(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The five essays in this small book are based on various addresses to scholarly audiences—author Bernard Bailyn does not specify the occasions—which have been tailored to suit the needs of a more general readership. Two of them seem particularly suited to this wider audience. The first of these, “Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom,” presents not just the ambiguities of freedom but also the ambiguities in the complex being who was Thomas Jefferson. Of course, the record of Jefferson’s life, unusually detailed for his time, has given critics ample opportunities to discover his inconsistencies. Jefferson furnished many of these opportunities himself by leaving behind no fewer than nineteen thousand letters and by aspiring to a career of political leadership.

Social background and personal inclination made this gentleman farmer a vigorous proponent of states’ rights. The eight years of his presidency presented internal and external threats to the young nation that forced him to accept a degree of federalism that he must have found alarming. The growth of northern industrial and banking interests, which he hated and feared, drove him to abandon his former, and undoubtedly sincere, opposition to the expansion of slavery in the hope of maintaining the precarious balance of power between North and South.

The actions of his presidency, often regarded as his best and worst, contributed to the image of hypocrite painted by his opponents, then and later. The Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the nation, rendered a great increase in federal power inevitable. Jefferson’s call for the Embargo Act of 1807 (devised, Bailyn argues, as an idealistic antidote to war with Great Britain) succeeded in benefiting the unscrupulous rich, injuring the poor whose plight Jefferson wished to ameliorate, and merely postponing the war that broke out five years later. His early role as articulator of American democratic ideals and his role a quarter-century later as president struggling with practical problems that forced compromise with those ideals left him perpetually exposed to hostile criticism. It is clear that the exigencies of eight years as chief executive forced Jefferson to trim his political sails.

Bailyn recognizes, however, that the evidence does not account for the “peculiarly venomous” judgments by his harsher critics, a number of whom he quotes. In defending Jefferson against what he clearly regards as the unfairness of many of the charges in such works as Leonard Levy’sJefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (1963), Michael Zuckerman’s Almost Chosen People(1993), and Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1900 (1996), Bailyn argues that Jefferson’s rare combination of political realism and radical idealism led him into “intractable dilemmas” that not even his brilliant mind could resolve.

These intellectual polarities appeared early. Having been elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses at age twenty-six and chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence at thirty-three, young Jefferson was forced into an awareness of the complexities of reconciling idealistic theory and the demands of practical politics. In the short compass of the Declaration of Independence, for instance, magnificent political idealism consorts with unsparing fixation on the harsh realities of British colonial rule.

In another essay Bailyn examines the illustrious collection of political arguments known as theFederalist papers, intended by its principal authors, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, to allay a variety of fears regarding a potentially dangerous document—the proposed Constitution of the United States—and permit its passage. In the minds of thoughtful citizens of the new nation (a remarkably numerous group, according to Bailyn), the central power represented by a federal constitution contained the threat of reestablishment of the old European tyrannies and the evisceration of the sovereign states that had formed the federation.

Bailyn’s essay helps the present-day citizen, who tends to take the benefits of that document for granted, understand those fears and the achievement of the Federalist authors in convincing those earlier citizens that the system of checks and balances devised by the Founding Fathers offered them adequate protection.

The Federalist papers are not just a historically...

(The entire section is 1825 words.)