In the Age of Trump, it could be said that all interpreters of Jefferson and US History have their own “alternative facts.”
“There is a Jefferson embraced by progressives but also racialists, evangelicals, and secessionists.”
Wilson Jeremiah Moses. Thomas Jefferson: A Modern Prometheus. New York
Cambridge University Press, 2019.
A distinguished scholar of Black intellectual history, Black Nationalism, and Black religion has just published a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson scholars may quarrel why this book should stand out from the already many volumes on the shelf of this subject. One argument that could be made for popular attention is it may be the perfect gateway to Jefferson in the Age of Trump. This book will have staying power for how it deftly recognizes there is a Jefferson embraced by progressives but also racialists, evangelicals, and secessionists. Scholars of Jefferson’s legacies are aware of this contradiction but perhaps have never explained why with more precision than the author of the definitive biography of Alexander Crummell, the mentor of W.E.B. Du Bois.
Wilson Jeremiah Moses, author of Creative Conflict in African American Thought, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms, andAfrotopia, argues Jefferson was “a modern prometheus, a trickster God.” He was a hero with a thousand faces, who seemed to promote social revolution, and also a creature who was misunderstood and out of control. This gives the reader some indication of the frameworks of dynamic tension and creative conflict to come.
Moses writes with a dialectic that doesn’t seek to resolve contradictions but accepts their presence in human nature. By observing the complexity of human personality, we might learn some crucial things about power and authority. Instead of Moses arguing that humanity tries to aspire to new stages of liberty and self-government, falling back, making mistakes, and trying again with leaps to rupture with domination, he argues something else. Humans can be romantic and pragmatic, democratic and elitist, progressive and authoritarian, ascetics who aspire to consume and be wealthy, superstar individualists concerned with the collective well-being. Moses brings these insights previously applied to African American intellectual thought, and wields them to birth his “Jefferson.”
“Jefferson was a hero with a thousand faces, who seemed to promote social revolution, and also a creature who was misunderstood and out of control.”
Moses is an implacable foe of the Jeffersonian “natural rights” idea that “we are endowed by our creator” with certain unalienable rights. The author is firmly for social equality and is aware of institutional obstacles to a greater fruition. Yet we often confuse natural rights discourse, its blurring of absurd scientific claims and faith, as suggesting that all can achieve the same, or an appropriate meritocratic level, if only through hard work. A very American idea, Moses contends it is false. These obscure, separate from the hierarchies of capitalism, that we are all differently abled and empowered. Further, the related Christian notion that we all are endowed by God with a special gift to bequeath to the world, or soul, the author finds fantastic. Therefore, while Moses has a libertarian streak that opposes authoritarianism, he also affirms the welfare state and cautions against cavalier critiques against mediocrity. In many ways this concise summary is a helpful guide to what readers may find is Moses’ treatment of the intellectual background for understanding Jefferson that is not transparently political but is of great consequence.
From Galileo and Aristotle, Isaac Newton to John Locke, to Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin, Moses explores the matrix of ideas of science, nature, and religion that can produce surprising outcomes and many Jeffersons. Moses argues Jefferson was an overstated cosmopolitan, and an uneven scholar of merit.He read widely but often made judgments animated more by hyperbole than actual experience or data. Jefferson often wrote as if he was the receiver of divine wisdom. His rhetoric of “laws of nature” and what was “self-evident,” Moses finds, reveals both an enthusiasm and a sarcasm.
Jefferson has often been placed in the service of ideological commitments that cannot be reconciled: racism and anti-racism, slavery and its abolition, federalism and secession, God and natural law and separation of church and state. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence inspired anti-colonial revolt all over the world while supporters of contemporary empire recall that he sent US Marines on an adventure in the Barbary Coast, particularly to mess with Libya, a Muslim country. This was before the Monroe Doctrine merely made the peculiar claim for the Western hemisphere as a basis of national security.
“Moses argues Jefferson was an overstated cosmopolitan, and an uneven scholar of merit.”
Jefferson was an advocate of public schools but promoted a populist provincialism based on xenophobia and little taxes. Then of course there was that big expenditure: the Louisiana Purchase. So much for that much ballyhooed concern: the national debt. Jefferson supported Daniel Shay’s citizen militia rebellion against the Massachusetts government but like all “radical” theorists not insurgents against his own authoritarian regime.
Jefferson was against a centralized system of national regulated banking but his opposition to unfunded mandates and national debt obscure his own personal finances. Often seen as a successful businessman, Jefferson constantly renegotiated and manipulated credit and debt to his own advantage, partially by maintaining an ostentatious public image of largesse and leisure. Moses’ discourse here borrows on the ideas of Thorsten Veblen and one can’t help see in this portrait Donald Trump. To be clear, Moses has not invented a Jefferson that mirrors only Trump, but at other junctures casts light on other traditions of politics and governance.
Moses argues that Jefferson, despite his legacy as a slave master and imperialist, created a malleable Constitutional tradition not concerned with strict constructionism or original intent. While Jefferson can be linked to the Age of Andrew Jackson, paving the way for a consistent Southern populism that defined the meaning of liberty as slavery, secession, and Indian genocide, he can also be linked to the Lincoln at Gettysburg, later FDR’s New Deal, and Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. In that while it is irrational and implausible that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was ever intended for the descendants of the enslaved, it began to be made upthat the founding fathers’ intentions were basically good and could become “more perfect,” as President Obama accepted Constitutional law’s essential, but not total, validity. This protean Jeffersonian shift justifies not simply slave emancipation but affirmative action.
“Jefferson created a malleable Constitutional tradition not concerned with strict constructionism or original intent.”
Moses seems unconcerned with the matter that a progressive Jefferson, however invented (and he certainly acknowledges this by calling him a “modern prometheus,” a Frankenstein with insecurities and scars from being sewn together from cadavers) paves the way for a reconversion of American Exceptionalism. It is a danger of the U.S. discourse on comparative presidents; the nation-state project (even where it is perceived as falling apart) is the basis of ethical reflection. Protest movements sometimes create the circumstances for a politician to be evaluated as good or bad but they cannot, in this framework, be the chief actors of history. Instead of Lincoln and Jefferson being seen as pushed from behind by popular social motions, Moses, like Adolph Reed Jr, is skeptical of the notion that the enslaved freed themselves through their own independent self-organization. We should remember this when their scholarship is otherwise among the most insightful for understanding the aftermath and intellectual origins of Black freedom movements and their discontents.
Moses may have inadvertently contributed to the on again, off again discourse on reparations for slavery. His analysis of Jefferson’s personal economics as “the Negro Reserve System” is first rate. Slaves for Jefferson were held as a basis of credit that in turn was the basis of him lending money like a feudal patrician. What is interesting about this discourse is how it informs Southern Populist’s seemingly thorough critique of centralized banking removed from the gold standard, and right-wing libertarian concerns with “what the government has done with our money,” with little concern for what the economy has done to our labor.
Moses’s Jefferson is inspired not by the Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison or Alexander Crummell, both of whom refused to strategically heroize this president for his hypocritical disposition toward slavery and freedom, but more by an aspect of Frederick Douglass. Douglass, who felt there was nothing to be gained by thrashing Jefferson, rejected the original intent arguments about the Constitution, and often came up with rhetorical strategies to make it egalitarian. Of course, this is distinct from the Douglass who asked: “What to the Negro was the 4thof July?” Still, this is consistent with Moses, the historian of creative conflict.
“Slaves for Jefferson were held as a basis of credit that in turn was the basis of him lending money like a feudal patrician.”
What to Wilson Moses is “Thomas Jefferson”? Perhaps, he is an archive of ideas that shape US historical development, including notions from classical antiquity and the Enlightenment, and an occasion to reflect on its mystified power relations. Distinct from the divide between Anglo-American and the Affirmative Action Empire that seems self-evident today, Moses seems to be concerned about a few things. Evangelical Christians, who affirm his allusions to God, do not understand the Jefferson that allowed for child abuse and sexual abuse on his plantation both against enslaved Africans and also even among white men and boys. That those who seek a social revolution don’t grasp the distinctions between populism that promotes racism and xenophobia and popular self-government. Further, it is doubtful to Moses that American commoners can directly govern where they don’t grasp the society of the spectacle and the actual tasks governance requires – including strategic myth making and outright falsification of facts. In the Age of Trump, Moses might say all interpreters of Jefferson and US History have their “alternative facts.” This is not to affirm charlatans and fools but to suggest they are not singular or isolated in one ideological school of thought or historical personality.
Some readers of Moses’s Jeffersonwill suggest and misunderstand that this is the definitive portrait of this early president for the era of fake news. But what epoch has been without illusions? On the contrary, Moses is trying to tell us the search for authentic representative men has always been a false start and that our ideas, with hints of the classical and illumination, often account for prophetic voices and betrayers to embody the same cadaver. Our trickster Gods are of our own making, and have a long historical background. Still, justifications for better government are always manufactured toward a future without a legitimate past, even out of horrors that cannot be recommended or defended by any ethical person. But first we must clarify what is natural, God given, and self-evident so we can rediscover human potential beyond the silences and complicities. Wilson Jeremiah Moses’ Jefferson is the perfect conversation starter for this moment of danger.
Matthew Quest is a scholar of C.L.R. James. See his essay on James and the Haitian Revolution in The Black Jacobins Reader.
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