A review of Jefferson's Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind, by Michael Knox Beran
It was Merrill Peterson who first observed that, alone among the Founders, Thomas Jefferson acted as the mirror in which subsequent generations of Americans found reflected their most urgent political and moral concerns. Michael Knox Beran opens his study by rehearsing some of the more compelling Jeffersonian images that have been etched in the American mind. First is Lincoln's, who insisted that the principles of the Declaration belonged to all men and women, including slaves. Then came Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in the midst of the Depression, cast Jefferson as the voice of the people against "economic royalists." Two generations later, John F. Kennedy revered him for the cool, rational, scientific qualities JFK wished to project to the nation as it developed the technology to face down the Soviets and send Americans to the moon. As powerful as these images are, Beran declares them no longer serviceable, having been "killed off by exposure to scandal and DNA testing." Beran is surely correct when he observes that the latest crop of historians, caught up in the drama of slavery and sex, has diminished both the man and his actions. Beran, who is not a professional historian but a practicing attorney with a strong literary bent, draws a new portrait of Jefferson that combines psychobiography, travelogue, and political story-telling, in an effort to make Jefferson, in all his genius, new again.
To do this, Beran invites us to accompany Jefferson on "a mental odyssey" to the great ports of classical Europe, to stroll with him through the "grandest marts" of Western civilization, and watch him as he "fondled" and "intellectually caressed" the antique virtues and creeds of the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews. Beran's Jefferson captures the spirit of our times: decidedly postmodern, more artist than statesman or, to be more precise, a political poet, who gathers up the mystical shards of now-decayed cultures to enrich the material foundations of the modern Whig republic. This, Beran claims, is Jefferson's great, but hitherto unrecognized contribution, the one most useful for us now. Though an unapologetic Whig, a materialist, and rational empiricist, Jefferson recognized at some level that this view was inadequate to plumb "the great mysteries of existence." The "fates" had once granted him the chance to capture these mysteries, and he had done so magnificently in the Declaration, ending the "cleaner and more transparent" Whig statement of principles with an appeal to "sacred honor"—"a feudal idea, dark with meanings and obligations." But then his Muse had fallen silent. A decade later, his travels to the South of France, the Mediterranean, and Rome, would revive and deepen Jefferson's inner Tory. Having drunk the dark rich wines of Burgundy and gazed on blood-stained marbles, Jefferson was now ready "to descend into the Tory crypts and assemble in those strange vaults, in the light of those dim candles," a philosophy that probed the human heart more deeply than his sunny Enlightenment outlook. The discovery of this "older European mysticism," Beran thinks, eventually led Jefferson to his greatest insight: modern republicanism must discover some way to promote those virtues necessary to human flourishing, which do not ordinarily take root in such republics.
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Accept for the moment that Beran is on to something, even if his insistence on labeling this side of Jefferson "Tory" is a bit puzzling. How, concretely, would the Virginian's discovery of mysticism, irrationality, and violence have enriched American political life? Upon returning to America in 1789, Jefferson immediately joined Washington's Cabinet as Secretary of State, where he proceeded to attack Hamilton's character and motives at every turn. Beran agrees that Jefferson acted largely out of "instinct and not analysis," rehearsing a well-worn battery of "country clichés," and, as a result, failed to distinguish the useful parts of Hamilton's program from those that might fairly be called misguided or vicious. Beran nevertheless concludes that, in contrast to earlier periods in his political life (as Governor of Virginia or in the 1780s) Jefferson was able this time to marshall his "hatred and anger" and make them productive.
Fortified by his visits to the ruins and shrines of old Europe, he could draw on the language of the Old Testament prophets to pronounce anathemas on Hamilton. To be sure, Beran does wonder whether it ever occurred to Jefferson that he too was worshipping false idols, or if he ever understood that his support of free trade did as much to promote the commercial republic as Hamilton's policies, but he lets him off lightly. Jefferson had not yet done the "work he needed to do," to integrate into the emerging economic order the Tory concern with preserving the traditional habits of craft and husbandry, and so, he simply thundered against Hamilton and his party.
These creative energies, unleashed by his European travels, continued to well up in Jefferson throughout the 1790s. After retiring as Secretary of State, he returned home to build Monticello, a project well designed to "satisfy the dark spots of his soul as well as the light." Beran makes much of the "utensils of primitive slaughter" Jefferson had reproduced as architectural ornaments for his living room, though he fails to mention his many ingenious inventions and designs, or the great range of objects Jefferson assembled for display, most of them not from Tory crypts.
But even if Monticello did satisfy some deep creative need, the charms of domestic life proved too weak to hold him for long. Within a few years he was back in the thick of public life, plotting a run for the presidency in 1796, and settling for second place in the ill-starred Adams Administration. As Beran puts it, in a phrase that captures perfectly his style: Jefferson had on him "the stamp of importunate destiny, the mark by which the fates set some men apart as specially their own." Paradoxically, Adams's policies seem to have brought out the inner Tory in Jefferson. Once again, he cast himself as a visionary prophet leading his people out of bondage, though this time he turned for inspiration to the essayists and poets of the English Civil War. Appropriating the language of Protestant salvation, Jefferson denounced the Alien and Sedition Acts, and called for a swift end to this "reign of witches." In Beran's opinion, the Kentucky Resolutions, penned anonymously while Jefferson was Adams's Vice President, were his "most politically potent document" since the Revolution. The Resolutions sounded the prophetic voice that created the Democratic party and catapulted Jefferson into the presidency. Together with the Declaration of Independence, they establish Jefferson among the first rank of America's political poets, second only to Lincoln. Here Beran's own Tory sympathies overpower his reason. For how could the document that laid the groundwork for destroying the Union establish Jefferson as a political poet second only to the Lincoln who preserved it? If Jefferson is to be accorded this rank, it must be solely for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, and not also the Kentucky Resolutions.
Although Jefferson's opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts helped him defeat Adams, Beran finds little to celebrate once the Virginian was in office. As president, Jefferson did not fail, but the office could not satisfy his deepest creative needs. His political program was "beautifully dull." Even the Louisiana Purchase, one of the greatest acquisitions in history, turns out to be one of the "drabbest." Drab, in fact, is Beran's general assessment of the modern commercial republic: its policies are drab, and so are its virtues, unless seasoned with a bit of Tory mysticism and romance. By Jefferson's second term, the exercise of executive power had so "coarsened" his feelings and perceptions that he wasted his creative energies sniping at Federalist judges, slapping on an ill-advised trade embargo, and getting caught up in the Burr conspiracy.
It was only after his retirement from the presidency, and his return to that great shrine to his creative powers, that Jefferson's demons at last spoke to him in a constructive and original way. From his mountaintop retreat, Jefferson realized that the great problem facing America was how to keep public virtue alive in a modern commercial republic where most citizens prized above all their right to be left alone. Jefferson's answer was twofold: education and the wards (his scheme for participatory local government). Both the University of Virginia and the wards put into practice Jefferson's insight that "community" or republican self-government has spatial limits, and that if we are to cultivate those qualities of soul that the modern Whig republic tends to grind down, it is to our local communities and associations that we must turn.
Beran is certainly correct that there is more to the good life than is contained within the Whig philosophy, but he is less persuasive when he tries to attribute these Tory qualities to Jefferson, or to discover in Jefferson's republicanism a hidden Tory impulse. In fact, the entire argument runs contrary to Jefferson's thoughts on the matter. More than once, he insisted that the distinctions between Whig and Tory were rooted in the "temper and constitution of mind of different individuals," and were not aspects of the same man. How could they be, when Jefferson viewed the Tory as a "sickly, weak, timid" man who "fears the people"? It may be a "continuing grief" to Beran that Jefferson could not acknowledge his imaginative Tory side more openly, but given Jefferson's understanding of the Tory personality, it comes as no surprise.
Moreover, it is not clear how this postmodern pastiche of Tory mysticism and Whig rationality can rescue Jefferson from the contemporary historians' obsession with sex and slavery. Indeed, what Beran shares with these historians is an attraction to dark, secret places, where they, if not Jefferson, can let their imaginations run wild. And finally, it's hard to see how a book that so relentlessly describes national politics as dull, drab, and prosaic, while celebrating mysticism, irrationality, and the demonic, can aspire to revive public virtue in our time.