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Jefferson on the History of the American Revolution

On August 10, 1815, Thomas Jefferson set pen to paper to respond to John Adams’ letter to him of July 30, 1815.  Go here to read that letter.  Jefferson was no more optimistic than Adams that a true history of the American Revolution could be written:

On the subject of the history of the American revolution, you ask Who shall write it? who can write it? and who ever will be able to write it? nobody; except merely it’s external facts. all it’s councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them. these, which are the life and soul of history must for ever be unknown. Botta, as you observe, has put his own speculations and reasonings into the mouths of persons whom he names, but who, you & I know, never made such speeches. in this he has followed the example of the antients, who made their great men deliver long speeches, all of them in the same style, and in that of the author himself. the work is nevertheless a good one, more judicious, more chaste, more classical, and more true than the party diatribe of Marshall. it’s greatest fault is in having taken too much from him. I possessed the work, and often recurred to considerable portions of it, altho’ I never read it through. but a very judicious and well informed neighbor of mine went thro’ it with great attention, and spoke very highly of it. I have said that no member of the old Congress, as far as I knew, made notes of the discussions. I did not know of the speeches you mention of Dickinson and Witherspoon. but on the questions of Independance and on the two articles of Confederation respecting taxes & voting I took minutes of the heads of the arguments. on the first I threw all into one mass, without ascribing to the speakers their respective arguments; pretty much in the manner of Hume’s summary digests of the reasonings in parliament for and against a measure. on the last I stated the heads of arguments used by each speaker. but the whole of my notes on the question of independance does not occupy more than 5. pages, such as of this letter: and on the other questions two such sheets. they have never been communicated to any one. do you know that there exists in MS. the ablest work of this kind ever yet executed, of the debates of the Constitutional convention of Philadelphia in 1788.? the whole of every thing said and done there was taken down by mr Madison, with a labor and exactness beyond comprehension. I presume that our correspondence has been observed at the post offices, and thus has attracted notice. would you believe that a printer has had the effrontery to propose to me the letting him publish it? these people think they have a right to every thing however secret or sacred.

The last sentence is perhaps a fitting rebuke to those of us looking over the shoulders of Jefferson and Adams as they drafted these private missives.  However, History is not bound by the division of public and private, and men who are at the forefront of great events cannot expect that historians will allow good manners to overcome the necessity to ferret out all available knowledge.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

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