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Books: Lost Language

5 minute read
Lance Morrow


The 18th century man, all calibration and catalogue, seems shaded by sinister, unscientific paradoxes. Thomas Jefferson proclaimed a “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal and yet owned slaves and may have kept one as his mistress for years; he was an aristocrat and elitist who was implicated in the most democratic enterprise the world had ever attempted: a sweet violinist of the manor who could write georgic poetry about revolution and blood.

The problem, writes Garry Wills, usually lies not in Jefferson but in the anachronistic way that Americans have understood him and his greatest work, the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, argues Wills, “is written in the lost language of the Enlightenment.” It has passed through 202 years embalmed and misinterpreted, a sacred text enshrined in an ark of incomprehension. “The best way to honor the spirit of Jefferson,” begins the historian, “is to use his doubting intelligence again on his own text.”

Wills starts in Philadelphia. Jefferson rode up alone to substitute for Peyton Randolph in the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress: “This marginal first appearance of the man is somehow typical. He moved oddly in and out of his own life, keeping a shy but observant distance between himself and his surroundings.” For a man doing such heavy work in a forest of intellectual history, Wills keeps a lively eye. Washington and Jefferson were both taller than 6 ft., “but Washington inhabited his height, seemed tall to those who thought Jefferson rather collapsible, all wrists and elbow.” Sam Adams possessed “a curiously modern arsenal of weapons—street theater, surgical rioting, leaked documents, staged trials, managed news.”

A columnist and author (Nixon Agonistes. Bare Ruined Choirs), Wills has performed an amazing job of scholarship—a total immersion in the world that gave Jefferson’s mind its contours. In 1770 a fire destroyed his library and most of his papers. While other historians have tended to base their conclusions on Jefferson’s later correspondence, Wills persuasively argues that Jefferson’s mind was thoroughly matured by the time he was 27, the year so many of his books went up in smoke. Wills shrewdly reconstructs Jefferson’s intellectual inheritance: the lan guage and assumptions with which he worked, the ideas and writers he admired.

Parsing the Declaration, the author sometimes labors like an exegetical lecturer heading up a steep incline. But the exertion yields refreshing perspectives. Wills argues that Jefferson, far from being the Lockean individualist that scholars and patriotic orators have assumed, believed in sociability, ties of affection, a religion of the heart rather than of the head, a sentimental spirit—grounded in sensibilité. He was inspired not by Locke but primarily by the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, like Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid, and their intellectual cousins on the Continent.

This is a warmer Jefferson than Americans are accustomed to. It is also a far more precise man, one for whom phrases like “the pursuit of happiness” were not decorative rhetoric but exact formulas. He thought that happiness was a measurable commodity, that in a science of man, human life could be geared to natural law and to the intricacy and precision of the universe. Similarly, when Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, Wills believes, he had in mind not some vague


“My impression, gained from going through Jefferson’s home many times… is not quite the same as Professor Peterson’s. What impressed the visitors … was the ‘Yankee’ ingenuity of various tricks and utensils about the place, rather than the place itself. Doors opening by ‘magic’ if you touch but one of them. Other doors swinging food in, as the mantle quietly slips wine bottles up … He had a Connecticut Yankee’s engineering mind inside a Southern gentleman’s frock coat. This superficially clashes with the popular image of him as a vague idealist. But that is what saves the image. He is the idealist as practical man—one who can make a plow or play a fiddle, though he was not ‘practical’ in the tawdry and capitalist sense: He had the good taste not to be a good businessman.

Actually, most of Jefferson’s inventions were just copied from European models. And most cost him more time and effort than they saved. The dittographer was always breaking down. The way he made his home ‘convenient’ left his daughter and her children roofless, living under canvas for long periods of remodeling. Too much attention to the house’s gimmicks can distract one from the home, which is perhaps Jefferson’s most truly — original work, notion of equal opportunity but an exact uniformity in men’s moral sense, a term that itself possessed exact meaning. The author argues that Jefferson included blacks in this equality of moral sense and therefore that he believed in racial equality. Neither Wills’ nor Jefferson’s theory would have been very persuasive in the Monticello slave quarters.

Jefferson never intended the Declaration to be a spiritual covenant. Wills writes, even though it is precisely that function that it has served. At Gettysburg, Lincoln’s “new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” romanticized the Declaration into a new myth of the chosen people. Actually, the delegates in Philadelphia did not see themselves as citizens of the New Jerusalem. They were mainly concerned with getting out the Declaration so that the colonies, independent, could urgently negotiate some foreign aid from France.

—Lance Morrow

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