BOOKS: The American Revolution

I’m reading now Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which follows my finishing Founding Brothers (Joseph Ellis) a few weeks ago.

I’m woefully unread about the American Revolution, to my embarrassment.

Anyway, as I’ve read I’ve found myself being rather down on Thomas Jefferson. Not so much because he owned slaves, which is a startling thing for a guy so interested in individual liberty, but it was  part of life in Virginia and I’m loathe to blame people so far back in time for what was commonplace.

Rather, it was his utopian idea of small govt, and his idea of continual revolution.

He sounds like a Leon Trotsky, who I think was remarkably naive for an educated guy and never understood the full implications of his theories.

In reaction to the English monarch, Jefferson apparently developed this idea of a country with nothing but small businessmen and small farmers and all-but-nonexistent govt (though he later expanded the country enormously with the Louisiana Purchase).

He was quite at odds, in the end, with fellow Virginian, George Washington, over such things as federal taxes (sounds familiar). Yet Washington was living in the real world, seems to me, and faced the challenge of making a new govt work in a world of many threats, not the least of which was still England. So federal taxes, while unpopular, he saw as necessary to provide the services that held the country together.

The Jefferson ideal, while nifty parlor fodder, seems to me would have spelled the end of the new country very quickly, not to mention that it overlooked all the ways that small farmers and businessmen are enabled by the services a competent federal govt provides (roads, regulation of markets, post offices, etc).

He had that famous quote about the soil of a republic needing to be irrigated with the blood of tyrants every 20 years or so (a paraphrase) — similar to Trotsky and Lenin’s idea of perpetual revolution. I learned with dismay that TJ was a big fan of the French Revolution because of this, until well near the end of FR — by which time most folks had long seen it for the bloodthirsty disaster it was. Like the Soviet Revolution, the FR gave way to dictatorship, which I think is what Jefferson’s ideas would have led to as well in the US, finally.


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