So Just How Political Was Thomas Jefferson, Anyway?

I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to Heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.

Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson
March 13, 1789

I love to receive letters (emails) from those who listen to The Thomas Jefferson Hour. We recently did a program called "The Reluctant Revolutionary." In this out-of-character edition of the Jefferson Hour, I argued that Jefferson was not an instinctive radical. He did not think he would be drawn away from his wife, his young children, his gardens, and Monticello to engage in the American revolution. He said many times that circumstances beyond his control thrust him into the national arena, but that he would have preferred to live the life of a private farmer citizen.

A faithful listener, Frank A. Fleischmann of Michigan, wrote me the following letter:

Dear Sir:
While I am in no way a Jefferson scholar I do regularly listen to your program.  I do question your comments during the introduction to this show wherein you claimed Jefferson to be a "reluctant" politician.  In what I have read, particularly about the election of 1800, while he posed as he was not interested in the results he used surrogates to attack Adams in the press, if it can be called that then, as well as in pamphlets and "whisper campaigns".  All of which we now see as usual, however, not what one would call a disinterested campaign.
I await your response.

Here's my response. 

Dear Frank,

Thomas Jefferson thought of himself as a farmer, amateur scientist, and man of letters who preferred not to get drawn into the "disagreeable business of politics." He believed he was above politics. He convinced himself that he was a commonwealth man, who wanted America to be the most rational, civil, scientific, and harmonious society in human history. He always believed (with some justification) that his views of America represented the vast majority of the farmer-citizens of the new republic. He believed that those who disagreed with his vision of an agrarian society with a severely limited government, a nation of highly-educated, sensible, and self-reliant family farmers who came together into the public arena for only the most limited and essential purposes were unimaginative or self-interested men who were betraying the spirit of the American Revolution.

He could not see himself as a politician, or as a man who was ambitious to wield power.

He created the trope that he was a thoughtful citizen who had no spark of ambition, who lived on a remote mountain above the fray, who was called  upon by his fellow citizens to take his turn at the helm of the ship of state (his favorite metaphor), but who did so with great diffidence and hesitation, and only because he was needed to prevent Alexander Hamilton and his minions from turning the United States into a military and industrial travesty of its revolutionary potential.

In short, Jefferson wanted his fellow Americans to believe that he would rather be home cultivating his garden, grafting fruit trees, taking down weather data twice a day, playing the violin, and gamboling on the mountaintop with his grandchildren. 

My point is that he either believed that was who he was, or came to believe in his own mythology in the course of his long and productive (and frequently political) life.

His greatest recent biographer, Joseph Ellis, believes that Jefferson somehow convinced himself he was what he wished the world to think of him; that he had the capacity to keep parts of his consciousness walled off from other parts; and that what we see as inconsistencies, paradoxes and sometimes hypocrisies, would not have seemed so to Jefferson. 

In my view, Jefferson was the master political figure of his era—better at the business of remaining at the top of American political life than George Washington, John Adams, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, or James Madison. He tended to work by indirection, and through confidential agents. He avoided, to the extent possible, wading into the arena to fight for his vision of America. He carefully (with deniability) and indirectly encouraged (inspired?) his friends to do the political fighting on his behalf. He managed to convince himself that he was only trying to wake the American people up so that they would themselves insist upon his vision of America, which they too held but in a less articulate and passionate form.

I disagree sharply with Jon Meacham's thesis, in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, that Jefferson was a master politician who was quite comfortable with power. I think Jefferson always felt ambivalent about his own political success; and that he could not live with the idea that he was a power politician like Hamilton or Burr or even his closest friend Madison. Jefferson convinced himself that he was essentially a non-political visionary, and he made it clear to his friends and clients that they must regard himself in this way, too, or at least pretend to.

This quality in Jefferson is what drives his critics to distraction. I'm convinced that Jefferson was closer to the truth than his critics. In other words, I do believe that Jefferson's Utopian vision of America required him to think of himself as essentially non-political, and that when he was forced to behave in a clearly political manner, it always damaged his sense of himself.


To read the full text of Jefferson’s extraordinary letter to Francis Hopkinson , click here.

Further Reading:

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
by Joseph Ellis

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
by Jon Meacham

Becoming Jefferson's People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century
by Clay S. Jenkinson