Monday, February 13, 2017

Kevin R. C. Gutzman's "Thomas Jefferson - Revolutionary"

Kevin R. C. Gutzman is the New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America. Gutzman is Professor and Chairman in the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University, and he holds a bachelor’s degree, a master of public affairs degree, and a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as an MA and a PhD in American history from the University of Virginia.

Gutzman applied the “Page 99 Test” to Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary and reported the following:
Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America argues that Thomas Jefferson was the most important statesman in American history. After an introduction laying out some of his one-off reforms, such as relocating Virginia’s capital to Richmond, conceiving the world’s first decimal currency, and abolishing the Old Dominion’s feudal land tenures, each of the book’s five chapters describes a long-term reform effort.

Page 99 is found toward the beginning of the chapter on freedom of conscience. The chief subject on which it touches is the source of Jefferson’s devotion to this idea. The following excerpt, in which quotations retain Jefferson’s punctuation, amounts to nearly all of page 99:
In short, power in the Virginia elite ultimately depended on ownership of land and slaves, which led to places on courts, on vestries, as militia officers, and in the House of Burgesses. How odd, then, that Jefferson should set out to undermine the Virginia elite’s social position by eliminating the religious establishment, thereby putting religion entirely on a voluntary basis.

Here he seems to have been under the influence of the most radical English thinkers, including John Locke, John Milton, and Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury. We have no evidence to substantiate the idea that Jefferson was ever a Trinitarian—that is, a Christian. Jefferson was seventeen when he went to the College of William & Mary, and though he had a pretty low opinion of the faculty, he did greatly admire and appreciate the sole layman of the group: Professor William Small. Jefferson credited Small with extensive “rational” conversation and with exposing him to “the system of things in which we are placed”—which is Jefferson-speak for Enlightenment teachings concerning, among other things, religion.

We have extensive notes, apparently compiled when he was in his early thirties, from Jefferson’s reading of Locke and Shaftesbury on matters of government and religion. Those notes tend to support the ideas that government involvement in religion is intellectually inconsistent, that it is contrary to Christ’s example, and that it is a usurpation of the duty of every man. In his notes on Locke and his separate “Notes on Episcopacy,” Jefferson also advocates the sola scriptura–based claim of the radical Protestants, in England and abroad, that “Christ ... does not make it essential that a bishop or presbyter [elder] govern them.”

The notes on Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689), in particular, foreshadow Jefferson’s later writings on the subject. “Our savior,” he says, “chose not to propagate his religion by temporal pun[ish]m[en]ts or civil incapacitation, if he had it was in his almighty power, but he chose to extend it by it’s influence on reason, thereby showing to others how they should proceed.”
Somewhat to my surprise, Ford Madox Ford’s statement that reading page 99 of a book would reveal “the quality of whole” is true in the case of Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America.
Visit Kevin R.C. Gutzman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue