It is a virtual commonplace of legal theory and the history of legal and political thought today that Jefferson is not to be counted among its great subjects. With the notable exception of Sanford Levinson, constitutional theorists and historians of legal thought today generally pass by Jefferson’s comment to Madison that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living” as at best an overly idealistic road wisely not taken. David Strauss and Jed Rubenfeld treat Jefferson as a fundamentally unrealistic and anti-historical thinker (by Rubenfeld’s lights, akin to Nietzsche, which is telling), while Stephen Holmes dismisses Jefferson as simply an “anti-constitutionalist.” David Konig, the leading historian of Jefferson’s legal career and the editor (along with Michael Zuckert) of his legal commonplace book, argues that Jefferson’s stance is that of a speculative philosopher which had to be subsequently reigned in by his more judicious friend and collaborator. Hannah Arendt noted Jefferson’s ward republic idea as a precious gem forgotten by both American politics and the revolutionary tradition, and Jennifer Nedelsky and Richard Matthews (among others) have noted Jefferson’s radical theory of property rights in his extended dialogue with Madison, but those are the apparent limits of Jefferson’s identity as a legal thinker. Paul Finkelman writes about he impact of Jefferson on American constitutional law, but that impact is felt through his subsequent political career.
What many of Jefferson’s critics on this front have in common is a feeling that Jefferson’s idea was simply ahistorical- an example of what Michael Oakeshott calls political rationalism at its worst. Robert Tsai has an appraisal of Jefferson’s idea and the project of legal revolution, but he suggests Jefferson is ultimately inadequate here because it requires us to imagine ourselves stepping out of our context and the assemblage of law and history that brought us to it. Similarly, Kunal Parker views Jefferson and Paine as exhibiting a revolutionary theory of the timelessness of consent. I just don’t see it that way at all. What is Jefferson doing hunting down manuscript copies of the colonial laws of Virginia and the records of the Virginia Company if he thinks he is conveniently stepping out of the thickness (or the need for) historical representation? What about his concern for the writing and rewriting of legal text so apparent in his plans for councils to go over proposed amendments to the state constitution, or his wish, again, expressed to Madison, for a plebiscite to make suggestions before approving the US Constitution? And what flippant anti-historical idealist composes the Manual for Parliamentary Practice?
I see Jefferson as first and foremost a practically engaged theorist of the politics of historical representation, and he distilled that theorizing into an understanding of the ideal citizen as essentially a user of inherited materials- land, yes, property, yes, but also of law and of language. In that sense, Jeb Rubenfeld’s linking of Jefferson and Nietzsche is apt, but precisely because Jefferson, at his best, thought basically historically, or genealogically and counter-genealogically, or even archaeologically, about law and politics.
Somewhat (and I emphasize the somewhat) in the spirit of Corey Robin’s recent separate posts on Jefferson as a racial thinker and Nietzsche as the closeted inspiration for neoliberal economic theory, we could, anachronistically, say that Jefferson’s thinking about the use and disadvantages of history for life and his vision of a transformative human subject was capable of both radically democratic and reactionary, violent implications. Unlike Nietzsche the philologist and philosopher, Jefferson the man of action, slaveowner, and proponent of continental empire had a direct hand in realizing some of those implications himself. In the final analysis (if there is such a thing), Jefferson’s career is incomprehensible without understanding it as a project of constituting and protecting the racial, gendered, and geographic boundaries of a potent ideological vision of the true and ideal citizen.
But problematizing and forgetting are two very different things. In our current moment, it might just be that the memory of Jefferson’s conjoined concepts of law as use and of the citizen as a particular kind of reader can appear in a new light. The historical practice appropriate here is one not just of recovery but of active recollection. If Jefferson if of any use, it is to teach us that that is where our political thinking can begin again.
I want to thank Al Brophy and Dan Filler for letting me chime in here at the Lounge for the past month or so- I have been and always shall be a regular reader of this great blog.