Can Timothy McVeigh and His Ilk Claim Jefferson as a Hero of Liberty?

tags: Thomas Jefferson, liberty, Timothy McVeigh

M. Andrew Holowchak is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rider University and the author of "Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" (2013).

Conor Cruise O’Brien in The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800, aims to show that, from the period of 1787 to 1793, the French Revolution took on politico-religious significance for Jefferson. Jefferson had a Rousseauian moment, where he embraced some form of atelic, anarchic liberty in which cost of life in the cause of liberty—the actuality of the French Revolution—was justified by the cause of liberty—the ideal of the French Revolution. “It was the idea of the French Revolution that entranced him, both in itself and because of its power in the politics of the United States.”i Elsewhere, he adds: “The French Revolution was inherently impeccable. … The French Revolution had become an aspect of ‘the true god,’ inseparably and eternally part of ‘the holy cause of freedom’ proclaimed in the Declaration. To question the French Revolution was ‘heresy’; to attack it was ‘blasphemy.’”ii O’Brien adds, “The liberty that Jefferson adored is … a wild liberty, absolute, untrammeled, universal, the liberty of great revolutionary manifesto: the Declaration of Independence.”iii Jefferson was attached to a “fanatical cult of liberty.”iv Because of his attachment to an ideal, O’Brien asserts, Jefferson was in some sense remarkably insensitive to and ignorant of the actual unfolding of the French Revolution in all its dimensions beyond 1787.

O’Brien offers as especial evidence Jefferson’s written response to Shay’s Rebellion in his letter to William Stephens Smith (13 Nov. 1787) and Jefferson’s Adam-and-Eve letter to William Short (3 Jan. 1793), which might be taken as bookends of the Rousseauian period.

Jefferson writes to Smith (13 Nov. 1787) concerning the Shay’s Rebellion:

Can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to public liberty. We have had 13. states independant [sic] 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

The letter to William Short (3 Jan. 1793), O’Brien says, “is the most important and revealing letter that is preserved from the period of Jefferson’s maximum enthusiasm for the French Revolution.”v Jefferson writes apropos of the French Revolution:

In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite as blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.

For O’Brien, the letter to Smith is an attempt to rationalize the violence of Shay’s Rebellion. The declaration that there should be a rebellion every 20 years and the tree-of-liberty metaphor are striking. O’Brien asks rhetorically, “That is something very like a Jeffersonian charter for the most militant segment of the modern American militias, is it not?” O’Brien has in mind the anti-government actions of the Michigan militia at the time of his writing. O’Brien also notes that the Oklahoma City bombing was inspired by Jefferson, since McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt on which was printed the tree-of-liberty quote.vi

O’Brien calls the letter to Short an “apology for genocide.”vii He maintains that Jefferson’s mind became fixed sometime in 1789 on the notion of the French Revolution as an “article of faith, in the name of which he could excommunicate heretics and purify America.”viii

What Jefferson is telling Short, in the ‘Adam and Eve’ letter, is that no atrocity the French Revolutionaries could possibly [sic] commit could shake his faith in the French Revolution. Anything the French revolutionaries might choose to do—up to massacring the entire French population, minus two—would ipso facto represent Freedom. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the twentieth-century statesman whom the Thomas Jefferson of January 1793 would have admired most is Pol Pot.ix

O’Brien says more about the letter to Short in his epilog. Jefferson’s statement that it is preferable for half the earth to be martyred in a successful cause than for the cause to fail. “Were there but an Adam and Eve, left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is.” O’Brien writes, “Short should accept that there was no limit (except the sparing of two persons per nation) to the slaughter that might legitimately be perpetrated in the holy cause of freedom.”x

Jefferson’s letter to Short, O’Brien is correct to note, depicts a different side of Jefferson—the insidious Jefferson. Yet it is outré to take the letter to Short as proof positive that Jefferson, at that period of his life or at any time, was advocating a lawless, anarchistic cult of liberty.

One has only to consider Jefferson’s critique of three generic forms of government in letters to James Madison (30 Jan. 1787) and Edward Carrington (16 Jan. 1787), each in 1787, when Jefferson is presumably beginning to entertain happy, but unfixed, thoughts of anarchic liberty. They are lawlessness or no government, too many laws or coercive governments, and government by the will of the people. To James Madison, Jefferson writes:

Societies exist under three forms sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states, in a great one. 3. Under governments of force: as is the case in all other monarchies and in most of the other republics.

The first political society has its pitfalls and it is inconsistent with “any great degree of population.” The third he dismisses quickly as a government of “wolves over sheep.” The second is the best, though it too has its imperfections. Though “the mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty & happiness”, it is subject to turbulence—i.e., insurrections. Still turbulence is better than oppression. He says, “Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem.xi Moreover, turbulence is a boon. “It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.”

To Carrington, Jefferson elaborates on the first sort of government in his tripartite distinction. Persons who live in a society without government—and here he has the American Indians in mind—enjoy an “infinitely greater degree of happiness” than those who live anywhere in Europe. Yet such persons are happy in an unstructured and barbarous manner. The American Indians, for instance, have no laws, but are governed, by shame and pride in the forms of public opinion and moral restraint. Though Indians are free, they flounder in freedom and, thus, they do not and cannot enjoy the numerous technological benefits and moral advances of civilized societies. In contrast, European governments are mired in laws. They have laws that divide people into “wolves & sheep”—i.e., rich and penurious. He adds, “Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.”

Jefferson’s critique of the three forms of government—coercive governments, lawless governments, and republicanism—shows that his republican experiment is driven at least as much by the acknowledged encumbrances, harms, and affronts of coercive government, as it is by the acknowledged benefits, merits, and advantages of government by the people. It also shows that liberty must always be taken in political context: Liberty, unconstrained by human laws, is not an alternative.

Both letters, written in 1787, slightly predate Jefferson’s radical “Cult of the French Revolution.” They show that Jefferson in 1787 rejected liberty qua liberty or any sort of anarchic liberty and gave aegis to a republican conception of liberty in which the will of all citizens could be exercised. Jefferson believed that no government, where individuals’ moral sentiment took the place of laws, was preferable to too much government, where numerous laws burked the will of the people. It is highly unlikely that Jefferson would have cast aside this conception of liberty, developed richly in his post-presidential letters, only to come back to it in later years. Jefferson’s conception of “liberty” was nuanced and normative. He never advocated anarchic liberty.

In an 1819 letter to Isaac Tiffany (Apr. 4), Jefferson distinguishes between “liberty” and “rightful liberty”: “Of liberty then I would say, that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will, but rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often the tyrant’s will, and is always so when it violates the right of an individual.” The sentiment of his “definition” is responsible free activity—minimally, the freedom to do what one wants so long as one does not contravene the rights of others in doing what one wants.

Jefferson’s description here seems to allow much under the umbrella of concern for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These concerns are not merely political rights, but are part and parcel of Jefferson’s purchase of eudemonism—i.e., his notion of the happy or good life. In the Declaration, he states everyone has a right to the “pursuit of happiness,” not to happiness itself. Happiness is a personal affair. It is up to each person to decide for himself what makes him happy, though Jefferson is clear elsewhere that exercise of virtue and Christian beneficence are indispensible.xii Governments that essay to impose a vision of a happy life overstep their bounds and tend to ensure that their citizens will never attain happiness. It is, therefore, the job of a properly structured society to allow its citizens the opportunity to set their own path to happiness. That is not only because there is no one-size-fits-all version of a happy life, but also because rightful freedom is an essential part of what it means to be happy.

Jefferson, however, is not advocating a sort of anything-goes approach to happiness. For Jefferson, humans are progressive beings, both intellectually and morally, and true happiness can only be had in societies that are advancing both technologically and morally. Science, following the discoveries of Enlightenment science, is moving increasingly toward an understanding of the physical universe. Morality is moving toward the ideal of politically framed self-sufficiency, characterized, among other things, by agrarian simplicity, the self-regard of ancient virtue-based philosophers, and the other-love preached by Jesus the Nazarene. That American Indians enjoy an “infinitely greater degree of happiness” than do Europeans is anything but advocacy of such a lifestyle. Jefferson is clear that the Indian lifestyle, preferable to that of the Europeans in that it is non-oppressive, is merely a barbaric, unconstrained sort of freedom through neglect of science and moral advance and bigoted reverence for their ancestors and the past.xiii Being loosely social, they enjoy merely a thin sort of independence and that is inadequate for true happiness.

There are other reasons to reject O’Brien’s thesis.

First, in his 1787 letter to William Smith, Jefferson writes of the British exaggerations concerning American anarchy and cites Shay’s Rebellion as the sole incident. That is scarcely an unqualified endorsement of the rebellion. In a letter to James Madison early in the same year (30 Jan. 1787), he says the acts of violence in the rebellion are “absolutely unjustifiable”—something that escapes O’Brien’s selective attention.

Second, even a cursory inspection of Jefferson’s writings, prior to and after his “psychotic” phase, shows that Jefferson had a nuanced conception of “liberty.” He recognized varied senses of the term. Elsewhere, I argue for four distinct senses: voluntary, negative, positive, and moral liberty.xiv Others argue for different categories. Nevertheless, nearly all scholars who have studied Jefferson on liberty are in agreement that Jefferson’s concept of liberty was not and never was monolithic. He could never have written the Declaration of Independence with such a monolithic conception.

Third, O’Brien commits Jefferson only to “negative liberty” of a radical sort, which amounts to freedom from governmental intervention in any activities whatsoever. Jefferson’s embrace of negative liberty, however, is freedom from the encroachments and corruptions of government—i.e., freedom of all citizens from the tyranny of one or some group of humans with power—not freedom from all encroachments. Some encroachments are needed to preserve freedom. Government must act in ways to maximize opportunities for human flourishing—e.g., advocacy of freedom of religion, repeal of entails and primogeniture, and push for general education of all citizens.

Jefferson does say, in the letter to Madison (30 June 1787), perilous liberty is preferable to quiet servitude. Yet that is a comparative point, not one that is absolute. For Jefferson, autonomy is so much a part of the human constitution that humans suitably enlightened and not beaten down will always prefer death to political burking. That is not advocacy of anarchy, but instead recognition of human rights and a human essence, of which liberty is a part.

Last, Jefferson’s embrace of revolutions did not disguise a hidden agenda, evidence of bloodthirstiness. Adrienne Koch writes:

His defense of revolutions, so frequently misinterpreted as literal advice to nourish the tree of liberty with bloodshed every twenty years, is really part of his desire to provide a framework of freedom and liberty for social changes. He evidently was convinced that it was not humanly possible to excommunicate revolutions or to be so wise that they would forever be rendered unnecessary. Society will have its revolutions. Why not build society, then, in a manner which would encourage only those political revolutions which are in accord with consent—the people’s consent, majority revolutions? Jefferson took very deep pleasure in “bloodless revolutions,” hailing those profound changes in society which are engineered by reason and persuasion instead of the “blind” machine of force. Quite clearly the ideal is “that of changing our form of government under the authority of reason only, without bloodshed.”xv

In sum, Jefferson was never committed to liberty per se, but always committed to liberty in the service of intellectual and moral advance. As Jefferson says in a letter to Dr. Joseph Willard (24 Mar. 1789): “We have spent the prime of our lives in procuring them the precious blessing of liberty. Let them spend theirs in showing that it is the great parent of science and of virtue; and that that a nation will be great in both, always in proportion as it is free.” This letter, it should be noted, was written in 1789, when Jefferson was in Paris—i.e., early in his cult-of-liberty period.


i Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 137.

ii Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair, 81.

iii Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair, 307–8.

iv Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair, 307–8.

v Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair, xii.

vi Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair, 309–10.

vii Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair, xii.

viii Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair, 149.

ix Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair, 150.

x Conor Cruise O’Brien, “Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist”, 60–61.

xi “Turbulent liberty is preferable to quiet servitude.”

xii E.g., TJ to Joseph Priestley, 9 Apr. 1803; TJ to Benjamin Rush, 21 Apr. 1803; TJ to John Adams, 28 Oct. 1813; and TJ to William Short, 31 Oct. 12819.

xiii Thomas Jefferson, “Commissioners’ Report on University of Virginia,” Writings, 461–62.

xiv M. Andrew Holowchak, Thomas Jefferson: Uncovering His Unique Philosophy and Vision (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2014), 81–91.

xv Adrienne Koch, The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1957), 187.

comments powered by Disqus