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Review of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson

Introduction

Those of you who read this website frequently probably recognize the name Garrett Ward Sheldon. He is a frequent contributor and his articles, such as the recent on the owl of Minerva, are terrific. In addition to writing about current events, Professor Sheldon also has written a number of books about American political philosophy. I recently had the opportunity to read one of his books, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson.

Professor Sheldon, Author of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson
Professor Sheldon, Author of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson

It was especially fortuitous that I read the book now as this is the Thirtieth Anniversary of the publication of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson by Johns Hopkins University Press. It was a revision of Professor Sheldon’s Rutgers University doctoral dissertation and has become a kind of international classic. It was the main text at the Jefferson Symposium at Oxford University and was the first American book on Jefferson to be translated into Russian and published in Moscow (right after the fall of the Soviet Union). Additionally, its popularity led to the author lecturing on American Political Thought at the University of Vienna, Austria; Moscow State University; Oxford, England and in Istanbul.

The likely reason for the book’s popularity is its concise but penetrating study into the mind of Thomas Jefferson. In under 200 pages, Sheldon is able to reconcile the ongoing, long-lasting scholarly debate over whether Jefferson was a Lockean liberal or classical republican. The answer, for those that don’t have time to read the full review or book, is that his political philosophy was something of a blend between the two. It was “a rich constellation of theoretical traditions– including British liberalism, classical republicanism, Scottish moral philosophy, Christian ethics, and Lockean theory. The book is well-written and excellently proves the author’s thesis. Read the rest of this review to see why!


Summary of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson by Garrett Ward Sheldon

To show what elements of what theories comprised Jefferson’s political philosophy, Sheldon traces the development of his political thoughts alongside the development of America, showing how Jefferson’s thoughts changed as America evolved throughout The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson.

First, before delving into the relationship between Jefferson’s thoughts and America’s evolving national character, Sheldon describes the combination of Lockean liberalism and classical republicanism that primarily contributed to Jefferson’s political philosophy, hinting at how Jefferson was able to blend “many philosophical concepts into a comprehensive and coherent political philosophy, the essence of which [might] be closer to classical republicanism than to Lockean liberalism.”

Then, after delving into the attributes of and differences between the two, Sheldon begins his history-based approach, starting, as should be expected, with America as a colony. In this chapter, Sheldon discusses how “the position that the American colonists found themselves in…accounted for much of their feelings of both affection for, and resentment of, the royal British Empire.”

That understanding of American views on the Empire is crucial to understanding Jefferson’s political philosophy because he had to reconcile both his own views and the views of his countrymen regarding the Empire with the concept of breaking away and forming the American Republic. According to Sheldon, he did so by drawing upon the concept of an Ancient Constitution that had been destroyed by feudalism, a key part of English revolutionary sentiment from 1660-88, and Lockean liberalism, the abstract principle of natural rights of which legitimated his calls for independence.

As part of that strain of thought, he also attacked the merchants who controlled Parliament, attacking them as being “Shylocks” of trade and money-lending. That view was a common one among the Virginian gentry, many of whom had been bankrupted by British traders.

In the next chapter of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, Sheldon describes how Jefferson attached himself mainly to Lockean liberalism with his revolutionary writings. The Declaration of Independence, for example, was almost wholly dependent on Locke, namely Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, rather than the Ancient Constitution. To prove that, Sheldon dissects both and shows the similarity between the two documents.

Sheldon then, in the chapter of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson entitled “America as a New Republic,” shows that Jefferson’s post-Revolution political philosophy was largely built around creating a virtuous republic. While his “concern for individual rights and liberties did not disappear,” his political philosophy became largely built around classical republican principles and recognition of “man’s social nature in feelings of sympathy and benevolence, classical politics requiring citizen participation, public education and economic independence linked to more centralized republics through a ‘natural aristocracy,’ and those elements of modern economics contributing to American virtue and self-sufficiency.”

Sheldon shows in this chapter of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson how Jefferson’s conception of man as a social creature conflicted with Hobbes’s view of man in Leviathan, and how that “moral sense” was the basis for human society and therefore “required society for its education and development.” Sheldon also describes the basis for Jefferson’s view that larger republics should be constructed from smaller, participatory republics, the best form of which he considered to be wards, small communities that would provide the base level of public education for their citizens and be the smallest political unit that individuals voted on.

After describing Jefferson’s conception of republicanism, Sheldon expounds upon Jeffersonian Federalism, the basic idea of which was that each level of government should “perform those functions that it did best.” To Jefferson, a safe government was one that was divided. The national government would handle the defense of the nation and its foreign relations, the state governments would handle civil rights, laws, police and administration, counties would handle local interests, and wards even more local interests.

While he did occasionally stray from that limited view of government, such as when his administration purchased Louisiana or enacted the Embargo to keep the US out of a war it couldn’t win, he did so only when absolutely necessary. He largely stuck to his view of federalism.

The next section of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson has to do with Jefferson’s view of ethics and democracy. In this section, Sheldon shows that while Jefferson was opposed to a state religion like the Anglican church, he also understood the importance of Christianity in public life and was a committed Christian, a fact that is often forgotten because of his commitment to religious freedom. As Sheldon shows, Jefferson was against mandatory religion, not public morals or Christianity.

Afterward, Sheldon describes how Jefferson’s aristocratic roots shaped his political philosophy. Raised in and a life-long resident of the Old Dominion, many of his biases and perspectives were shaped by life in that great state, one of the greatest states in the republic. However, many of his personal problems, namely his lifelong debt, were also shaped by his state of residence, as is described in Dominion of Memories.

Finally, after tracing the development of Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophy through the historical periods in which he lived throughout The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, Sheldon then defines “his conception of freedom, democracy, equality, and civil rights. As this section is the best of the book, I’ll leave it to you to read the book and learn more.

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Analysis of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson

While political philosophy typically isn’t my forte, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. It is well-researched and written, full of interesting tidbits and voluminous footnotes that fully inform the reader of the facets of Jefferson’s political thought.

Some of those things are things that the average reader should know but doesn’t. For example, I consider myself relatively well-read (although certainly not as well-read as Jefferson was by my age), yet I knew absolutely nothing about Jefferson’s focus on wards as one of the most crucial components of a functioning republic. Similarly, before reading The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, I knew little about Jefferson’s religiosity, the concept of “the Ancient Constitution,” or the many differences between classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism. Sheldon discusses all of things in-depth, exposing the reader to important aspects of Jefferson’s political philosophy of which they had probably never before heard.

On that note, the level of important detail and information found in the footnotes of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson is wonderful. Rather than merely referencing sources, as most authors do, Sheldon uses footnotes to fully explore the concepts put forth by the various sources and relate them to his thesis. Many of them might appear small, but are full of fascinating detail.

However, those footnotes are also the one problem I had with the book. I enjoyed reading them, but at times they were distracting from the main point. I like to read everything on every page, so the at times voluminous footnotes were fun to read, but also drew my attention from the main passage on the page. On the other hand, I read far more of them than I typically read of endnotes, so there were certainly positive aspects of the stylistic choice.

Overall, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson is an excellent book. Everything in it is fascinating, many of the points made are both original and astute observations, and Sheldon’s exploration of an important concept- the difference between Lockean liberalism and classical republicanism- is a welcome one. Furthermore, it’s a book about a man whose mind needs to be understood. Many Americans, myself included, often quote him without fully understanding his mind or ideas. Reading a book like The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson will correct that error.

Conclusion

Even if you’re not typically interested in political philosophy, read The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. It’s interesting and original, full of information but eminently readable.

Also, it’s a departure from other books about the revolution and Founding Fathers. It’s not just their thoughts, as both The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers are. It’s not a typical biography like His Excellency: George Washington or The History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson. And it’s not a wide-ranging history of the American Revolution or that era like A Struggle for Power, The Age of Federalism, After the Revolution, To Begin the World Anew, Founding Brothers, or The Coming of the Revolution.

Rather, it’s a concise and well-developed study of the political philosophy of one of the most important, if not the most important, Founding Fathers. The closest book to it that I have read is What the Anti-Federalists Were For, although it is different (and far better) than even that fantastic study of Anti-Federalist political philosophy.

Understanding that political philosophy is crucial because it helped build America. To understand the American Republic, we must understand Jefferson, one of its most important architects. There could not be a better way to do so than to read The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson.

By: Gen Z Conservative


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