Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Watering the Tree of Liberty

I have recently been reading Connor Cruise O'Brien's book on Burke, The Great Melody, which I highly recommend, especially as an antidote to the highly selective uses of Burke by pop conservatives like Brooks and Will. So anyway, I also picked up another book by O'Brien, The Long Affair, which is, in the first place, about Jefferson's fascination with the French Revolution - what O'Brien calls his cult of the French Revolution, and his full-throated defense of Terror in the name of "Liberty." But the thesis is much bigger than that. O'Brien wants to undermine the liberal white-washing of Jefferson, especially when it comes to race. He points out that Jefferson was bitterly opposed to the very idea of a multi-racial society and that the only way he could contemplate slavery ending would be with the freed slaves immediately shipped back to Africa.

The final chapter finds O'Brien worrying, circa 1996, about the prospects of American democracy. He says that American civic religion cannot be adapted to a genuinely multi-racial democracy without jettisoning Jefferson from the pantheon. And he worries that this in turn may produce a schism, with the return of what has been repressed in the liberal portrait of Jefferson ( the release of "the spell-binding and anarchic racist prophet within Jefferson") in which Jefferson would become "the prophet and patriot of the fanatical racist far right in America."

Needless to say, reading this in the wake of the news story from this past summer about the guy who showed up at one of Obama's town-halls with a loaded gun, wearing a shirt inscribed with the "watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants" quote from Jefferson - well, it was beyond chilling.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am more a fan of Thomas Paine. He also supported the French Revolution.

The Jefferson quote included the blood of both tyrants and patriots and so is somewhat supportive of couping through former supporters to "get it right".

One last note, many supporters of Abolition in the 1850's and 60's considered deportation to Africa or the Caribean as proper to avoid the racial excesses of the reconstruction century.

ilsm

Kevin Donoghue said...

Both books are well worth reading, The Great Melody especially so. You might want to correct your spelling: it's Conor, not Connor.

jamzo said...

jefferson is dead and propagandists will continue to use his name to advance their purposes

o'brien's wish to jettison jefferson from the panteon has been rendered unnecessary in a way he did not consider

general recognition of jefferson's longtime relationship with sally hemings completely changed jefferson's image in the pantheon

the dichotomy between his publice words and his personal behavior is now part of his historical image

o'brien did not contemplate the effect of a janus-like "two-faced" jeffereson in the pantheon

Jack said...

Was Jefferson any different than the others who we refer to as "Founding Fathers?" An interesting use of term, that is. And for George W., the original who was more genuinely a self made man, we have a monument in the mist of our capital that may be the greatest of all phallic symbols.

What was accomplished by these people is more the important point, not whether they lived a chaste and moral life. Robespierre was noted for the "purity" of his private life. Does that make him more the exemplar of state leadership? His renown has little to do with that purity of behavior.

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