from, long-repeated charges of cowardice during his service as the state’s Governor in the final two years of the Revolutionary War, particularly during General Cornwallis’ invasion of Virginia in 1781. He also read the newspapers and commented at times about his own reputation. Jefferson’s commonplace books, in which he placed newspaper stories that caught his attention, are also discussed. Although the stories lack any commentary from Jefferson, McDonald finds their existence suggestive of Jefferson’s interests.
He built his image until the day he died, attempting to take advantage of any opportunity to shape the impression of his life and career that would be carried into the future. But, as Merrill Peterson’s The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960) demonstrated long ago, each generation of Americans has used Jefferson for the needs of its own age. Robert M.S. McDonald has produced a superb study, showing that creating political narratives has a long, rich history in the United States. Perhaps one could say that it is the primary political legacy of our “Confounding Father.”