Levy, Leonard W. Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963. xviii+225 pp, Bibliography, notes, and index. $4.50.
A philosopher of limited government, classical liberal ideals, and civil equality, Thomas Jefferson yet poses as a dichotomy according to Leonard Levy’s Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. He accounts for Jefferson's involvement toward religious and civil liberties during and after the American Revolution, details Jefferson's controversial support of Virginia's 1778 Bill of Attainder and sometimes hypocritical defense of freedom of expression (Levy denotes that the politician was open to exceptions when it related to his political adversaries), as well as the results of Aaron Burr conspiracy, the Embargo Act, his repressment of Federalist writings and sentiment, as well as Jefferson's activities after his presidential term including the establishment of his beloved University of Virginia intended to enshrine republican values. Despite, provided a thorough exposition on Jefferson as a political figure, Levy appears to be agenda-driven - successfully exposing Jefferson’s supposed darker side.
Denigrating Jefferson’s hallowed position in the minds of the American public, Levy presents an often unseen side to the otherwise esteemed Virginia statesman, showing how his "at one time or another supported loyalty oats; countenanced internment camps for political suspects; drafted a bill of attainder; urged prosecutions for seditious libel; condoned military despotism; used the Army to enforce laws in time of peace; censored reading; chose professors for their political opinions; and endorsed the doctrine that means, however odious, are justified by ends.” Due to these scholarly findings, Leonard W. Levy explores Jefferson’s political and social record and relatively achieves his stated goal to “determine the validity of his historical reputation as the apostle of liberty.”
Objectively, Levy could be pressed upon to have utilized a more neutral approach to discerning Jefferson's achievements and failures, yet his intension to critique the pristine image of the Founder is well-founded. By opting to do so, Levy's work stands out as rather biased despite his emphasis that enough books have been produced praising the statesman. A fair reading would instead find the complexity of Jefferson engaging and understandable as there exists a “tension between the principle of tolerance and the habit of complete commitment between idealism and the exercise of power in a revolutionary age.” Instead, Levy appears to convict Jefferson on all charges and rip his saintly halo and drag Jefferson’s tarnished image through allegorical mud. “In his effort to expose sin, error, and dereliction [Levy] has ranged through the entire career of Jefferson, covering half a century or more, and has collected a considerable pile of what he regards as dirt...and while admitting that balance is not his objective, [Levy] claims that in fact he is restoring it.” Astutely Trevor Colbourn notes that Jefferson was a “politician- (and with all it connotes) a superb one. Jefferson does not need to be protected from himself; virtues clearly outweigh his vices; like most human beings Jefferson was not always on the side of angels,” and rightly so, suggests that Levy has constructed an unnecessarily embellished interpretation in order to prove his thesis.
Although Levy reveals clear partiality, his portrayal of Jefferson’s actions which stand contrary to national memory and his abandonment of privately held and publically espoused ideals is a credible aspect of his career that ought to be further explored. In The Darker Side, Levy provides an account that carries significant weight in furthering a genuine exploration of America’s most revered historical figures, including their exalted and broken particularities. Though harshly critiquing Jefferson's conflicting ideals and actions while in power, Levy offers an insightful and weighty account of a passionate supporter of liberty while engaging in the humanistic portrayal of a flawed and complex individual attempting to achieve the hopes enshrined in his political and philosophical ponderings.
Levy, Leonard W. Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.
Scholarly Reviews Consulted:
Colbourn, Trevor. “Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side by Leonard W. Levy” The Journal of American History 51, no. 2 (1964): 297-99.
Harrison, Joseph H. “Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side by Leonard W. Levy” The William and Mary Quarterly 21, no. 3 (1964): 451-54.
Malone, Dumas. “Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side by Leonard W. Levy” The American Historical Review 69, no. 3 (1964): 787-89.