Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Richard Hildreth (18071865)
[Born in Deerfield, Mass., 1807. Died in Florence, Italy, 1865. The History of the United States of America. 184952.Revised Edition. 1880.]
NOTHING, indeed, could have been less in accordance with Jeffersons political theories than to have thrust upon the country one of the most momentous measures which it was possible to adopt, involving the very livelihood of tens of thousands, without warning, without discussion, without the least opportunity to have the public opinion upon it; employing for that purpose a servile Congress, driven to act hastily in the dark, with no other guide or motive beyond implicit trust in the wisdom of the executiveand such a measure the embargo, the most remarkable act of Jeffersons administration, unquestionably was. Yet it would be most rash and unjust to charge him or any man with political hypocrisy merely because, when in power, he did not act up to the doctrines which he had preached in opposition. It is not in the nature of enthusiasm to hesitate or to doubt; and that very enthusiasm, though it had liberty and equality for its object, with which Jefferson was so strongly imbued, pushed him on, however he might theorize about the equal right of all to be consulted, to the realization of his own ideas, with very little regard to opposing opinions. With all his attachment to theoretical equality, he was still one of those born to command, at least to control; brooking no authority but his own; and not easily admitting of opposition or contradiction, which he always ascribed to the worst of motives; while in the feeling that he sought not selfish ends, but the good of the community, he found, like so many other zealous men, sanction for his plans, justification of his means, and excuse for disregarding the complaints and even the rights of individuals.
Yet, whatever defects of personal character, whatever amount of human weaknesses we may ascribe to Jefferson; however low we may rate him as a practical statesman; however deficient we may think him even in manliness and truth; however we may charge him with having failed to act in accordance with his own professed principles; there remains behind, after all, this undeniable fact: he wasrarity, indeed, among men of affairsrarity, indeed, among professed democratical leadersa sincere and enthusiastic believer in the rights of humanity. And, as in so many other like cases, this faith on his part will ever suffice to cover, as with the mantle of charity, a multitude of sins; nor will there ever be wanting a host of worshippersliving ideas being of vastly more consequence to posterity than dead actions passed and goneto mythicize him into a political saint, canonized by throbbing wishes for themselves, and exalted, by a passionate imagination, far above the heads of cotemporary men, who, if they labored, suffered, and accomplished more for that generation, yet loved and trusted universal humanity less.
Between Jefferson as a political theorist, palliating Shays rebellion by the general remark that a little insurrection now and then is necessary to keep every kind of government in order; between Jefferson as leader of the opposition, denouncing the tax on whiskey as infernal, and almost justifying the rebellion against it, and Jefferson as President, dissatisfied with the law of treason as laid down by Chase and Marshall, calling upon Congress for greater stringency, seeking to enforce the embargo by assumptions of power, which, if constitutional, which multitudes questioned, were vastly more arbitrary and meddlesome than anything in the Excise Act, there was, indeed, a striking contrast.