Jefferson: The Patron Saint of Hypocrisy

Fact & Fiction

Evidence that the Jefferson myth survives: In the New York Times lawyer Floyd Abrams this week observed that Jefferson “took no legal action” “when Federalist newspapers made him the subject of fierce attacks.” Translation: Jefferson the Good put up with press criticism while his longtime nemesis John Adams the Bad did not. Adams, you will recall, signed the infamous Alien and Sedition Act, which permitted the jailing of critics. Jefferson upon taking office pardoned them.

Abrams should know better than to mount too vigorous a defense of Thomas Jefferson. Our third president was the patron saint of hypocrites, our American Hypocrite in Chief. While he talked a good game—“were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”—he had as mixed a record on press freedom as Adams.

And once in power Jefferson proved no more immune to press attacks. Behind the scenes he orchestrated the prosecution of “Tory” newspaper editors under state sedition laws. As he remarked in a letter his defenders rarely quote, “a few prosecutions of the most prominent [Federalist] offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses.”

Early on in his career there was a clue to his inchoate views on freedom of the press. He told James Madison during the constitutional convention that the press should only have the right to print the truth. He seemed blind to the fact, as one historian put it, that “in politics one man’s truth is another’s falsity.”

The most flagrant case of Jeffersonian hypocrisy took place in 1806 when he stood by silently when one of his own judicial appointees won federal grand jury indictments for seditious libel against several Federalists, including a clergyman. Jefferson eventually spoke out against the indictments—-after he learned the trials would focus on an affair he had with a married woman in 1768. (As Jefferson confessed, as a young man he had “offered love” to his best friend’s wife.)

Source: Leonard Levy, Jefferson and Civil Liberties (1963).

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Scott Harwood - 7/12/2001

If you will look again, you will note that his offer of love was not accepted. The affair never happened, according to both the married woman and Jefferson.

Like Washington, Jefferson understood that the Founders, who were making things up as they went, needed to be regarded as more than mortal men. The new and fragile republic needed bigger-than-life heroes. I truly believe that the hypocricy was born less out of ego than by neccesity. Adams did not understand this until much later in his his life during his correspondence with Jefferson in which he finally began agreeing with the exagerrated accounts of the founding.

Admittedly, I am a Virginian whose family arrived in Virginia during the 17th Century, so perhasps I have a natural inclination to defend Jefferson against the Yankee-doodle Adams-Burr factions.