Part 1: Intellectual Assasination
At the time of this writing more than one year has past since the February 1997 broadcast on television of the Ken Burns series on Thomas Jefferson, and still the piece leaves a lingering distaste, one that demands aggressive confrontation. The series itself remains at-issue because it will now be taught in classrooms, with an important partially taxpayer-supported website to promote it. Also, the tapes are offered for sale to the general public as a package. This piece has reached the status of "resource." Its influence could well be constant and therefore constantly corrosive.
There are many things wrong with this documentary. It is choppy and episodic, with no unifying element in the narrative line. Contemporary intellectuals with perspectives as harmful as that of Joseph Ellis are given a platform to expound Counter-Revolutionary world-views, largely uncountered. It spends far too much time on the Sally Hemmings issue.
But its most egregious fault occurs at its dramatic high point, the authoring of the Declaration of Independence. Here Burns saw fit to insert, as his one and only critique of Jefferson on the intention and meaning of the Foundation Principle, an excerpt from the mind of Professor Joseph Ellis, as follows:
|     "Those key 35 words that begin, "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ." and end with "pursuit of happiness," those are the closest things to the magic words of American history. Those are the words that all Americans at some very, very important level believe in. They are the essential words of the American creed. And part of Jefferson's genius was to articulate at a sufficiently abstract level, these principles, these truths that we all want to believe in. The level is sufficiently abstract so that we don't have to notice that these truths are at some level unattainable and at another level mutually exclusive. Perfect freedom doesn't lead to perfect equality, it usually leads to inequality. But Jefferson's genius is to assert them at a level of abstraction where they have a kind of rhapsodic inspirational quality. And we all agree not to notice, not to notice that they are unattainable and not to notice that they are mutually exclusive or contradictory. They are in some sense nice representations of Jefferson's personality: wishing to be above it all and concealing the contradictions."||
According to the PBS website associated with the Ken Burns documentary on Thomas Jefferson: 'Joe Ellis is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College and the author of the much-acclaimed biography of John Adams, "The Passionate Sage", and a recently published biography of Thomas Jefferson, "American Sphinx."'
The excerpt cited here is taken directly and verbatim from the same website under "Interview Transcripts" and can be found here.
This formulation is shrewd, subtle and despicable. Jefferson proudly and eloquently states "A." Ellis attacks Jefferson for "B." He gets away with this because while Jefferson's words are structured in full Enlightenment syntax and context, Ellis speaks from a twentieth-century progressive academic and even what could even be described as post-modernist point of view. This enables Ellis to discover seeming contradiction and/or hypocrisy in Jefferson.
No other point of view on the meaning of the Foundation Principle is offered; the story shifts away from the document at once. Neither Ellis nor Burns provide the perspective that Jefferson has been clearly understood throughout American history except for the last half of the 20th Century, leaving Ellis's claim of contradiction and incomprehensibility to stand unchallenged. This is unforgivable, because it is Ellis's particular interpretation that is odd, needlessly confusing and Counter-Revolutionary. It is also wrong.
Ellis's opinion administers a one-two-three punch of insinuation and definition switching in an attempt to sully the Foundation Principle, carried out as described below:
1) Imply That Passion About High Principles is Irrational
Ellis begins with three sentences that postulate the same thing: Americans are imbued with the Foundation Principle deeply and passionately and place a high value on it. Although repeating the same idea three times, he changes syntax from "magic words" to "believe in" to "creed" as the descriptors of the power of the Foundation Principle. He clearly hopes that by repetition he will convey that Americans are held by it as if in a trance, under the influence of a mysterious power, or transfixed by religious fervor, all of which are irrationalities.
Thus Ellis devotes three full sentences, later reiterated, to persuasion that irrational belief underlies Americans' passion. He is obsessed with establishing that idea. Further, he pointedly omits an obvious alternative explanation for the passion, the one that was in play for the first 150 years of the nation, namely that:
a) rational conviction of objective truth is possible;
b) Americans are capable of such conviction; and
c) the holding of a rational conviction can generate passion as a justified emotion.
By withholding the option that Americans recognize the Foundation Principle as being actually true, objectively true, he severely deprecates that idea by glaring omission and also sets up the straw man of irrational Founder-worship to be assaulted, thus portraying Americans as naive, emotional puppets. Ellis omits the world-view in which such a thing as an objective truth exists, can be discovered, stated as an abstract principle and exalted (with feeling.) This would leave only the case that Americans' passion is irrational, solely emotional and escapist.
2) Assert the Idea That Anything "Abstract" Is Evasion
Ellis degrades the concept of "the abstract," implying that valuation of any thought above the level of a concrete provides an escapist haven for the believer, here:
"And part of Jefferson's genius was to articulate at a sufficiently abstract level, these principles, these truths that we all want to believe in. "
. . and:
"But Jefferson's genius is to assert [the principles] at a level of abstraction where they have a kind of rhapsodic inspirational quality."
. . . supposedly leading to the result that Americans "don't have to notice" as in 'get to evade' the real issue, namely that "[freedom] usually leads to inequality."
|It is typical of pragmatists and post-modern academics to be vigilant for any instance of abstract principles held as true and defended with personal intensity. They go on the attack when this is spotted. They really don't care if the belief is religious or atheist; their vigilante alarms go off whenever they detect any claim of certainty, objective validity, universal truth, etc. They call the process of holding a belief (rational or irrational) "valorizing " or "reifying." Their goal is to "deconstruct" valorized beliefs and show them rather to be mere "social constructs" not rooted in objective reality. They have no reticence about using the academic's dry sarcasm and air of disapproving superiority to marginalize the poor naive unsophisticate still clinging to 'big ideas.' Ellis is crafty and adept in this.|
|     This is a sophisticated slur on "abstraction." Consider the implication if Ellis's disapproval of abstract principles and "perfect freedom" were verbalized as follows:||For a more detailed explication of Pragmatism in relationship to this essay please click here.|
'You are evading if you waste time on the luxury of forming abstractions, thinking and judging. Instead throw your body and soul into the rectification of unfairness the split second it appears on the basis of instinctive reaction and duty only. Don't think, no principles allowed, this is an emergency because something is unequal, the government must do whatever needs to be done at any price, including voiding personal freedom and taking money (your own and others) by force, or putting some citizens under compulsion, to stamp out unfairness of any sort from any cause the second an inequality is discovered. You have no right to object or abstain since this is the payment in consequence of the freedom which led to the unfairness.'
This is Pragmatism, an ugly Counter-Revolutionary philosophy. Ask yourself if this methodology is not in fact in place in our Nation now, fast becoming more and more entrenched.
His smear on "the abstract" reveals Ellis's worship of the concrete-bound mentality and contempt for the validity of truth at any level above particulars. It cries out for someone to say: 'Incapable of rooting higher abstractions in reality? Speak for yourself Joseph Ellis!.'
|Also note the downward pull of the syntax "want to" believe in (as in 'we know it's a fairy tale, but we really WANT to believe it') and "rhapsodic, inspirational" quality. This is Ellis reminding us again of the supposedly irrational basis on which Americans base their passion in the Foundation Principle. A rhapsody is a flight of fantasy with delirious ecstasy.|
3) Deliberately Swap "Egalitarianism" For "Created Equal"
The above two tricks would be indictment enough, but the payoff pitch is the direct assertion that freedom and 'equality' are or can be mutually exclusive. This turns on a completely brazen spin -- for an American on American soil -- on the meaning of "created equal."
Jefferson's 'equal' means all are born with equal moral worth, equally with full absolute rights. Far from conflicting with freedom, this meaning requires freedom as an absolute. For Ellis to be correct in his charge of contradiction, another meaning for 'equal' will have to be found.
Ellis clearly thinks any contrary voices of reason and objectivity have been so thoroughly destroyed in this culture that the way is open for uncontroversial abrogation in broad daylight of the denotation of "created equal" to his standard, namely:
Equality of results. "Social justice," as in distribution of wealth. Justice as Fairness [Rawls.] In a word, egalitarianism.
However it is so easy to demonstrate that government-enforced fairness (egalitarianism) is not the denotation of "created equal" in the Foundation Principle that one marvels at the audacity of Ellis. Here is the demonstration:
|Verbally Ellis attempts to wipe out the difference between "created equal" and "equality" by instantly adopting the latter and never honoring Jefferson's actual usage. He is subtle in it and clearly acts as if having achieved a fait acompli. One can grasp the implications of this point by making an imaginary assertion to Professor Ellis: 'But Professor, Jefferson didn't say all men are born into equality, he said they were born equal.'|
a) The "created equal" phrase is not in the form of a normative, an "ought"; Jefferson does not say "all men ought to be equal." He does not say "all men ought to claim other's property if inequalities are detected" nor "all men ought to believe that no one is better than another." He does not say "government ought to make all circumstances equal for all" or "we ought to achieve equal happiness for all." And once and for all, Jefferson does not say "life ought to be made into a level, equal playing field by the government!"
Rather the Foundation Principle is explicitly declared to be "...these truths.." and is formulated in the form of a high metaphysical assertion: "all men [ARE] created equal." George Mason's syntax is even more flatly declarative: "all men are by nature equally free and independent" These are statements of what IS true in objective reality, not a supposition of some normative goal that ought to be attempted by a government or people.
b) Jefferson makes it clear (". . .hold.. . .to be self evident. . ." and ". . unalienable...") that this is a primary, not to be proven, but simply true, absolutely true on its face. There can be no equivocation: Jefferson intended "all men are created equal" as a universal, as a fact that was true then, in the future forever, and thousands of years before he stated it. It is a statement of man's nature qua man, immutable. It is not a prescription for what the American nation ought to achieve. Clearly, Jefferson's 'equal' is not in contradiction with his 'freedom.'
c) Ellis's usage of "unattainable" is a dead give-away. No universal metaphysical truth is ever evaluated as attainable or unattainable, only as true or untrue, whereas all normative statements must be evaluated for their "attainability."
Ellis can not fail to have understood this. He is enormously intelligent. That he proceeds to blatantly misconstrue "created equal" is a shameful failing.
|Granting for the moment the converse of the current point, if egalitarianism actually were the meaning of "created equal" in the Foundation Principle, Ellis would be right: freedom IS in violent contradiction with social justice et al., since egalitarianism, socialism etc. can only be achieved through severe violation by government of property rights and freedoms.|
Anyone in Ellis's camp attempting to support the contention of massive contradiction in the Foundation Principle but honest enough to examine its syntax would have to stand on one of these conclusions:
a) It should have been a normative statement (according to Ellis: egalitarianism-to-be-achieved) but Jefferson wrote it badly
b) It's a statement of simple fact, in which case it would have to mean "all men ARE born into equality," "all men ARE always treated the same in other's hearts," and "all men ARE created with the same skills, luck, drive, will, possessions, environment, etc.," and holding that this is what Jefferson meant is an absurdity.
The notion that Thomas Jefferson mis-wrote the Declaration of Independence must be summarily dismissed.
One would think that Ellis would welcome the truth that the "created equal" phrase is indeed an assertion of absolute fact, as that would put the onus of substantiation back on Jefferson. Yet Ellis would rather prop up his spin that the Foundation Principle is a normative statement of egalitarianism, even though that would require the conclusion that the United States was formed as a socialist entity. Ellis must have a powerful motive for his attempted conceptual prestidigitation.
|Those objecting to this characterization of Ellis's intent under the claim 'he only means equal opportunity,' please see part three of this essay which refutes this position in detail. For the moment, please note that the notion of 'equal opportunity' was an impossible stand-alone idea in 1776. The phrase and concept are constructs of the Progressive era. Revolutionaries recognize no difference between egalitarianism and so-called "equal opportunity."|
Should one attempt to mitigate Ellis' guilt in deliberately obfuscating Jefferson's meaning by claiming 'he [Ellis] never thought of it that way, and assumed it meant unfairness' the charges would shift from deliberate distortion to utter incompetence. But no, this is not the case. Ellis understands the Enlightenment. He just does not like it to be important. He knows that Jefferson, Mason, The Founders were making an enormous, significant pronouncement about the nature of man, an Aristotelian declaration about existence, the existence of individual human beings, each an instance of the concept "man," with freedom from violation of that existence as a primary political requirement, an unalienable right. By omitting this intent in his analysis and substituting egalitarianism, he engages in preventing students and readers (and viewers of documentaries) from ever grasping the full meaning and power of the Revolution.
To set matters right the following confession is appropriate for the professor: 'I admit Jefferson intended "created equal" to refer to something other than egalitarianism or fairness, something not in contradiction with freedom. Actually, I said as much in my biography of him. But I don't like his way of thinking and I don't think people today should think that way. We should talk about real unfairness, not hypothetical freedom. So, I set out to spin it into another meaning in order to create a sensation and bring my agenda, the important agenda, to the table." That would be more honest, Professor Ellis, don't you agree? It is also parasitism of the highest order, hitching a ride on Jefferson's courage and Americans' justified love of him.
'So what?' Ellis might say (assuming a new tack.) 'So you proved the Foundation Principle was intended as a metaphysical statement of fact. That only further makes a fool of Jefferson, because he honors ("valorizes") some airy-fairy abstraction of dubious relevance over the brutal facts of true reality: men and women are NOT treated equally, they are not given equal chance in life, they are victimized by others all the time and this idiotic "rhapsodic" worship of perfect Freedom just opiates people into apathy about inequality. Unfairness all around while silly Americans pay homage to some ridiculous abstraction.'
Upon declaring this he should be taken at his word. He calls Americans fools. He disparages any value associated with Jefferson's real meanings for freedom and equality; he disdains the need for foundation of a nation upon such abstractions; he itches to get Americans to drop their childish soft-spot for such sentiments and instead descend into the realpolitik of government as 'distributor of fairness.' This is the exact position of an orthodox Pragmatist. Or Totalitarianist.
|An additional explanation for Ellis's position: the well-known adage in the Whole Language movement and in post-modernism to the effect that 'the reader constructs meaning as he goes along,' [Ken Goodman] asserting that the text merely serves the purpose of igniting the emotions, conditioning, agenda and politics of the reader. The meaning intended by the author counts for little or nothing, but the meaning constructed by the reader is a Knowledge/Power conflux, alive and vital. On this position, a reader of the Foundation Principle is therefore not obligated to grasp or respect Jefferson's meaning, nor be accountable to context, but rather asserts his own, even if far afield syntaxtually from the text. This would be feeble enough as it were but when there is no disclosure that this gambit is in play and yet Jefferson is held accountable for the meaning as constructed by the reader, no less label than "intellectual assassination" is sufficient.|
Finally, the most insidious and dishonorable dig of all: the supposed failing of Jefferson in wanting to be "above it all." Throughout time men have treated each other as animals. Compulsion anchored by force policed by violence in a struggle for power and control has been the norm. This vast nightmare is what Ellis would consider the "non-abstract," the unrhapsodic "realpolitik" and the proper setting for the quest towards his egalitarian ideal. He must be granted that; egalitarianism belongs there, "below it all," since to achieve it the rights of some must be abrogated by force to satisfy the needs an whims of others, 'might makes right' by any other name.
So what is Jefferson's sin? That he dares to raise his soul above the pit of sacrifice, that he dares take a moment away from hell to declare a truth about the fundamental nature of man. And what is the result of Jefferson's courage? A nation, a fantastic nation, built upon that truth.
Just because Joseph Ellis and most Pragmatist intellectuals refuse to acknowledge the past existence of the Enlightenment (under which the Foundation Statement was common usage) does not dim the fact that it existed, that political ideas drawn from it were clearly understood and lived by for 150 years, that it is never false, and that it will have to be vigorously reasserted if the country founded on it is to thrive. I don't know the motive of Professor Ellis. The simple fact is, every chance he gets he declares the source idea of the United States Of America illegitimate. He is a Counter-Revolutionary. His mission is to sit astride 1775-1826 deconstructing the foundation of our nation. It is time for voices to be raised against him.
The pit still exists everywhere collectivist intellectuals such as Ellis dutifully toil below. But in spite of the intellectual war against Revolutionaries who live by an abstract principle and believe in freedom for individuals, despite the pleas for Americans to reject the pursuit of happiness and join a collective struggle to eat or be eaten, Ellis and his ilk are having the devil of a time convincing the American people to join them in the mud.
In public forums such as the documentary in question Joseph Ellis understandably wishes to forward his case, including the issue of Jefferson and other Founders as slave holders. However, as a historian he ought not consider himself free of the burden of first representing the position of the Founders fairly, including an impartial conveyance of the exact Enlightenment meaning of the Foundation Principle, before bringing charges concerning slavery or any other particular of individual Founders' lifestyles or personal beliefs.
Ellis's interpretation of The Foundation Principle is an insult to Americans and Americanism. It purports that Jefferson and all those since 1776 whose souls soar with exaltation at the elucidation of this highest of political truths are at best embarrassingly naive and more likely hypocritical evaders of reality. Such a man, such a mind, such a message do not belong in the same room with Jefferson. I suggest to Ken Burns that he re-edit his tape and remove the remarks of Ellis from the very room in which the Foundation Principle became the American Nation.
|In his book American Sphinx, The Character Of Thomas Jefferson , Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1977, Ellis attempts assassination of the Foundation Principle but with a different twist. He actually writes an accurate paraphrase of Jefferson: ". . . the individual is the sovereign unit in society; his natural state is freedom from and equality with all other individuals; this is the natural order of things." He then proceeds to veer unjustifiably off the path, claiming that this is wild, idealistic magical thinking, that it in fact means anarchy. After this gross misinterpretation, Ellis launches into his usual "sufficiently abstract" and "mutual exclusiveness" pitch. Wrong in print, wrong on television.|