The evangelical rightwing establishment does not like him because he was pleased that the term "God" was excluded from the Constitution, because of his Free Thinking "peculiar" notions on religion in general along with his irreverence towards their Book, and because of his suggestion that frequent revolutions, i.e., the overturning of the sitting government, might be a necessity to maintain freedom.
The leftwing does not like him because, like his contemporaries, he owned slaves, held no sentimental notions about Africans and, like Abraham Lincoln who would come after him, saw the return of the ex-slaves to Africa as the only hope for social harmony and peace in this country, and, yes, because of his suggestion that frequent revolutions, i.e., the overturning of the sitting government, might be a necessity to maintain freedom.
Let's face it, who, in this day and age, would dare admit to liking such a man?
The left-leaning scholar and former United Nations diplomat, Conor Cruise O'Brien, makes no bones about his views on this Founding Father, claiming that Jefferson and his legacy are bound for the dung heap of history. Why? Because there soon will be no place in this country's evolving culture for a "fanatical cult of liberty." O'Brien rejoices at the prospect of the final demise of Jefferson's reputation. Here's what he wrote in his 1996 book, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800:
I believe that in the next century, as blacks and Hispanics and Asians acquire increasing influence in American society, the Jeffersonian liberal tradition, which is already intellectually untenable, will become socially and politically untenable as well. I also believe that the American civil religion, official version (ACROV), will have to be reformed in a manner that will downgrade and eventually exclude Thomas Jefferson.
O'Brien believes that high regard for Jefferson will one day exist only in the realm of the "mystical," and that such regard "really belongs among the radical, violent anti-Federal libertarian fanatics." To O'Brien, there can be no place for people who approve of Jefferson's unflinching directive to keep the spirit of armed rebellion alive in America. Refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants? Not likely.
According to O'Brien, it is this "misguided" notion of freedom, as espoused by the resolute Jefferson, that led to the Civil War (absolute freedom means the right to secede), to independent vigilantes (including the Ku Klux Klan), and to the 1990s militia movement. All who defy the "civil authority" pose as threats to O'Brien's concept of America, and they should be dealt with appropriately.
It's hard to envision in 2008, since the militias are now toothless tigers, but in the mid-1990s, members of these groups inspired the hope that maybe, just maybe, the governed might, after all, acquire power over increasingly oppressive government authorities. Over several years, Americans witnessed disdainful government functionaries behave as if the nation had been formed for them, instead of for the people they supposedly serve.
In 1995, syndicated columnist Walter Williams raised questions about the treatment of militia groups that were forming at the time and whose members were being harassed by a barrage of federal and state agencies. Remember, this was the period of the advent and escalation of BATF and other para-military swat teams arbitrarily raiding homes and stalking individuals. It was the time of the atrocious FBI murders of Randy Weaver's wife and son, and the unforgivable catastrophe at Waco. (The term "jack-booted thugs" became a household expression to describe a most malicious abuse of government power.)
In addition, creeping, crafty legislation, such as "wetlands" laws, meted out harsh criminal penalties for many landowners out West, who were restricted from making use of their own property. Freshly minted government laws literally turned citizens into mere caretakers of land they had paid for and fully owned, while preventing them from building a house or even clearing dry brush. Williams went on to explain that "Much of the cause for increased government distrust and hate in our country is a direct result of an increasingly intrusive and abusive government."
Jefferson never doubted the possibility of such a scenario and wrote about the prospect of a government that might eventually negate constitutional law. (Actually, he lived to see it with John Adams' Alien and Sedition laws.) O'Brien, who had to be aware of such abuses, in his book shows no interest in them and, apparently, cares nothing about the grievances of certain citizens, whom he probably looks upon as "privileged." He portrays all those who actively challenge the commanders in control of government as "paranoids" and/or "racists."
Nor does he question the limits of governmental authority or the credibility of the bureaucrats who exercise that authority. He writes, accusatively, "The Jefferson who admired Shays's rebels . . . is providing those now resisting the Federal Government with clear warrant for their cause, and for the use of armed force should the incursions of the Federal Government make that necessary." Jefferson, you see, is considered a bad role model, and those who follow his "extremist" notions for dealing with government that overreaches its constitutional boundaries, should be eliminated from society.
In the 1990s, the militias became the whipping boy for those who shivered at the thought of social anarchy, and few came to plead for fair treatment of these dissidents, who might very well have been the last Jeffersonian activists. Under the aegis of President Bill Clinton, these groups were effectively exterminated through bogus smears and aggressive legal actions. Once they were unjustly libeled as having an affiliation with Timothy McVeigh, of Oklahoma City notoriety, and aggressively pounced upon by the self-appointed "anti-racist" watchdog groups, there was no restoring their image or reputations.
O'Brien had no way of knowing, at the time, in 1996, that the country was soon to see the last of these believers in what he called Jefferson's "wild, absolute, untrammeled, universal" liberty. Warning of possible anti-government anarchy, O'Brien praised Clinton's underhanded treatment of the militias. He was still fearful, however, that a spark might be ignited in the future, because, as he worried, anyone can be inspired by Jefferson's creed: "Jeffersonian liberty is an absolute, not confined by specific ideological content, and revolutionaries of any stripe, whether right or left, have equal entitlement to his blessing, provided they are prepared to kill and die for whatever version of liberty they happen to believe in."
George W. Bush eagerly picked up where Clinton left off in equating anti-government dissent with treason and sedition. O'Brien had nothing to worry about. The militias were demoralized out of existence.
Among O'Brien's main theses is the conviction that Thomas Jefferson no longer fits into the "American civil religion in its official version (ACROV)," because the criterion of race is now an essential factor in American culture. He writes, "Once the criterion of race is introduced, it becomes logically impossible to fit Jefferson into ACROV." The "cult of Jefferson" is no longer acceptable within the ACROV, even though it might indefinitely linger for some time. The American civil religion must now be "unequivocably multiracial." In this reality, claims O'Brien, "Thomas Jefferson is becoming a most unsuitable and embarrassing figure." There is no longer any place in "post-racist" America for this Founding Father, who was unequivocal in his views on race.
Sounding like an advocate for, rather than a chronicler of an emerging multiracial polyglot society, O'Brien refused to see the case from Jefferson's standpoint. Why would Jefferson not desire to retain the cultural integrity of his lineage, which had made possible the intellectual undertaking to form the republican government to which he had just spent his energies giving birth?
Another Founding Father, John Jay, gladly thanked "Providence" for giving "this one connected country to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs."
Sociologist Kenneth Clark describes still another Founder, James Madison, who was well known as a staunch opponent of slavery, writing that the Africans could not be emancipated without being removed to some "distant region beyond the territory intended for white inhabitation." Asks Clark, was Madison a "racist," or was he "insightful enough to foresee the racial problems the country faced after the Civil War until today . . .?" Did he simply wish a "better situation" for the black people?
It does not appear that the Founders would be in concert with the platitudes contained in that mawkish poem that was belatedly plunked down at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Neither of them seem to have envisioned this country's future in the hands of "huddled masses" from every nook and cranny of the earth.
Who would be likely to form a nation for a people other than their own kind? Would the Hutu be likely to expend their energies to develop a society to benefit alien tribes and foreigners? A year into George Washington's administration, the Naturalization Act of 1790 was passed, which limited citizenship to "free white persons." O'Brien informs us that "The civil religion has been implicitly or explicitly a religion of white people for most of its history." What else could it have been?
Insisting that the United States is now "officially a post-racist society," O'Brien claimed to detect, in the mid-'90s, in other Western countries, that which he called "powerful racist undercurrents." Might these undercurrents be viewed objectively as nothing more than the normal protective tendencies of a group, determined to insure that their posterity survive in the same manner as they have lived? Perhaps such undercurrents that are shared by Westerners could also be detected among any self-respecting Tutsi or Dogon, who harbor similar preferences for their respective kin.
O'Brien connected any form of racial adherence here in the U.S. with Jeffersonian recalcitrance, and predicted that such adherence would not last much longer. In fact, according to him, all struggle to maintain such cohesion is doomed. He wrote as though he believed the inevitable destiny of white societies is to evolve into multiracial and multicultural ones – a situation that these societies are supposed to strive for, rather than avoid.
So, how does one proceed to diminish the stature of a giant like Jefferson? What do you do about the Declaration of Independence, whose authorship is attributed to Jefferson, and whose resounding phrase, "All men are created equal," along with other memorable refrains, is sacred text in the American civil religion?
O'Brien first removes the Declaration from Jefferson's authorship and describes it as a work of a "collective," turning Jefferson into a mere "draughtsman." He writes: "Jefferson's demotion from the sacred status of 'author' of the Declaration would effectively put an end to the official cult of Jefferson within the American civil religion." He predicts that Jefferson should be out of the American civil religion by the middle of the 21st century. No more cult of Jefferson; no more cult of the Founding Fathers.
O'Brien is especially exercised over the ongoing regard for Jefferson on the part of liberals. "The huge contradiction within [liberal-Jeffersonian] tradition, with regard to race, renders it unfit to survive in a multiracial society." The term "liberal Jeffersonian" is a contradiction in terms, he says, and any person who labels himself as such is simply "confused." He adds, "Doctrinally, Jefferson is far more suitable as a patron saint of white supremacists than of modern American liberals."
And, with that said, he cannot resist delivering yet another calumny and smear against the militia movement: "The twin themes of States Rights and No Free Blacks in America fit the positions of the far-right militia movements like a glove." Although he can show no pattern of malevolence directed from militia groups towards minorities, the intolerant liberal in O'Brien takes delight in railing against those who might not appear as readily "inclusive" as the monitors of political correctness would prefer. In truth, the anger of militia members was directed at the white establishment whom they viewed as destroyers of the political legacy left by the Founders. Evidence of this destruction could be found in increasingly repressive laws and other measures, as well as the establishment's acquiescence to the creation of social policies geared only to pacify particular interest groups – with no concern that such policies made a mockery of individual rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
Summarizing Jefferson as a "determined and implacable racist," O'Brien claims that "The civil religion of a multiracial society cannot indefinitely accept a racist as a prophet." As Jefferson is downgraded, along with the documents in which he played a major role, a new ethos must inevitably emerge.
Absorbed as he was in his multicultural mental fog, O'Brien failed to see still a bigger picture. What kind of "civil religion" could adequately and harmoniously replace the one inspired by the "cult of the Founders?" Is it enough just to eliminate Jefferson and his diabolical influence? Is this ACROV that O'Brien talks about (the new "official version" of the American civil religion that now includes race) capable of satisfying the desires and agendas of members of the new polyglot of nations now making their way to these shores from all the far-flung regions of the world? What uniting thread is likely to evolve that will win the trust and obedience of Chinese-Indian-Latino-Arab-African-Korean, ad infinitum?
In 1996, O'Brien mis-read the potential for backlash. Remember when the word "backlash" was bandied about as a threat that might come from disaffected whites? We now know that such a threat was never imminent, as whites settled into the good, comfortable life that was to bring them a seemingly endless array of gadgets, gizmos and all sorts of playthings.
With overwhelming prosperity has come an abundance of Bread and Circuses inconceivable to earlier generations. There is little chance that anyone would want to overturn all this fun and unlimited gaiety. But at the time O'Brien was writing, this was not so clear. He feared that the "cult of Jefferson" might inspire a schism, and become the center of a whites-only version of the American civil religion.
As it turned out, once the militia movement was done away with, and other dissenting fringe groups tarnished as anti-social "white supremacists," and publicly lambasted with other invectives, there was nothing more to fear. Rumors of possible discord stemming from the general public's concern over diminished freedoms were highly overstated. Such concern might momentarily have jarred the calm of a handful of whites, who looked up for a few minutes – and then went back to playing with their toys.
Some day, when the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, is torn down and replaced with one dedicated to a more "fitting" multiracial hero, O'Brien will be vindicated and, as he predicted, "the time of obfuscation" finally will have drawn to an end. It's still unclear, however, what the nature of the new "American civil religion" will be like, and just whose cult will prevail.