Wilentz goes after Wills most aggressively for his characterizations of Timothy Pickering, and I have to say that this part of his review I mostly shrug at, because I don't really have the depth of expertise to assess the specifics of this particular part of his argument against Wills.
I was struck, however, at Wilentz' quick fly-by attacks on Jefferson's critics earlier in the second section of his review. Trashing Jefferson, he writes, is a"sure path to attention and fame"; the great man is held accountable to"anachronistic political correctness", despised equally by"religious right and postmodern left".
Cry me a river. I have no desire to play the" choose your favorite Founding Father" home-game so beloved among historians of the United States (I suppose if I have to pick, I'd take Benjamin Franklin: bet on a deist libertine and inventor who writes in praise of flatulence anytime) but at the same time, Wilentz' gloss on Jefferson's critics just misses the point.
I can concede that Jefferson comes in for some mighty abuse, true. But Wilentz writes that Jefferson gets whacked for being an auld son of the Enlightenment; in fact, for being its truest embodiment on American soil, and his critics mostly haters of the Enlightenment.
Not at all: it is just that Jefferson embodies the duality of the Enlightenment, its irresolvable and indispensible contradiction: that new freedom and new tyranny were born together in its cradle, and have ever since been linked like Siamese twins. It is no superficial career move or callow political sloganeering to appreciate Jefferson as both democrat and autarch, pioneer of liberty and practicioner of slavery.
The crime is in trying to resolve out that contradiction as Wilentz does in his review. When Jefferson advocates slavery's extension to the West, Wilentz gives him a pass: this is mere strategy. When Jefferson does not free his own slaves, this is bad only for those individual slaves, but no reflection of his larger views. Always something other than what he said, always something more than what he meant, always in the last instance liberty and not slavery.
Too neat by far. It is no anachronism to hold Jefferson responsible for his contradictions, because there were others in his historical world who had done just that, who had faced slavery squarely and recognized that it could not be tolerated or compromised with--if not Timothy Pickering, then others, both among the people who made the American Revolution and those who made America's early inheritance. To hold him responsible is not to insist that he was slaveholder only--that I agree is also too simple. Yes, Jefferson embodies the Enlightenment, both the wonder of its emancipation of human possibility and the damnation of its capacity for new and unprecedented forms of bondage. Both his demonizers and his worshippers miss that he was all that--and that we live yet with that fearful contradiction.