A Progressive Defense of Thomas Jefferson

A Progressive Defense of Thomas Jefferson

Ned Borninski
Ned Borninski

Since the election of President Trump, American progressives have been looking at their country and its Founders with renewed scrutiny. Although protesters have rallied against Confederate statues for decades, in recent years left-wing activists have increasingly included Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers in their calls for a thoroughgoing repudiation of America’s racist past.

In 2015, protesters at the University of Missouri covered a statue of Jefferson in sticky notes labelling him a “racist” and a “rapist” for his ownership of slaves and sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. (For a defense of Jefferson from these specific charges, see Race Hochdorf’s excellent piece.) More recently, activists in Jefferson’s own state at the University of Virginia shrouded his statue, and later vandalized it with the same insults. At Hofstra University in New York, a crowd including the local College Democrats went so far as to demand the removal of a Jefferson statue from campus, declaring in a petition that he had “been embraced as an icon by white supremacist and neo-nazi organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.”

Lest one think this is limited to college campuses, the Democratic Party has also been distancing itself from Jefferson’s legacy. The Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, formerly the staple of Democratic Party fundraising and an event at which presidents from FDR to Barack Obama have spoken, has been renamed in many states. In response, evangelical activists like David Barton have sought (falsely) to claim that Jefferson was a conservative Christian. What makes both the Left’s embarrassment of Jefferson, and the Right’s appropriation of him so odd is that, historically, Jefferson has been celebrated by the Left, and with good reason: he was a revolutionary progressive and one of the founders of what we understand today as left-wing politics.

Far from being a conservative, Jefferson was the most profoundly radical politician and president the United States has ever had. In an age of chattel slavery, he sought to include a paragraph condemning the slave trade in the American Declaration of Independence, which was rejected by the Continental Congress for being too radical. That excised paragraph described the international slave trade as a “cruel war against human nature itself,” and referred to slaves as “men,” indicating that slaves were included in the same document’s earlier declarative phrase that, “all men are created equal.” Jefferson spent much of his later career opposing the slave trade, which still had much support by the time Jefferson successfully outlawed it as President in 1807. His personal relationship with slavery was complex, conflicted, and ethically tainted, and any honest appraisal of Jefferson’s views must acknowledge his tentative belief (which he described as a “suspicion”) that “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Nevertheless, politically, Jefferson was one of the most outspoken opponents of slavery at a time when popular pro-slavery ideologues like William Loughton Smith were arguing strongly in its defense.1

Jefferson’s radicalism was not limited to slavery. His bold phrase, “all men are created equal,” was audacious at a time when kings claimed their divine right to rule. This revolutionary statement alone makes Jefferson worthy of celebration. His momentous achievement was to combine Enlightenment philosophy with the romantic agrarian tradition of English liberty and to place those principles at the very heart of the new nation as it was forged. Jefferson did more than just turn this philosophy into elegant prose. While serving as American ambassador to Paris in 1789, Jefferson became intimately involved with the development of the French Revolution, which still regularly draws condemnation from conservative voices today for its radicalism.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

The international revolutionary movement started by the American and French Revolutions formed the genesis of what became known as the political Left.2 However, as the French Revolutionary terror unfolded, some of the American Founders began to distance themselves from the cause. While the excesses of Jacobin fervor made Jefferson uneasy, he never renounced his support for the revolutionaries, and spoke often in their defense. In this, Jefferson’s closest friend and ally was the English pamphleteer Thomas Paine, who, unlike Jefferson, continues to be celebrated by the Left today. The irony here is that without Jefferson, Paine would likely have faded into obscurity. When Paine’s radical views opposing slavery, Christianity, and economic inequality became known, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and eventually even George Washington broke ties with him, and Paine was unofficially banished from the United States. Jefferson was the sole Founding Father who remained in contact with Paine and continued to promote his works.

In a barely disguised attack on Adams, Hamilton, and others who distanced themselves from revolution, Jefferson said of Paine’s perhaps most influential work, The Rights of Man, “that something is at length to be publicly said against the political heresies which have sprung up among us.” And, like Paine, Jefferson was a strong defender of environmentalism, religious freedom, secularism, and the separation of church and state, even for majority non-white religions like Islam and Hinduism. All these principles continue to be key pillars of the progressive Left today. Contemporary college students and progressive activists eager to reject Jefferson’s vision in its entirety might want to reconsider if they really want to throw this particular baby out with the bathwater.

What many do not seem to realize is that, far from dismissing men like Jefferson as pitiless racists, early progressive radicals like Paine, Robert Owen, Frances Wright, and others drew inspiration from them. Jefferson’s ideas about property even presaged Karl Marx himself. Writing to James Madison from France, Jefferson outlined his views on property extensively:

The property of this country is absolutely concentred [sic] in a very few hands […] But after all there comes the most numerous of all classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are undisturbed only for the sake of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be labored. I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable, but the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree, is a politic measure and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on.

Though future progressives might reject specific ideas of Jefferson’s, leftists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw themselves as building on his example.3 Indeed, as I will explain in a moment, Jefferson himself would likely have shared their views.

A full analysis of the complex reasons for the modern Left’s perverse repudiation of Jefferson lies beyond the scope of this essay. It comes partly from the appeal of iconoclasm and a hostility to the pieties of tradition, but it is also related to changing trends on the Left, which today tend to analyse history and contemporary politics through the prism of race and sexual identity to the exclusion of every other consideration. Combined with what Helen Pluckrose has called “the postmodern epistemic shift,” which views the Enlightenment values Jefferson espoused as nothing more than masks for oppression, this has led the development of a contemporary Left which has little in common with its own heritage.

When I point out the peculiarly obsessive antipathy to Jefferson among sections of the activist Left, very few of my fellow progressives seem to care. With so many other issues to address, why worry if a handful of progressive activists are mistaken about history? As tempting as it might be to prioritize the unity of the Left over everything else, I cannot agree. The fact that progressives have allowed the anti-Jefferson campaign to get as far as it has is both a moral failure and a strategic error. The vast majority of Americans are proud of their nation and its history. According to recent polls, around 90 percent of American voters oppose attempts to remove Thomas Jefferson from his place of honor in American history, and that number self-evidently includes the vast majority of liberal voters. That radical activists are insulating themselves from their countrymen’s values, and continue to misunderstand and attack important and revered American symbols, bodes ill for electoral prospects of progressive politics. A better strategy would be for the American Left to celebrate Jefferson and his progressive legacy, just as their forebears once did. Reclaiming its rightful place as Jefferson’s heirs offers the Left an opportunity to reconnect with average Americans, from whom it has become increasingly remote.

Indeed, coupling patriotism with radical progressivism has been very successful in the past, and a large part of the reason for this has been the undercurrent of optimism which runs through Jeffersonian philosophy. Thomas Jefferson fundamentally believed that even if his generation were unable to solve the problems of slavery and economic inequality, future generations would inevitably question the injustices of the status quo. To this end, he believed, the revolutionary spirit had to be nurtured so that Americans could continue to shape their political system in pursuit of a more just and noble society. Jefferson made this especially clear in the Declaration of Independence:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Though one generation would be unable to solve every problem in society, the existence of a democratic government would enable those that followed to carry the imperfectly realised principles of the American Revolution forward. For Jefferson, revolution was not an event, it was a process.4

Jefferson’s idealistic philosophy of continual rejuvenation has had an incalculable effect on many of the most influential progressives who followed him. President Franklin Roosevelt regarded Jefferson as his greatest hero, even creating a memorial to him in Washington DC, and used his dedication of the Jefferson Memorial as an opportunity to unite Americans around their shared history of Jeffersonian optimism during the Second World War. Martin Luther King Jr. also invoked Jeffersonian principles during a 1965 sermon delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is a dream. It’s a great dream.

The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say, “some men”; it says “all men.” It doesn’t say “all white men”; it says “all men,” which includes black men. It does not say “all Gentiles”; it says “all men,” which includes Jews. It doesn’t say “all Protestants”; it says “all men,” which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say “all theists and believers”; it says “all men,” which includes humanists and agnostics.

Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day—that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.

Nelson Mandela, too, sang the praises of Jefferson and of the American Founding: “As freedom fighters we could not have known of such men as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, and not been moved to act as they were moved to act.”5 A young Vietnamese cook named Ho Chi Minh encountered Jefferson’s ideas while living in the United States, and became influenced by them to lead the independence movement in his own home country. When writing the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh quoted Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”6 For ‘Uncle Ho,’ Jefferson’s ideology was not conservative, it was downright revolutionary.

The nineteenth century anti-slavery radicals were perhaps Jefferson’s greatest latter-day admirers, and even the most radical abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown, regarded Jefferson as a hero despite his slave ownership.7 Abraham Lincoln invoked Jefferson as a unifying symbol for the nation to rally around amidst the darkness of the Civil War. He also bestowed upon Jefferson perhaps the greatest compliment I have ever read:

But soberly, it is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation.

One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.

One dashingly calls them ‘glittering generalities’; another bluntly calls them ‘self evident lies’; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to ‘superior races.’

These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect–the supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the vanguard — the miners, and sappers — of returning despotism. We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us. […]

All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

Unfortunately, those on today’s Left who disparage Jefferson have not heeded this advice. As Lincoln said, far from being “progressive,” these individuals are “the vanguard of returning despotism.” By rejecting and denouncing our Jeffersonian past, they are despoiling an essential part of our heritage, alienating average Americans for whom these ideas matter, and ceding ground to the Right at a critical juncture in our political history. At a time when America is threatened by subversion from without and by populism from within, progressive hostility to the greatest Founder of the republic—whose principles have stood as a bulwark against such forces—is dangerous to our democracy.

Jefferson’s revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality, and continual renewal may have been inconsistently applied in his own life, but they remain the timeless “definitions and axioms of free society” Lincoln identified. Despite being a member of a higher and tyrannical order of aristocrats and slaveholders, Thomas Jefferson brought a Promethean fire of human liberty down from Olympus and offered it to all mankind. Though he never fully absolved himself of his place in that oppressive order, Jefferson does not deserve to have his liver feasted upon. The time has come to release and restore him to his rightful place as a political visionary.

We are now facing unprecedented attacks on religious freedom, equality, the natural environment, and even American democracy itself. If the Left is to oppose these developments effectively, it must reclaim and reaffirm the ideals of Jeffersonian optimism. Holding the axioms of a free society—and the man who authored them—in  contempt is the last thing American progressives should be doing now. Instead, we must restore Jefferson’s ideas to their central place in American democracy and the Left. The time has come for the return of Jeffersonianism.


Ned Borninski is a historian, scholar, activist, and writer living in the United States. He may be reached at edmiborn@gmail.com


1 John B. Boles, Jefferson – Architect of American Liberty, p. 460.
2 Jonathan Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How The American Revolution Ignited The World, 1775-1848. P. 282
3 Ross Wolfe, The Truth of Liberalism, p. 16.
4 Michael Hardt, Michael Hardt Presents Thomas Jefferson: The Declaration of Independence. P. xii.
5 Susan Dunn. Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light. P. 190.
6 Ibid. P. 175
7 Ibid. P. 166.

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