The Wolf by the Ears

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

It is strange indeed that, beside the monumental Washington and the ambitious John Adams, the two men of the Revolutionary era with the greatest claim on our memories are those polar opposites, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The New Yorker’s attractions seem lesser: he tended to our debts, laid excises, collected duties, and built banks. Ultimately he appeals to our wallets, not our hearts, and we conceive him as a money-minded aristocrat, tainted forever by a fuddled toast, “to your people, a great beast,” an alien to our egalitarian age. Jefferson, on the other hand, is the intellectual father of us all: revolutionary, philosopher, and statesman. His name invokes images of freedom, liberty, and the rights of man. Disestablisher of churches, builder of universities, Jefferson touches our democratic hearts, and historians have been kind to him.

A deeper, human reality about these men contradicts their public or “official” images. Hamilton, the “Scotch-born bastard,” lived and died singularly free of wealth, though liberally blessed with debts and children. He managed the affairs of a nation brilliantly while existing on the meager salary of a public functionary and the enjoyment of satisfying but expensive aristocratic connections. Citizen Tom Jefferson meanwhile dwelt comfortably in a mountaintop mansion for a half century after the Declaration of Independence, happily coddled by a hundred slaves, advocating the rights of mankind. Which indeed was the modern man?

John C. Miller’s The Wolf by the Ears is a study of the darker side of Thomas Jefferson, of the civil libertarian whose racism and elegant lifestyle made it impossible for him to practice privately what he preached publicly. Miller’s resurrection of Jefferson’s phrase “the wolf by the ears” describes the central problem of the man and the Republic he created; a nation of slave owners, tired of holding on, afraid to let go, and incessantly debating the question.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is one of the great libertarian documents of modern times. Never was a mature philosophy—that of the natural rights of man—so brilliantly epitomized and transformed into functional ideology. But those who interpret its words literally are no students of “rhetorick,” for words rarely mean what they say in a political context. The Declaration—the supreme achievement of the Enlightenment—proclaimed thirteen North American colonies to be free of all allegiance to the tyrant and “Royal Brute” of Great Britain. Inventively charged with dozens of “crimes” by Jefferson’s committee, George III was branded the “Big Brother” of the age, a despot who attempted to enslave America, to whom, therefore, no allegiance was owed. He had broken the social contract, and invoked thereby the right of revolution.

But Jefferson, the tyrant of a hundred blacks, had no intention of allowing the African race into the purview of the rights of man. His Declaration used the language of a rebelling slave addressing his former master, but he never intended its ideas to apply to slaves, which were property. Property was a concept sacred to the eighteenth century, and “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” meant the happiness that proceeded from owning and exploiting humans.

Jefferson’s mind on slavery was dichotomous, if not absolutely schizophrenic. Even as he penned the document that freed a nation he was well aware of the essential immorality of slavery and understood that he was himself a tyrant. Surely Dr. Johnson’s trenchant question, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes” pierced the Virginian, as perhaps also did the barbed observation of the abolitionist Anthony Benezet: “When men talk of Liberty, they mean their own.”

The Sage of Monticello avoided the question by defining tyranny, which invoked the right of revolution, as the illegal action of a government. At the same time he considered slavery an illicit institution. Since men, not governments, own slaves, the peculiar institution is thereby exempt, and it became perfectly correct for a Virginian to resist Great Britain but totally impermissible for his slave to defy him. How neatly the right of revolution, which is rhetorically enjoyed by “all men,” was denied to slaves.

Much of the mental footwork behind this sophistry had been completed before the great Declaration was written. Jefferson’s 1774 pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, accused the Crown of forcing slavery on America and blamed it for thwarting Colonial attempts to end the trade and the institution. But a year later, when Governor Dunmore publicly offered freedom to any black who joined his cause, Jefferson bitterly condemned him as a fomenter of insurrection. The king was now inciting those Africans he had forced upon us against us, and black liberty—without the consent of the master—was treasonous. By July of 1776, Jefferson’s racist ideology was set: whites were justified in rebellion, blacks were not. “All men” were hardly equal.

To be fair, realistic considerations also tied Jefferson’s hands during the Revolution. Could the thirteen colonies have won independence and abolition simultaneously? “We must all hang together, or we shall all most assuredly hang separately,” the wise old Franklin had noted, and abolition would certainly have severed the Carolinas and Georgia from the Revolution, and probably Virginia as well. So Jefferson provided, after one stab at abolition in an early draft of the Declaration, the pragmatic escape that permitted a united America to wage war on Great Britain, unembarrassed by domestic revolution. America, like Chicago later, wasn’t ready for internal reform. Conventional wisdom has endorsed Jefferson’s pragmatism, though no one has seriously contemplated the effect a half-million freed, enthusiastic blacks might have had on the Revolution and our later history.

Jefferson spent the war years in Virginia as citizen, legislator, and governor. He, George Wythe, and Edmund Pendleton served on a committee to reform the Commonwealth’s law code and proposed a scheme to end gradually slavery and the black presence in Virginia. Their never-issued racist solution was clear; black slaves were tolerable, but free blacks were not. Ultimately the committee produced a brilliant modernization of Virginia’s laws that limited the death penalty to only two crimes, but tightened up the slave codes considerably.

The progressive side of Tom Jefferson held abolition to be the fulfillment of the American Revolution. Slavery, a vestige of an earlier society, would disappear through what he vaguely termed a “benign futurity.” But in practice he accepted the Revolution as a limited political movement, and like most of its leaders, remained a social conservative at heart. And so the war years passed with Jefferson silent on abolition; slave insurrection was simply beyond discussion.

Miller emphasizes the great body of racial-economic contradictions that swirled about Jefferson, slavery, Virginia, and the American Revolution. By 1781 Jefferson had essentially welded abolition to Negro removal. The Revolution “freed” Virginia without touching its thousands of bondsmen, save for the worse. Blacks who had joined the British either died of the pox or were sold to West Indian sugar planters. After the war free blacks had their privileges significantly reduced, while slaves labored under Jefferson’s “improved” Code. Manumission, the last flickering light of black liberty, would soon die in the age of sectionalism. The Revolution had made white America freer but tightened the chains about black America.

Citizen Jefferson’s contradictions grew stronger in the years following the Revolution, and as the century waned, the Colonial aristocrat-philosopher evolved into a Southern planter. Owner of four plantations, including his beloved Monticello, Jefferson engaged in “agribusiness.” He had land aplenty (in that day a worthless commodity in itself); his chief asset was the hundred slaves who built his home, produced his daily bread, swept his floors, and paid for his books.

Jefferson was a “good” and even progressive master, Miller assures us. Overseers managed the minority of his slaves who labored in the fields, and Jefferson suffered the usual hiring and firing cycles that attended that practice. He occasionally carried a whip but, notes Miller charitably, only a small one. Jefferson directed a mini-industrial revolution on his lands and by 1814 operated textile and flour mills, “manned” by women and children. Massa Tom closely oversaw a dozen boys in his nail manufacturing plant; one of his aristocratic affectations was identifying himself as a “nailmaker.”

Jefferson was too closely wedded to his elegant lifestyle to consider seriously freeing his slaves and, despite the steady erosion of his and other Virginia planters’ incomes, he lived grandly to the end. As early as 1790, after spending five years in France on behalf of his government (attended by cook, valet, pédicure, tailor, and the like), Jefferson began experiencing a “cash-flow” problem. His solution was renting out his slaves. This aristocrat, whose first memory was of being carried about by a mammy...

(The entire section is 3850 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Booklist. LXXIII, July 15, 1977, p. 1689.

Chronicle of Higher Education. XV, November 14, 1977, p. 17.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, July 1, 1977, p. 712.

New York Times Book Review. November 13, 1977, p. 9.

West Coast Review of Books. IV, January, 1978, p. 40.