The John Birch Society, an advocacy group for a more limited and constitutional government, released a video called concerning Thomas Jefferson called Myth v. Fact, narrated by the Society’s CEO Art Thompson. They argue that Thomas Jefferson was actually an anti-American traitor who tried to take down the American government. As will be seen below, the problem with this charge is that it is just not true.
The John Birch Society’s argument is founded upon half-truths—not only are key statements clearly taken out of context but they also ignore all evidence that contradicts the conclusion they want to prove. One of the most laudable features of American government and culture is that our Founders wisely created a system that enables justice and truth to prevail.
In fact, the Due Process clauses of the Bill of Rights exist to help achieve this singular objective: the accused has the right to present evidence in his or her behalf. These indispensable protections in our American system are built upon the simple Biblical principle that declares “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). The John Birch Society made its case by excluding key pieces of evidence that actually disprove the point they seek to make. You will get to see what they excluded, and look at Jefferson’s own actual word and will see that far from being anti-American, he was a lifelong patriot who strove for American advancement throughout his life.
Art Thompson’s primary evidence against Jefferson is an infamous 1796 letter to an Italian friend of Jefferson, Philip Mazzei. The letter itself is primarily about routine business transactions and general small talk, but one paragraph was seized upon by the anti-Jefferson party in America, and it is this paragraph on which Thompson reaches his conclusions (even though he never actually reads any section of that paragraph). Anti-Jeffersonians have used this letter against Jefferson ever since it was originally written, and Thompson does the same. Significantly, the charges Thompson makes here are no different than what Jefferson’s political rivals made over 200 years ago.
The paragraph on which Thompson relies for his errant conclusions relates to Jefferson’s private reflections about the bitter factionalism that was then breaking out in American politics. This letter was written at the end of George Washington’s presidency, at a time when the first political parties were developing in America: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists (also known as Republicans, or Democratic-Republicans). Jefferson, the Anti-Federalist, was then engaged in a presidential campaign against John Adams, the Federalist. It was perhaps the bitterest, nastiest, and most divisive political campaign in the history of American politics. Jefferson saw the contest as the elitists against the people. He was concerned that many new politicians working their way into American government were far too sympathetic to the high-handed British system that the American people had thrown off during the American War for Independence.
During the campaign, Jefferson’s Federalist opponents made outrageous claims against him, including that he was a murderer, an atheist, a thief, and aiding foreign convicts. Reports alledged that he was secretly plotting the destruction and overthrow of the Constitution. He was also accused of defrauding a widow and her children, and the nation was alerted that he planned to abolish the navy and starve the farmers.[i] And if that wasn’t enough, citizens were warned that if Jefferson were elected, he would confiscate and burn every Bible in America.[ii]
Of course, all of these claims were false—all of them, but these attacks were swirling around Jefferson at the time he wrote his French friend—this was the atmosphere in which his comments were made. In that letter, Jefferson told his friend:
The aspect of our politics has wonderfully changed since you left us. In place of that noble love of liberty and republican government which carried us triumphantly through the war, an Anglican, monarchical and aristocratical party [i.e., the Federalists] has sprung up, whose avowed object is to draw over us the substance as they have already done the forms of the British government. The main body of our citizens, however, remain true to their republican principles; the whole landed interest is with them and so is a great mass of talents. Against us are the Executive, the Judiciary, two out of three branches of the legislature, all of the officers of the government, all who want to be officers, all timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty, British merchants and Americans trading on British capitals, speculators and holders in the banks and public funds a contrivance invented for the purposes of corruption and for assimilating us in all things, to the rotten as well as the sound parts of the British model. It would give you a fever were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England. In short we are likely to preserve the liberty we have obtained only by unremitting labors and perils. But we shall preserve them, and our mass of weight and wealth on the good side is so great as to leave no danger that force will ever be attempted against us. We have only to awake and snap the Lilliputian cords with which they have been entangling us during the first sleep which succeeded our labors.[iii]
Notice that there is absolutely no anti-American sentiment embedded within the text. The Jefferson critics from the 1700’s and of today both try to twist it to say that Jefferson is some kind of undercover French operative trying to undermine the government, but what in the letter suggests that? Nothing. (This is likely why critics such as Art Thompson summarize their view of the letter rather than actually quoting direct text from it.) To the contrary Jefferson is bewailing that there are some who actually are trying to undermine the republican form of government by making America a monarchy, or at the very least more British—that is, more of an elitist system where the people themselves have little actual power or voice. Jefferson, in fact, actually attacks the very thing which he is being accused of doing by Mr. Thompson. Jefferson, from the Declaration, to his Presidency, and to his passing, always stood against monarchism and boldly defended republicanism. (By the way, “republicanism” was defined in the dictionaries of that day as being rooted in a government “in which the exercise of the sovereign power is lodged in representatives elected by the people.”[iv] It is what President Abraham Lincoln later described as “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”[v])
The portion of the letter, along with several paragraphs of French commentary, was printed in French papers after being delivered to them by Jefferson’s friend, and the recipient of his letter, Philip Mazzei. (Mazzei was an Italian who helped Virginia obtain arms during the American War for Independence, and become a friend of Jefferson at that point. He later spent time in France as the French sought to throw off their monarchal political system and free the people.) This French paper, with its own spin of Jefferson’s words, was then sent to America and translated back into English. At this point, the anti-Jefferson media picked up the twice translated piece and with the excerpt they lifted from the letter, viciously attacked Jefferson.
According to his personal policy, Jefferson never publicly responded to the name-calling, preferring instead to let the insults die out on their own. He based this strategy off of three considerations. First, he felt that responding to outrageous claims appeared to justify them.[vi] Second, Jefferson trusted that in the end his virtue would triumph over his enemies’ lies.[vii] And lastly, he believed that the people would eventually see through the lies and side with the truth.[viii]
Jefferson even acknowledged that he could have successfully pursued legal action against many of his enemies who made such false allegations in the press, remarking:
I know that I might have filled the courts of the United States with actions for these slanders, and have ruined perhaps many persons who are not innocent. But this would be no equivalent to the loss of [my own] character. I leave them, therefore, to the reproof of their own consciences. If these do not condemn them, there will yet come a day when the false witness will meet a Judge [God] Who has not slept over his [the false accusers’] slanders [cf Proverbs 19:5].[ix]
This mode of action, however, did not work entirely, and even 30 years later (not to mention now 200 years later) some of his most bitter enemies resorted to drudging the false claims out to throw renewed insults at Jefferson.[x]
One such example is a libelous attack by Timothy Pickering, an Alexandrian Federalist with a long-standing grudge against Jefferson.[xi] An ardent lifelong Federalist, Pickering always fought against anything Jefferson did and religiously supported English policies. At one point, Pickering even attempted to lead a secessionist movement in New English but failed miserably, effectively ending his political career at the same time.
Pickering parroted the tone of arguments the anti-Jefferson media made then and the John Birch Society makes now. In effect, imagine if someone based their history exclusively on CNN’s view of Trump, or Fox’s view on Obama. It is remarkably bad historical practice to get information exclusively from the person’s enemies, but that is exactly what the video does. Thomson today uses the same letter, the same ad hominem, and the same vitriol which was used over 200 years ago.
Jefferson, in response to Pickering attack, eventually broke his silence on the Mazzei letter. He wrote to Martin Van Buren on June 29, 1824, explaining the details of the letter. In his typically systematic fashion, Jefferson walked through every objection to his words and conduct.
In his original letter, Jefferson had stated that “men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council…had their heads shorn by the harlot England.” Jefferson’s critics at the time claimed that this clause was a clear attack on George Washington, with whom Jefferson had so closely served throughout the Federal Era (that is, from 1760 until Washington’s death in 1799). Jefferson directly denied that he criticized Washington in the Mazzei letter, saying that:
The other allegation respecting myself is equally false.…I do affirm that there never passed a word, written or verbal, directly or indirectly, between General Washington and myself, on the subject of that letter. He would never had degraded himself so far as to take to himself the imputation in that letter on the ‘Samsons in combat.’ the whole story is a fabrication, and I defy the framers of it, and all mankind to produce a scrip of a pen between General Washington and myself on the subject, or any other evidence more worthy of credit than the suspicions, suppositions and presumptions.[xii]
After calling out the complete lack of evidence for the claim that he was attacking Washington, Jefferson flatly declared that those who had launched these attacks were those who were:
Boiling with party passions, and—under the dominion of these—readily welcoming fancies for facts. But come the story from whomsoever it might, it is an unqualified falsehood.[xiii]
Having dismissed the whole affair in general terms, Jefferson then turned his attention to the specific nature of the Mazzei letter. He denied that anything in his statements were either false or treasonous, and pointed out the context of those short remarks in the otherwise lengthy letter:
This letter to Mazzei has been a precious theme of crimination for federal malice. It was a long letter of business in which was inserted a single paragraph only of political information as to the state of our country. In this information there was not one word which would not then have been, or would not now be approved, by every republican in the U.S. looking back to those times.[xiv]
Jefferson then noted that when the French had reprinted a few clauses taken out of context from the letter, that an additional paragraph of their own commentary was added as if Jefferson himself had written that commentary. American papers later reprinted that section as if it were Jefferson’s own words (which they were not), and that it was this section what had caused most of the criticisms and attacks against him. He explained that only a short portion of his original letter was:
extracted and translated [and] got into a Paris paper at a time when the persons in power there were laboring under very general disfavor, and their friends were eager to catch even at straws to buoy them up. To them, therefore, I have always imputed the interpolation of an entire paragraph additional to mine, which makes me charge my own country with ingratitude and injustice to France. There was not a word in my letter respecting France or any of the proceedings or relations between this country and that. Yet this interpolated [that is, added or inserted] paragraph has been the burthen [grievous weight] of federal calumny [slander and defamation], has been constantly quoted by them, made the subject of unceasing and virulent abuse, and is still quoted…as if it were genuine and really written by me.[xv]
Even today, critics such as Thompson fail to realize that much of the animosity against Jefferson stemmed from that fake paragraph, and they use it to condemn Jefferson—but he did not write it! In their defense, however, it is at least understandable that some confusion might still persist because, as Jefferson notes, even other distinguished patriots and friends, such Chief Justice John Marshall, had believed the false reports.[xvi]
Jefferson further noted that in the translation of his letter from its original English, into Italian, then into French, and then back into English, the letter itself became so mutated and transformed that in many cases the anti-Jefferson newspapers were able to make it mean whatever they wanted it to. He focused specifically on one single word which significantly affected the interpretation of the letter:
The genuine paragraph, retranslated, through Italian & French into English, as it appeared here in a Federal paper, besides the mutilated hue which these translations and retranslations of it produced generally, gave a mistranslation of a single word which entirely perverted [changed] its meaning, and made it a pliant and fertile text of misrepresentation of my political principles. The original [paragraph in my letter], speaking of an Anglican, monarchical, and aristocratical party which had sprung up since he had left us, states their object to be “to draw over us the substance, as they had already done the forms of the British government.” Now the forms here meant were the levies, birth-days, the pompous cavalcade to the State house on a meeting of Congress, the formal speech from the throne, the procession of Congress in a body to re-echo the speech in an answer, etc., etc., but the translator here, by substituting form in the singular number for forms in the plural, made it mean the frame or organization of our government, or it’s form of legislature, executive, and judiciary authorities, co-ordinate and independent, to which form it was to be inferred that I was an enemy. In this sense they always quoted it, and in this sense Mr. Pickering still quotes it…and countenances the inference.[xvii]
While Jefferson loved America, he did not appreciate the more extreme wing of the Federalist party which looked back longingly at the monarchical institutions of England. He was concerned that soon a faction might gain power and undo the Revolution, murmuring like the Israelites did after being brought up out of England [Exodus 16:2-3].
As his life and letters clearly prove, Jefferson wasn’t some anti-American operative controlled by the French, the Jacobins (radical French political party responsible for the atrocities in the French Revolution), the Illuminati (a secret fraternal organization originally similar to Freemasonry), or another group of suspicious intent. Jefferson was the patriot of the Declaration, espousing the limited nature of government, the inalienable rights of citizens, and the sovereignty of the people under God, and was unwavering in his support of a republican vision of America. He made it clear that his dominate principle in government was that, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniencies attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.”[xviii]
The errors in the video produced by the John Birch Society are unfortunate. They are the same errors made today by many who judge a person, group, movement, or event based upon the accusations of their opponents alone. If Mr. Thompson wishes to make Jefferson a traitor, he must do more than vaguely reference a single letter—a letter taken completely out of context, and a letter openly rebutted by Jefferson himself. Jefferson wrote over 19,000 letters, and to charge the writer of the Declaration of Independence with treason based upon only 7 sentences out of the millions he wrote is laughable at best, insidious at worst.
[i] See, for example, Charles Warren, Odd Byways in American History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942), pp. 127-128; Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962), Vol. Three, p. 481; Charles O. Lerche, Jr., “Jefferson and the Election of 1800: A Case Study in the Political Smear,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. V, No. 4, October 1948, pp. 466-491.
[ii] Wilburn E. MacClenny, The Life of Rev. James O’Kelly and the Early History of the Christian Church in the South (Suffolk: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1910), pp. 171-173.
[iv] Noah Webster, Webster’s American Dictionary, 1828, s.v., “republic.”
[v] Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works (New York: The Century Co., 1907), Vol. 2, p. 439, “November 19, 1863—Address at the Dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.”
[vi] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson (1905), Vol. XI, 366, “to Dr. Logan on June 20, 1816.”
[vii] Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. XI, 155, “to Thomas Seymour on February 11, 1807.”
[viii] Thomas Jefferson, Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, Vol. IV, 129, “to Wilson C. Nicholas on June 13, 1809.”