The True Geography of Our Country: Jefferson’s Cartographic Vision

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The French Revolution couldn't be told that it was in breach of the American Constitution, so the cult of the French Revolution clipped the Constitution's wings. There were indeed no limits that could be assigned to the holy cause of freedom—neither geographic boundaries nor conventional ideas of morality and compassion.

Were there but an Adam and Eve, left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is. And the letter to Short is not—as Jefferson apologists like to imply—an isolated flash of hyperbole. It is a follow-up to Notes of a Conversation With George Washington on French Affairs , in which Jefferson recorded that faith in the French Revolution was his "polar star," and that he believed Washington to be a belated convert to that faith.

Jefferson set out in his letter to Short the merciless and almost limitless exigencies of polar faith. Those in the culture of the modern American militias who see themselves as at war, or on the verge of war, with the federal government are fanatical believers in liberty, as Jefferson was. Jefferson condoned French revolutionary atrocities on a far greater scale, numerically, than the massacre in Oklahoma City. The Adam and Eve letter was written after the news had reached America of the murder of more than a thousand helpless people by the Paris mobs in the September massacres of After September, as before, the French Revolution remained Jefferson's polar star.

It is true that Jefferson later condemned "the atrocities of Robespierre. While Robespierre was alive and the Terror was actually raging, Jefferson had no comment to offer on French revolutionary atrocities. When Madison informed Jefferson, in a letter, of the massacre of the Brissotins Girondins in October of , Jefferson, in a longish reply, made no reference to that transaction. Presumably all such matters were still covered by the Adam and Eve doctrine of six months earlier.

True, there was a pragmatist in Jefferson as well as a visionary fanatic, and the pragmatist acquired the upper hand over the visionary in the late s. Of this phenomenon Robert Bellah, the leading authority on the American civil religion, writes, somewhat misleadingly,.

Fansler on Kovarsky, 'The True Geography of Our Country: Jefferson's Cartographic Vision'

In reality the deep revulsion against the excesses of the French Revolution while they were happening was exclusively a Federalist affair. The Republicans, headed by Jefferson himself, stoutly defended the French Revolution throughout the period when reports of the excesses were reaching America. If possible, anything horrible in the reports from Paris was ascribed by Republicans to the manipulation of the news by the British.

In private the esoteric doctrine of the Republican leaders—as revealed by Jefferson to William Short—was that what the Federalists called excesses were really taking place but were entirely justifiable, however drastic, because they were undertaken in the cause of liberty. The Republicans began to detach themselves from the cause of the French Revolution after , and especially from on. But this was not because Jefferson and the rest of them were belatedly experiencing some form of revulsion against excesses that they had systematically condoned often by denying their existence at the time of their perpetration.

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The detachment was, rather, the result of a growing perception in that enthusiasm among the American people for the French Revolution was cooling—not only because of those excesses, which were at their worst during the period when Americans other than Federalists were most enthusiastic about the French Revolution, but also because of developments in the United States itself and in a neighboring territory, Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, and because of Washington's influence.

Those developments included the victory of the black slaves in Haiti and the ensuing carnage and dispersion of the whites. The exact nature of the connection between the black insurrection and the French Revolution remains open to argument. But it would have been hard for slaveowners to remain enthusiastic about the French Revolution after February of , when the French National Convention, then dominated by Robespierre, decreed the emancipation of all slaves in the dominions of the French Republic.

The emancipating act was probably not the least of "the atrocities of Robespierre" in the eyes of Virginia slaveowners, including Thomas Jefferson.


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After these events Jefferson and his colleagues realized that the cause of the French Revolution, formerly a major political asset to them in the United States, had become a liability. So they cut their losses. They never repudiated the French Revolution, still cherished by many of their rank and file, but it was as if this part of their political stock in trade had been removed from the front window. By the time Jefferson became President, the pragmatist had prevailed over the visionary, head over heart, in this matter.

Yet when we are talking about the American civil religion and its sacred symbols, the visionary in Jefferson, the champion of the French Revolution, remains disturbingly—and subversively—alive and relevant.

Jefferson does not fit into the modern American civil religion as officially and semi-officially expounded. The official version involves, as James Smylie has put it, "divine sanction in the use of power and in the support of civil authority. But other versions of the civil religion are extant in modern America—even if official America, and the textbooks written for it, take no cognizance of their existence.

The True Geography of Our Country: Jefferson’s Cartographic Vision | UVA Press

Some people seem to feel that since the militia rebels are right-wing, they cannot be Jeffersonians. But the tree of liberty is a mystical, abstract, absolute entity knowing nothing of mundane political distinctions. It accepts its natural manure, the blood of patriots and tyrants. Which are the patriots and which the tyrants makes no difference to the quality of the manure or the health of the bloodthirsty organism that feeds on it. It is now known that three of the initial suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing claim Jeffersonian inspiration. Kovaleski wrote in The Washington Post last year, "[Nichols] read the works of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and was particularly inspired by Jefferson's maxim 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

McVeigh's shirt bore this quotation—'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Steven Hochman identified as a Jefferson scholar : "What Jefferson is saying is that it is a fact that in order to preserve freedom, you're going to have a situation where there is violence—as a wake-up call, you might say, to the leaders.

Susan Candiotti : "At the jail in Perry, Oklahoma, where McVeigh was first taken, the FBI asked for the clothing he was wearing but described the T-shirt in a way that kept the wording secret until now. CNN has been told the words are visible in McVeigh's mug shot taken at the jail. The FBI seized the only copy of that photo and will not release it. McVeigh's lawyer brushed aside any concern over the T-shirt slogan when we asked him, How incriminating is this?

Among revisionist scholarly threats to Jefferson's place in the American pantheon is the work of William Cohen. His article "Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery" is valuable principally for its analysis of Jefferson's position on free Negroes and escaped slaves and of the solution Jefferson proposed—"colonization"—but especially for Cohen's final summation of the contradictions in Jefferson's position on race and slavery.

Cohen considers some legislative proposals of Jefferson's, of which the most significant were those that introduced new restrictions and penalties applying to free Negroes and to "miscegenation" involving white women. He writes,. Nevertheless, the bill was more than a digest of earlier codes and it contained some significant additions which were designed to prevent the increase of the state's free Negro population. It was to be illegal for free Negroes to come into Virginia of their own accord or to remain there for more than one year after they were emancipated.

A white woman having a child by a Negro would be required to leave the state within a year. The individual who violated these regulations would be placed "out of the protection of the laws. As eventually passed by the Virginia legislature, in , the revising act did not contain Jefferson's "significant additions.

Jefferson probably treated his slaves somewhat better than other slaveowners did, but he seems to have been at least as harsh as other landowners in his treatment of slaves who escaped and were recaptured.

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Cohen writes,. In early September , Jame Hubbard, a stout Negro who worked in the plantation nail factory, ran away, but was soon apprehended and returned. About five years later he escaped again. A year passed before Jefferson learned that Hubbard was living in the area of Lexington and dispatched Isham Chisolm to retrieve the bondsman. It was too late, however; Hubbard had departed only a few days earlier for parts unknown. When Chisolm returned empty-handed, Jefferson offered him a bonus of twenty-five dollars to go after the man a second time.

This time Hubbard was caught and brought back in irons, and Jefferson reported: "I had him severely flogged in the presence of his old companions …" He then added that he was convinced that Hubbard "will never again serve any man as a slave, the moment he is out of jail and his irons off he will be off himself. In theory Jefferson's "solution" to slavery consisted in "colonization": the deportation of all the freed blacks from the United States, preferably back to Africa.

Late in his life, however, Jefferson began to admit the impracticability of this solution, at least in its widest sense, while reiterating his faith in an attenuated form of it. In Jefferson argued that there were a million and a half slaves in the nation and that no one conceived it to be "practicable for us, or expedient for them" to send all the blacks away at once. He then went on to calculate:.

Their estimated value as property, in the first place, for actual property has been lawfully vested in that form, and who can lawfully take it from the possessors?

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To this add the cost of their transportation by land and sea to Mesurado [the west coast of Liberia], a year's provision of food and clothes, implements of husbandry and of their trades, which will amount to three hundred millions more … and it is impossible to look at the question a second time. Since African colonization seemed an impossibility, Jefferson suggested a plan which entailed "emancipating the afterborn, leaving them, on due compensation, with their mothers, until their services are worth their maintenance, and putting them to industrious occupations until a proper age for deportation.

In effect, Jefferson was proposing that the federal government buy all newborn slaves from their owners at twelve dollars and fifty cents each and that it pay for their "nurture with the mother [for] a few years. Santo Domingo had offered to bear the cost of passage. Jefferson noted that a majority of Americans then living would live to see the black population reach six million and warned that "a million and a half are within their control; but six millions, … and one million of these fighting men, will say, 'we will not go.

Thus, only two and a half years before his death, Jefferson reiterated his long held belief that emancipation was imperative for the sake of the nation, but that it must be accompanied by colonization. Even here, however, his theory differed from his practice; and in this case his inconsistency would follow him beyond the grave for he did not offer to free his slaves on the condition that they leave the country. On the contrary, in his will he requested the Virginia legislature to grant special permission to the five slaves he manumitted to continue to live in the state.

In his conclusion Cohen provides a succinct summation of the contradictions in Jefferson's position with regard to slavery and free Negroes. Modern America is, and has been for more than a quarter of a century, a postracist society, juridically and institutionally and in the ethos of all its establishments: political, social, financial, academic, scientific, and—not least significant—athletic.

The American civil religion, if it is to be a bonding force through the coming century, must be unequivocally multiracial. I am not sure that it is yet. The civil religion has been implicitly or explicitly a religion of white people for most of its history. I am not sure whether it has by now lived down that past.