Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jeffersonian apocalypse

In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, & shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue & embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & an Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than as it now is.

The Jefferson quote above (from a letter to the representative of the US government in France, dated Jan 3, 1793), given in more length than is usual, displays a range of justifications for the violence then underway in France. Politics is a battle, and people die. The violence was committed for a noble cause, “the liberty of the whole earth,” one for which those who perished would have been glad to make the sacrifice. And, anyway, “was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?” But then, as though it was a necessary consequence of the need to overcome his own affective suffering in the face of the instrumentalist logic and the impossible goal he had just invoked, Jefferson’s language becomes apocalyptic. Rather than a few hallowed martyrs, he now speaks of desolating half the earth—and more—the revolutionaries would be justified, like the wrathful God of the Old Testament, in destroying humanity and starting over. It is enough to make one think that there is, perhaps, a terrible destructive logic wrapped up in 18th century natural right doctrines.

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