American Sphinx,
The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Joseph J. Ellis, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997

Joseph Ellis's book about Thomas Jefferson tells us many interesting things about Jefferson, and it does perhaps shed some light on the character of Jefferson, as advertised, but it tells us much more about the state of American politics now, as reflected in Ellis's own statements and attitudes about Jefferson and about American government. Ellis, indeed, is respectful enough of Jefferson, but respect is hardly what is required by his views; and he is dismissive enough of Jefferson's principles that it would not be too surprising were he to turn out dismissive of Jefferson altogether.

The key terms in Ellis's evaluation of Jefferson are "utopian" and "visionary." These are repeated constantly about him and characterize Ellis's view that Jefferson was always basically out of touch with reality and that it was impossible that Jeffersonian principles of government would survive the vicissitudes of history and the arrival of the modern age. "The Jeffersonian magic works because we permit it to function at a rarified region where real-life choices do not have to be made" (p. 10). The historic conflict in American history between Jeffersonian (minimal government) and Hamiltonian (plenary federal powers) principles was sensibly resolved, for Ellis, by the triumph of the Hamiltonian vision in the New Deal, with the only remaining complication being the emotional and irrational attachment of Americans to the old Jeffersonian ideals. The title of the last chapter of the book, "The Future of an Illusion," leaves us with the strong message that the Jeffersonian ideals are, after all, an "illusion."

After the New Deal most historians abandoned the Jefferson-Hamilton distinction altogether and most politicians stopped yearning for a Jeffersonian utopia free of government influence. No serious scholar any longer believed that the Jeffersonian belief in a minimalist federal government was relevant in an urban, industrialized American society. [p. 8]

The "serious scholar" here must not include economist advocates of minimalist government, like Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek, as in his great The Constitution of Liberty [Chicago, 1960], Milton Friedman, or James M. Buchanan, one of the founders of Public Choice theory. Ellis evidently has not paid attention to such literature or to recent developments in economics, none of which is ever mentioned in his book. Since Ellis thinks that Jeffersonian government is impossible in an "urban, industrialized" society, or with "the exponential growth of corporate power over the economy" (p. 294), one might think that economists would have a relevant contribution to make to the issue. A relevant argument would also be Richard Epstein's recent legal brief for limited government, Simple Rules for a Complex World (Harvard, 1995). All that Ellis ever sees is the "conservative wing of the Republican party," from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan and beyond (p. 295). Why most politicians would have no taste for minimal government, on the other hand, is easily explained by Public Choice economics. As Ellis criticizes recent conservatism "in its tendency to overlook the legitimate reasons why these political institutions at the federal level [the New Deal and the welfare state] came into existence in the first place" (p. 295), the scholarship on why they were not "legitimate reasons" seems to not exist for his consideration or edification. Other new libertarian political influences, like the Cato Institute, also go unnoticed.

More importantly in this passage, Ellis displays some of his constant mischaracterization of Jefferson as advocating a "utopia free of government influence." A Jeffersonian state is not "free of government influence," and Ellis himself knows this. He is able to promote this confusion because of Jefferson's obvious admiration for what he thinks is a society free of government, that of American Indians. In that respect, Jefferson had moments as child of Rousseau, seeing no government as the best of all. This puts him, in Thomas Sowell's terms, as an exponent of the "unconstrained vision" (cf. A Conflict of Visions, Quill, 1987, p. 34); and one might mistake him for a utopian in consequence. However, Ellis himself quotes Jefferson admitting that an absence of government is not possible in a more sophisticated society, which moves him away from Rousseau towards Locke. It is the principles of actual and positive Jeffersonian government that Ellis chooses to either ignore, disparage, or mischaracterize, as he systematically ignores the Jeffersonian sympathies and adherence of the much more pragmatic James Madison. Why Madison would ever have supported the Jeffersonian cause in the first place, after even co-authoring the Federalist Papers with Hamilton and Jay, goes unexplained.

The depths of Ellis's rejection, not just of Jeffersonian principles, but of the whole natural rights basis of the American revolution (or the English revolution of 1688), is found in his reaction to the "natural rights" section of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it...

Quoting part of this passage [p. 9], Ellis first sneers that "self-evident truths are not meant to be analyzed" (not true, even self-evident truths must be understood, and so must be analyzed). He then says:

The explicit claim is that the individual is the sovereign unit in society; his natural state is freedom from and equality with all other individuals; this is the natural order of things. The implicit claim is that all restrictions on this natural order are immoral transgressions, violations of what God intended; individuals liberated from such restrictions will interact with their fellows in a harmonious scheme requiring no external discipline and producing maximum human happiness. [p. 9]

One wonders what text Ellis is now talking about. In the space of a page he has forgotten the statement that "governments are instituted among men," and now seems to be thinking about some anarchistic state of nature where noble savages need no government. His own interpretation is, as he says, "a recipe for anarchy" (p. 10). But this is not what the Declaration, or Jefferson's considered thought, means. If "to secure these Rights, governments are instituted among men," this can only mean that something, from which people must be protected, threatens the exercise of rights to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." How that would constitute a state "requiring no external discipline" is completely mysterious. An anarchistic "natural order" also contradicts one of Jefferson's most famous statements, also quoted by Ellis:

A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government. [First Inaugural Address, 1801]

If it is necessary that a government "shall restrain men from injuring one another," this is hardly a situation of people "requiring no external discipline."

Ellis never discusses the fundamental differences in thinking about the "state of nature" that faced political thinkers like Jefferson, Madison, and others. Ellis has blindly fixed his mind, on behalf of Jefferson and of us, on a state of nature like that of Rousseau, where "man is born free but is today everywhere in chains." On this view, it would be true, as Ellis says, that "all restrictions on this natural order are immoral transgressions." The text of the Declaration, however, and Jefferson's mature thought about government, provides little or no basis for assigning a purely Rousseauian view to Jefferson. Ellis does not seem to even be aware that the natural rights theory of Locke, whose existence he acknowledges but which he leaves conflated with the theory of Rousseau, presents very different ideas about the purpose and origin of government.

The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions. [John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government, 6]

Locke's state of nature contains no noble savages or utopian freedom. It is a state of poverty as well as being, like Hobbes's, a condition that is "nasty, brutish, and short." The state of nature is poor because, as individuals, we are little able to protect our persons and property from the predations or dishonesty of others. Locke's state of nature, however, does contain right and wrong, and so natural rights. Thus, "to secure these Rights, governments are instituted among men." Ellis must feel uneasy about Locke because he goes out of his way to deny that Jefferson was thinking "about John Locke's theory of natural rights" at the time he was writing the Declaration (p. 48). This is odd, since Locke's theory of natural rights was, indeed, the theory of natural rights to which the Declaration would refer--even as Ellis himself calls the relevant passage the "natural rights" section. Also, where Jefferson says that the people have a right to organize a new government in such a form as to "effect their Safety and Happiness," this sounds much like Locke's statement, in The Second Treatise of Civil Government §149, that, when the authority of government is forfeited from negligence or faithlessness, the people may place it "where they shall think best for their safety and security." Similar phrases in similar contexts.

Ellis's hostility and contempt, we should see, is not to the utopian and otherworldly anarchy with which he tries to burden and discredit Jefferson, but to the sovereignty of the individual, and so to any kind of natural rights theory. Thus, we learn in the last chapter of his book that the "illusion" at the heart of Jeffersonian government is just American individualism! "...the Jeffersonian ideal of 'self-government,' though a contradiction in terms, remains the abiding belief of most Americans" (p. 300). A "contradiction in terms"! The alternative, we see also:

Both Adams and Madison, and, to an even greater extent, Hamilton, began with the assumption of society as a collective unit, which was embodied in the government, which itself should then be designed to maximize individual freedom within the large context of public order. [p. 300]

I will leave Ellis to speak for the Federalist Adams, but this claim about Madison, and even, from the evidence of the Federalist Papers, about Hamilton, is astonishing. Individual sovereignty was not a peculiar conceit of Thomas Jefferson: It was the common assumption of the day; and to try and present James Madison as some kind of collectivist or communitarian is a grotesque and appalling distortion of history. Indeed, this is where we see that, from the point of view presented by Ellis, it is inexplicable why Madison would have been such a friend to Jefferson, have abandoned the Federalist cause, adhered to Jefferson, drawn him into politics as the Republican standard bearer, and then become Jefferson's anointed successor.

From James Madison's own hand we have the ultimate Constitutional expression of natural rights: The Ninth Amendment, recently disparaged by the judicial positivist Robert Bork (aptly called "Judge Dread" in Reason magazine) as a "blot of ink."

The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Rights "retained" by the people can only be those that preexist and stand independent of any positive government. The Ninth Amendment thus addressed the weaknesses of a Bill of Rights identified, as an argument against having a Bill of Rights, in the Federalist Papers, that such a text could be interpreted to be a positive grant, rather than a mere recognition, of rights, and could also be interpreted as an exhaustive list, precluding any appeal to rights not explicitly mentioned. Madison crafted the Ninth Amendment to prevent either such interpretation. Perhaps Ellis doesn't think that Madison meant it. If he doubts that natural rights are the kind of thing that Madison always had in mind, we have Madison's own words in his "Address at the Virginia Convention" [boldface added]:

It is sufficiently obvious, that persons and property are the two great subjects on which Governments are to act; and that the rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protections of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated. The personal right to acquire property, which is a natural right, gives to property, which acquired, a right to protection, as a social right.

Thus Madison gives, in his own words, the equivalent of the "natural rights" clause of the Declaration of Independence, with property rights thrown in as well. Ellis can only claim that Madison begins with "society as a collective unit" by ignoring his consistent agreement with Locke and Jefferson on the point.

Ellis says, "The New Deal was in fact the death knell of Jefferson's idea of a minimalist government" (p. 294); but the triumph of Hamiltonian "consolidation" in the New Deal was much more a failure for Madison than for Jefferson, since Madison had been the architect of the system of checks and balances in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which was the only practical hope for either of them to limit the expansion of federal power. But even Madison had no illusions about the long term prospects of his handiwork, since Ellis himself notes:

Madison, writing in 1829, predicted that the American republic would last for another hundred years, a prediction that must have looked eerily prescient at the start of the Great Depression. [p. 298]

Perhaps Ellis doesn't understand that the Depression, a bit of poverty, would not have spelled the end of the Republic to Madison, but the New Deal, by rendering the Constitution into the opposite of its plain meaning, granting plenary powers to the federal government to control the lives of all Americans, would have. The main difference between Madison and Jefferson is that while Madison could construct the architecture to at least slow down the expansion of government, Jefferson had no difficultly detecting the fault lines by which the architecture would collapse. Thus, the proposals of Jefferson and others for term limits for all federal offices, for a prohibition of Congress granting "monopolies of commerce," for the prohibition of a standing army, and for some mechanism of accountability for federal judges, all turned out to be wise and prescient provisions that were not adopted to our very great subsequent loss. Although Ellis credits Madison with calling Jefferson back from his most Rousseauist reveries, he fails to credit Jefferson with calling Madison's attention to the need for a Bill of Rights. That Madison not only embraced but wrote a Bill of Rights shows where Madison's ultimate sympathies lay, and how Jefferson and Madison between them created the classic structure of American government that Ellis now disparages and dismisses.

The view of government we get from Ellis is not American at all, but Hegelian and Prussian. He notes that "Jefferson's own conception of individual freedom" is:

...incompatible with our contemporary conviction about personal entitlements, whether it be for a decent standard of living, a comfortable retirement or adequate health care, all of which depend on precisely the kind of government sponsorship he would have found intrusive. [p. 299]

These "entitlements," of course, depend on "precisely the kind of government" created by Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm, an authoritarian socialism then imitated by the democracies, including New Deal America, which thus became, as Jefferson himself anticipated, an "elective despotism," where Americans become wards of the state. Indeed, Jefferson anticipated what the current reign of the FDA and DEA would mean:

Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now. Thus in France the emetic was once forbidden as medicine, the potato as an article of food. ["Notes on Virginia," 1784]

By "in such keeping as our souls are now" Jefferson was referring to the State Religion of Virginia in 1784. Jefferson's own "Act for establishing Religious Freedom" was proposed in 1779 but not passed until 1786. Thus, when people are forbidden to make their own decisions about medicine and diet, as we are, we are now in effect living under a State Religion of the body. When sick people are put in jail for resorting to marijuana for medical reasons, it is clear that the federal government has seized ownership of our very bodies from us, and not just for the purpose of helping keep us alive and well--better that sick people should die rather than that marijuana should be legitimated in any way. This is not just "intrusive," as Ellis says, but in fact is naked tyranny.

More revealing in Ellis's passage is his phrase "our contemporary conviction about personal entitlements." "Our" conviction? Just who is the "we" here? Clearly it is Ellis and his friends, his fellow academics, his comrades in the Democratic Party, perhaps his Army buddies back at West Point. And it is, of course, anyone who accepts the value of the New Deal, which seems to even include Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, although their list of "entitlements" would be somewhat shorter than Ellis's. So the "we" is expansive enough; but it is not universal. It is universal, however, in the universe Ellis constructs where free market economics and libertarian political and legal opinion do not exist. Jefferson is sure to lose the debate with "us" when Ellis does not even need to consider critiques of the kind of statism and unlimited government that Ellis takes for granted.

Ellis thus has given us a book about Thomas Jefferson by someone who has forgotten the meaning, not just of Jeffersonian government, but of American government as something different from the authoritarianism of Europe. Ellis is thus an American, like so many academics and the rest of the elite of the "chattering classes," who really despises the traditional meaning of America and has nothing but contempt for the principles and practice of government established by Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe: Three like-minded and incomparable Presidents whose 24 years in office established a tradition of government only completely eroded by a Century of the kind of constant quest for power that Jefferson understood, all too well, would be the tendency of all government. As someone who celebates the consolidation of authority and the absolute power of government, Ellis is no more a friend of Thomas Jefferson, or of America, than if he actually were Kaiser Wilhelm.

With his political bias, it is not surprising that Ellis's book should be celebrated by the media elite. American Sphinx, The Character of Thomas Jefferson won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. As a selection for the Spring 1998 Quality Paperback Book Club, Ellis's book is lauded with a quote from The New York Times Book Review that it is "fresh and uncluttered but rich in historical context." As we have seen, the "historical context," as the principle of natural rights which Jefferson and almost all of his contemporaries had in common, is belittled and dismissed by Ellis. The political tendentiousness of this presentation of Jefferson is all but invisible to the reviewers.

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American Sphinx, Note

The case of Joseph Ellis himself has turned out to be noteworthy in its own right. For years, Ellis told stories of his days working in the Civil Rights Movement in the south, marching with Martin Luther King, and of his later experience serving in Vietnam. All these stories turned out to be untrue. He had simply made them up.

One might think that such systematic falsification and deception would serve to discredit Ellis as a scholar and a commentator. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Perhaps his scholarship retains an independent integrity, and so the revelations are irrelevant to the value of his books. On the other hand, it seems that his judgment and integrity as a public commentator should be seriously called into question. Apparently, it hasn't. Instead, he still seems to be the Jefferson expert of choice in media venues. His recent book, Founding Brothers, has even been made into a series on the History Channel, with Ellis himself contributing talking head segments.

In truth, it is a sad day for America when Joseph Ellis becomes the public spokesman for the memory of Thomas Jefferson, whether or not he was a person who had lied for years about his own life and achievements. Since he is such a person, it is shocking that he should be so brazen as to continue offering his views in public and that others should continue to provide him a forum. The only reasonable explanation for this is that his ethical failings are insigificant next to his political correctness. It has been noted elsewhere that mere personal crimes can be dismissed if they are done by someone on "our side." Ellis performs an important function in maintaining the fraud upon which the political consensus in the United States now rests. As an actual Hamiltonian Federalist, Ellis can be counted on to present Jefferson with just the right combination of knowledge, spin, and contempt to protect his audience from the realization that the United States has betrayed and abandoned its Jeffersonian heritage. Since Ellis's own life turned out to be a fraud, perhaps this makes it all just right, and he is the guy to do it.

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