The Long Affair

Conor Cruise O’Brien has written a book with an agenda. He uses an examination of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship to the French Revolution to build an argument that Jefferson’s sometime justification of revolutionary violence and his spotty record on issues of slavery and race ought to disqualify this sacred symbol of the American Revolution from any place in the civil religion of an increasingly multicultural America. Instead, O’Brien argues, Jefferson’s true heirs are today’s right- wing militia groups who seek a whites-only America with a radically attenuated federal government. Needless to say, O’Brien takes issue with more traditional, idealized views of his subject, most particularly those found in Dumas Malone’s six-volume biography of Jefferson, JEFFERSON AND HIS TIME (1967-1982).

O’Brien shows that Jefferson was no political shrinking violet but rather “a devoted and skillful organizer of controversy and a ruthless, elusive, and devious participant in the political melee.” Using liberal quotation from primary and secondary sources—O’Brien proudly eschews the use of paraphrase—the author traces Jefferson’s encounters with the French Revolution as the American minister in France (1785-1789), the American secretary of state (1790-1793), private citizen (1793- 1796), vice president (1796-1800), and presidential candidate (1796 and 1800). O’Brien asserts that Jefferson’s quasi-mystical faith in the French Revolution...

(The entire section is 420 words.)