Thursday, August 20, 2009

Private letters and public papers: a primer

"I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive. The late rebellion in Massachusets [sic] has given more alarm than I think it should have done. Calculate that one rebellion in 13 states in the course of 11 years, is but one for each state in a century and a half. No country should be so long without one."

"I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth."

Note the difference in tone in these two declarations. In the first, the writer asserts he is against "energetic government." In the second, the writer proudly boasts that this country has the strongest government on earth, no need to worry about making it even stronger. That, one would assume, is a rather "energetic" state. These seem to me to be virtual opposite statements.

The two assertions came from the pen of the same man, Thomas Jefferson. The first one he wrote in 1787, the second he wrote, or at least orated, in 1801. Taking note of the contrast, one might conclude that one of two things happened to Jefferson.

One, he might have simply changed his mind. I don't believe a lot of things today I accepted fourteen years ago either.

Second, and more cynically, one might say that Jefferson was a politician, and politicians flip-flop. Plus, they tend to speak or write differently when they or their party is in office than when they are a minority

Of course, if you knew the difference in the format in which the two statements were delivered, you might simply think that Jefferson--like every other damn person who's ever inhabited planet earth--expressed himself differently with people he was intimate with as opposed to when he addressed the world at large.

Here is the source of the first Jefferson quote; it's a letter he wrote to his friend James Madison. And here is the source of the second quote; it's from Jefferson's First Inaugural Address. (And here is me saying God bless the University of Chicago for putting The Founder's Constitution online, what a wonderful resource to have at our fingertips.)

Here's the way it works: Jefferson and Madison were friends and they extensively debated statecraft through the post. Normally when you write a letter to a friend, you figure he's going to understand that this is a private correspondence and since he's your friend, he shouldn't use anything you write to try to embarrass you publicly.

And if you and your buddy are ordinary folks, when you both die your letters might well just wither and disappear. But when two men are as famous as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and they carry on an extensive correspondence, when they die people are falling over themselves to be curators of their personal papers.

Time passes, Jefferson and Madison recede farther back into history, and their personal papers are published. Then comes extensive quoting of personal letters, and people seem to forget that a statement made by Jefferson in a letter to his BFF simply does not have the same weight of authority as to his true frame of mind as the Declaration of Independence, the First Inaugural Address, or any other thing Jefferson wrote when he hoped the whole world was listening.

Doesn't that seem obvious? I hope so. But I just write this as a cautionary tale. It's not uncommon to see a column or a newspaper editorial in which the writer declares, "Thomas Jefferson believed..." and then comes a quote from our third president.

But often the quote is from a personal letter to Madison, John Adams, or some other close associate. And often as not, the columnist/editorial writer doesn't tell you the statement is from a private paper that Jefferson (or whoever) may not have ever thought would see the light of day, as opposed to being from a public writing or speech.

I, for one, think it makes a difference.

1 comment:

jcowan said...

It's just as possible that Jefferson lied in his public pronouncements for his own advantage, and told the truth about his feelings to his friends. Witnesses must be weighed and not merely counted.