Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Tony Blair on the Media and Democracy

Tony Blair gave an important speech recently on the role of the media in shaping public opinion and creating an informed--or as the case may be--uninformed electorate. I heard a good deal of it as it was broadcast yesterday on Hugh Hewitt’s show and, the link above provides some of his commentary as well as other information about the speech.

Much of the speech focused on the changing nature of media--from centralized, "objective" clearinghouses to a decentralized, frenetic mess of partisanship that drives rather than reports on news. He remarks that the pace of news reporting--driven as it is by searching out market share--is too breathless and exaggerated. He argues that this leads to breathless and exaggerated thinking and policy-making.

It is a serious speech and it is thoughtful. This and his ability to at least recognize the enemy we face in Jihadist terror are reasons why I can’t help but love liberals like Tony Blair on some real and important level. It gives me a bit of hope when I am reminded of him and people like him. This is a serious person who reflects upon things, makes tough choices and engages with the world in a frank and thoughtful way. Good for him. He is a worthy ally and adversary.

While I find much in this speech salutary, I think ultimately there are some serious flaws in his argument as well as dangerous implications. It strikes me that he is looking to blame a lack of seriousness in the media more on technological phenomena than on a lack of seriousness on the part of the people in media. To be fair, he does emphasize that there is no one single cause. But he is quite enamored of this part of his explanation and says very little about the ideological underpinnings of many in the media who do tend to view all of life in this sort of exaggerated tone.

You will all have other thoughts and I cannot examine the whole speech right now--but I wanted to bring it to your attention in case you missed it. I am eager to read what you all think about it.

Discussions - 38 Comments

A great race war does approaches. Each race will fight brave. Each race will fight for own survival. But in the end only one race will survive.

The white man had day in sun. Its now Age of the Brown Man.

By 2110 either from war or intermarriage not a single baby will be born with blond hair and blue eyes.

Julie, thanks for posting this. I agree with Blair that technology and the psychology of market competitiveness are the ruling factors in the pathologies of the "old media," as well as in much of the "new," as witness the success of Daily Kos and the like. I don't look for much enlightened public spiritedness from the current class of corporate elites, newsroom managers, or communications gurus. It's going to continue to be up to the citizen to sort things out, between the serious and trivial, the true and the false, the right and the wrong. The alternative is political control, and we don't have the political enlightenment or dispassion for that. By the way, Churchill makes many of the same points as Blair in his profound essay, "Mass Effects in Modern Life," found in THOUGHTS AND ADVENTURES.

Read Giuliani's, and especially Tony Snow's, responses to Blair's comments when asked about them by Hewitt. Truly pathetic.

1: Mr. Singh, in adult communication in the English language, the word "the" is considered essential. No "day in the sun" on NLT until you master that one.

I would not be caught dead defending the political prejudices and bias of today's media, which are notorious. But this story is much older even than Churchill, as Rob mentions above. Read Jefferson's comments on the newspapers of the founding era -- he calls them "nauseous" and once even asks whether it is better for citizens of a republic to have newspapers that lie and distort news or have none at all, and prefers the latter. No doubt he was exaggerating after some particularly scathing Sally Hemmings story but his point is well taken.

Blair though is raising the point that things have gotten far worse because of the pace of current technology and the competing demands for instantaneous news. This I think does help to explain the amazing superficiality of much we hear and read, simple lack of time for journalists to think about what they are reporting. Hence for example the absurd repeated claims about everything from global warming and the "promises" of embryonic stem cells to inherited sexual orientation and the danger of second hand smoke, all supposedly proven by science but in fact completely undemonstrated. It is this kind of journalistic mythmaking that is far more harmful to self-government than the daily "Bush/Blair bad" propaganda most people know for the media's political prejudice, and so discount.

Great point by Rob in pointing us to Churchill's excellent essay on MASS EFFECTS IN MODERN LIFE. I hadn't thought about the connection at all--another reason why I love this blog. Dennis, you also raise a good point regarding Jefferson . . . however, since TJ was also guilty of paying (and then, not as much as promised) a propagandist to produce negative stories about his political opponents I hold his view on this as somewhat suspect. Wasn't his involvement in this kind of activity precisely the thing that brought on the publication of those Hemmings stories? (That, and the apparent fact that he was engaged in an affair with her?) I think TJ would rather like this "all's fair in love, war and politics" method that seems to be slowly creeping toward the surface with today's media. Though he did not himself care for direct confrontation (which probably accounts for his masterful skill with the pen) he did, on the whole, seem to be fairly sanguine with printed accounts.

It is funny that the more news is available, the fewer people are watching. But these are businesses putting out the news, and the only way to maintain market share in such a highly competitive market is to engage the viewer as throughly as possible. Rob is right, it is up to the viewer, the consumer, to choose where to watch and what to watch. The "shrill tenor" of the news is why some of us choose not to watch at all. The Internet resembles an instant newspaper, available at any moment. TV news is trying to resemble that, but since it operates in time differently, it has to be repetitive and that is tedious. Also, the Internet can have trivia for those who like it and those who do not can avoid that effortlessly, but turn on a TV looking for news and see trivia, you change the channel until you find the news you want to see.


It is the requirement to fill up all of the time and channels available that makes "all fair" as that time has to be filled, somehow. Anything might be said in an attempt to gain viewers, and Blair is right, that does damage. Truth suffers.


It is sad, though, to much time to fill and the news is still a matter of sound-bites and newsflashes.

I second Julie here. James Callendar had been Jefferson's press propagandist and rumor-monger (TJ kept a notebook of everything people said about Hamilton, true or untrue). Said Callendar had eventually been imprisoned, and when released went to the then President Jefferson for money. Upon receiving less than expected or demanded, it was Callendar himself who publicized the story of the Hemmings Affair to the world. Hamilton most likely knew the truth about the concubinage from Angelica Church, his beloved sister in law, who lived in England and was intimate with Jefferson when TJ was in Europe (a very young Hemmings was with him at that time). It was after her visit to America in 1795 (?) that AH indirectly alluded to personal scandal related to Jefferson in a pseudonymous article. Shortly after that Jefferson's hatchet man Monroe had published documents he had retained under false pretences publicizing Hamilton's affair while Secretary of the Treasury with Maria Reynolds, the blackmailing tart. Jefferson would be a much better pratitioner of gotcha press politics than Hamilton would, mostly because Jefferson was effectively secretive and conspiratorial while Hamilton was much less capable of keeping his mouth shut. Hamilton was strong in argumentation, and both his character and ability were admired by Washington to the end. But Jefferson had the turn of phrase that appealed to the hoi polloi. Have done a lot of thinking about this over the years, and I am now inclined to think the Hemmings story true and Hamilton more sinned against than sinning. For many relevant factoids regarding this whole business, see Ron Chernow's life of Hamilton.

And yet I find that getting news, when you want it, is easier to do and the quality of that which I am able to find when I seek it is so much better than it was in the pre-internet days. Kate, as your situation is so similar to mine, you must understand what I'm getting at. Without the computer and the blogs and news available over the internet, I'd be stuck having to go to the library. I do go every week for books and such, but not for mass media (unless something isn't available on-line). Who has the time for that? Who has the money to subscribe to the number of journals and papers you need to be truly informed? Those who wish to be uninformed, still are. It is easy to obsess about Paris Hilton. I guess what I'm getting at is that the tastes of people are so much more easily satiated today. The problem is an eternal one: how to shape the tastes.

Sorry that my comment 9 refers to Julie's 6th. Now to your comment 9, Julie, your question is precisely Churchill's: whether poets and statesmen can still lead in the age of mass effects, some of which are as you and Dennis and Kate describe. And it IS true that, for those who know where to look, extensive information and though provoking arguments are more easily available than ever before. This is something different from Churchill's time, but he would wonder about the depth of character and hence of judgement likely to be found in such an age, where the trivial and vulgar so easily overwhelm the genuine.

The notion of the press being objective is a relatively recent notion, probably dating from sometime around or just after WWII.

Traditionally, the press has been very biased.

Any person is necessarily biased, having a perspective. "The media" being a collection of persons, is bound to the bias of any given perspective of any given reporter. It just cannot be helped. Do you suppose the notion of objectivity in reporting came with the idea of the photograph reflecting reality? Yet anyone who takes photographs knows how easy it is and how necessary it is to bring focus, which is subjective, to any photograph. To make the picture clear, you have to select out the extraneous visuals. The same thing happens when reporting an event. You edit some things out for clarity, but the choice of what to leave out is necessarily subjective.


In the same way, we select what we choose to focus on when taking in our news, and necessarily select out what seems extraneous to us. So there is a bias in information collection, as well.

As Robert points out in #9, the salacious always sells and can even have political uses. It always has and vulgarity is always with us, in its older sense of being "of the people".

I do use the library to keep informed and have a very good relationship with my librarians; they have a spot on a shelf specifically for my requests. Ohio has a wonderful library system. No, I could NOT afford to be informed as my taste requires if I were on my own.

Robert: Thanks for your perspective on Hamilton--I am still meaning to get to that Chernow biography sometime this summer. In the meantime I've been making my way through several bios of Adams and others and I am finding that though I think a great deal of Hamilton's intellect and admire his bravery and perseverance, in the end I question his political judgment. If Jefferson sometimes used intemperate rhetoric (esp. regarding France), Hamilton's solid opinions on paper seem sometimes to have had a difficult time translating into his interpersonal relationships. What do you think a Hamilton presidency might have looked like, for example? You probably have read Joe Ellis' Founding Brothers which opens with a great account of the Hamilton/Burr duel and the conditions that led up to it. I have a hard time getting past the fact that Hamilton's character and judgment led him to Weehawken. Yet, in an odd way, after reading Ellis' book I see his actions with a kind of mixture disdain for his stupid bravado and admiration for sacrificial generosity. Burr really was a bad man. And I am glad it was Hamilton--and not Adams or Jefferson--who took on the role of making him irrelevant. Still, I wonder if there might not have been a better way to achieve the same effect. Also, the incident during the Revolution when Washington had to execute the brave English spy who seemed to be an admirable and amiable fellow: Hamilton should have understood the cold reality of what had to be done. But he could not forgive Washington for what he saw as his lack of mercy. This all should remind us that there is not always a necessary correlation between intellectual clarity and correct action.

As to your point in #10--don't you think that it is always true that the trivial and the vulgar easily overwhelm the probing and the noble? There is more of the former, for one thing. It is difficult to do the latter, for another. Humans tend toward inertia in both mind and body. But those who tend so less than the majority have an easier time of knowing where to look for good information. One problem I concede, however, is that the sheer weight of material can be overwhelming and sometimes have the effect of demoralizing an eager learner. The task of removing ignorance may appear to be even more insurmountable than it did in former times. That's why I still think good teachers are irreplaceable for most people. The idea of a self-taught individual has always left me skeptical because--though better than nothing--it seems to deny a fundamental fact about our political natures. We need good friends and teachers to guide us and to . . . what's the phrase I'm looking for . . . "bounce ideas off of" (not an elegant way of putting it, I know, but I'm keyboard-tied at the moment . . .) But once one is fortunate enough to have that turning of the soul, I think our age has more advantages than disadvantages for the eager learner. If we are not producing enough eager learners I would tend to look elsewhere for the explanations. I think it has less to do with the changing nature of the media than it does with the changing nature of mores and attitudes. But then, I try to resist all trains of thought that preach about the "good old days"--however tempting. Why? Because we're not going to go back to them and so discussing our problems with that as your premise is useless. We can only re-orient ourselves as much as possible toward the permanent things within the context of our particular circumstances. Blair discusses the facts of our current circumstances and, for that, he has made a significant contribution to our thinking. (Even though I don't think he is entirely correct in his conclusions.)

Hamilton definitely lacked prudence, but this became much more noticeable after he came under tremendous attack during his Treasury tenure (much of it partisan harrassment and unfair), after he was abandoned by Madison and stood alone with no peers on side, after his resignation from the cabinet and from close association with Washington, and also as it became ever more clear to him that the presidency would never be his. He was impetuous in action and in life, quick of speech and writing, and always brilliant. Chernow observes that Washington moderated H's imprudence, while supplying GW with intellectual firepower and energy. Washington's loyalty to him and absolute trust in him, and Hamilton's loyalty to Washington, even though H more than anyone was aware of GW's faults and very much aware of his own excellences, is perhaps the greatest testament of H's moral virtue. Hamilton was the father of the executive, of the government per se. Also, although H had many friends and allies, he did not have someone equal to him who was equally devoted to his cause. Your judgement of H's private life is too severe, I think. His marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler was a good and noble one. The affair was an unbelievable misstep, the mystery of which is plumbed by Chernow (too complicated for this post). The greater tragedy of H's life was his failure to attain the honor for which he yearned. Adams tortured himself for desiring honor and yet sought it. Hamilton revelled in its pursuit, Hotspur like, no Prince Harry he. I interpret the duel as a last chance to die for his country, after the country had passed him by. His death was definitely deliberately contrived. His death however left Jefferson and the Jeffersonians to write the history of the 90's and to conceal his tremendous contributions, whether compared to Jefferson or not (Elizabeth Schuyler struggled the rest of her life to preserve her husband's popular reputation, but with little success). Thus Lincoln, though a Hamiltonian, had to masquerade as a Jeffersonian. A Hamilton Administration would have been fine. He was an inveterate enemy of the French Enlightenment. He would have continued to tie the commercial growth of the nation to the protection of the British navy. He would have organized and developed an army. He would have pursued a realistic foreign policy that served the ends he discussed in the Report on Manufactures and Washington's Farewell Address. He would have had troubles with Congress since he was a creature of the executive branch. But it was not to be, because deep down Hamilton did not feel comfortable as a democratic politician nor comfortable in American political culture. He was more comfortable in the end in the ageless craft of generalship than in the proto democratic hyper-political culture of the 1790's. He loved honor more than office (he was always too touchy about his honor too, having to do with his background. Adams was the biggest bigot regarding H's origins, by the way). Hamlilton's generosity of spirit was greater than any of the other founders. he was closer to magnanimity than any of them as well.

I agree with the thrust of all your 2nd paragraph. We need teachers, guides, more than ever now. A great gift is to find one or be given one.

Kate, if you read this, with regard to your #12, on your wonderfully made point on "objectivity" in the news, see the GREAT essay by Christopher Lasch, "The Lost Art of Argument," in THE REVOLT OF THE ELITES. Will answer many questions. Gotta go.

Robert, I requested the book from my state library system. Thanks.


Julie, if a good teacher is available, that is all well and good. In the absence of a good teacher, or if life circumstances leave you on your own in the matter of education, isn't a messy, groping-in-the-dimness education better than none at all? Maybe not. I am looking for an excuse for my long years of wandering through books, pleasing myself. In a previous comment, John Moser mentions mental masturbation and maybe that was what I engaged in for all of those years. Learning is a pleasure for many: avocational and recreational. I know a housewife who is very knowledgeable about "The Jazz Age" through reading biographies. Her husband reads anything and everything by and about Churchill, yet also the Crusades, Knights Templar, all sorts of things, but Churchill comes first for him. He owns a construction company that specializes in building chemical plants. I had a high school student who watched the History Channel all the time and really knew about WWII. (Is the History Channel really "All Hitler, All the Time?)


Studying a topic merely because of interest and without a teacher/guide means you must engage with the various authors on a topic. You have to make your conversations with them.


On Hamilton: was it suicide by duel? I always thought it might have been hard for Hamilton, with his temperament, to have known that Burr's was so different and vindictive to the extreme. Had the country passed Hamilton by at the time of the duel? I would want to argue that. He had utterly spoiled his chance at the presidency, but he was not without influence. He wouldn't be the only person in politics to be uncomfortable in democratic politics. Jefferson might never have been president without friends like Madison. Where would the U.S. be without Hamilton?

Robert: Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am so intrigued by Hamilton now that I can scarcely wait to get the book in the mail. But you misunderstand me if you think I was hinting at his affair when questioning his judgment in personal affairs. Though I suppose it might qualify as yet another example. I mean that Hamilton seemed incapable of biting his tongue. The fight with Burr escalated to an unnecessary point, it seems to me, because he had to point out things that someone with a more politic sensibility might have withheld from committing to paper. I also was referring, especially, to his judgment of Washington as too harsh in the execution of that gallant British spy (can't recall the name) during the Revolution. It is easy to forgive a spirit willing to forgive . . . but sometimes it is better to praise the man willing to punish even if it pains. Washington was absolutely correct in that case. It's probably too harsh to say this, but from what I've read of Hamilton's conduct regarding it, he acted like a punk. Perhaps there is another side of the story?

Well, there's another angle. There were times, especially concerning women in distress and courageous enemies, when Hamilton was a sentimentalist. A famous example is when he was hoodwinked by Benedict Arnold's wife. Washington was more cold (I don't mean this disparagingly). You'll really enjoy the book. I'll be interested in what you think. Chernow's account of Jefferson by the way is thoroughly consistent with McCullough's.

To Kate, #15, I agree with you about the pleasures of following the yellow brick road in learning. It was only at age 28--28!--that I found the University of Dallas and for the first time was thoroughly tutored, put through the ringer and learned really how to read. All the years before that I followed clues, chance, and my own developing tastes. And I did have some great professors then too, but haphazardly. One great thing afterwards was that I came to know people who were knowledgeable about the great 2nd tier authors and books. So I discovered "by authority" as it were people like P.G. Wodehouse and Gilbert and Sullivan, to name a couple. As the years have gone by I have found though that the yellow brick road doesn't go away. There are still surprises and developments and alterations of judgements. Lastly, In MY EARLY LIFE, in the chapter entitled "Education at Bangalore," Churchill the great autodidact speaks movingly and wittily of the limitations of such a learning and wishes he had had an Oxford education.

I would like to make a couple of responses to Julie's observations in Comment 6 on mine in 5:

1. Yes, I surely second (or "third") Rob's reference to Churchill's Mass Effects essay, which was much on my mind as soon as I read Tony Blair's splendid speech. I was rather pushing the Churchill-Blair line in defending the technological change issue over simple media bias.

2. I agree also with the remarks you all are making about Jefferson's use of the media. He also actively promoted state libel proceedings against news editors who were anti-Jefferson -- as Leonard Levy showed.

3. I have no problem particularly with that because -- as Comment #11 points out -- the notion of journalistic "objectivity" is a rather specific, modern notion based on principles of modern science that postdates the Founding as well as Civil War. Thus my point that "media bias" is an old story. The deeper trouble in our own time is not just media bias, accelerated by technology, but the more or less monopolistic hold of radical secularism over the whole field. All sorts of partisan "bias" existed in Jefferson's time, but there were his partisans and Hamilton's partisans. Today there is only one party represented by the bias of the MSM. There are no equivalent "Bush partisans", as there were virtually no "Reagan partisans." This perhaps is being broken up by the Internet and other current developments but as Blair and others point out, they are not without creating other difficulties.

4. I didn't think my Jefferson comment on Sally Hemmings in itself would kick up such a fuss. I am no expert on this, but I have to say that I am very skeptical of this charge, supposedly proven (again) by modern DNA tests. But here is what is interesting to me. Douglass Adair did a fine piece of detective work called "The jefferson scandals" in 1960, 40 years before the DNA tests. His careful work was truly a first rate piece of scholarly craftsmanship. In it he concluded that Jefferson was very unlikely to have fathered any of the Hemmings children, but more importantly that there were very good reasons to believe that his nephew Peter Carr had in fact been carrying on with Hemmings, and TJ knew or suspected it. The point of course is that the DNA tests of 2 generations later prove that it may have been Carr as much as Jefferson! I therefore believe that Adair's work was reinforced by those tests, given that the rest of his investigation of documents, records, diaries, etc. and analysis of character made him conclude that Carr, a Jefferson family member, was the father of one or more Hemmings children. At the time the DNA test results were released in 1999 a few articles raised this point that the test only showed a large pool of potential Jefferson family culprits, not Jefferson alone, but the sensationalism of the story and the clear interest of so many people on different levels simply buried any alternative explanations, which surely should be re-considered by researchers who are not so anxious to convict our most "liberal" Founder.

Yes. I first read My Early Life some many years back when I was learning on my own and Churchill made me understand what I was doing. Prior to that, I thought I was just having a good time. My undergraduate education had been good and there were trails to follow. One thing leads to another. It was partly thinking about Churchill and his lament that made pursuing this next degree seem like a good idea when the opportunity was presented. That lead to this, NLT, which is highly educational.

Somehow, maybe it was my parents or other prior education or something, even finding National Review might have helped, I never had much problem knowing what was good. Of course, if I didn't like something, (Aristotle, for example,) I just quit reading and went on to something else. The bad thing about learning on your own is that no one MAKES you read what is good for you. Do I recall, that was how Churchill saw it, too?

A friend discovered P.G. Wodehouse for us while we were still in New York in our undergraduate years. The New York Public Libraries had nearly every book. However, that was back in the day when you had to go from branch to branch and search card catalogs and shelves to find him. But he was there! Oh, memories of being convulsed with giggles on the subway reading Wodehouse!


Julie, about Hamilton during the Revolution - he WAS a punk. He was a very clever punk, but so young and therefore sometimes foolish.

It's late, but I must say, Kate, that you are so right in saying "the bad thing about learning on your own is that no one makes you read what is good for you." And often you don't finish those things because you know you don't undersatnd them. So you need a teacher in two ways to read them. Churchill's lament is that he was deprived of different perspectives on the books he was reading. For example, was Lecky a worthwhile historian? He also wanted dialectic. Remember the part near the end where he recalls visting the Cecils for dinner and marveling at the facilty of the whole family to engage at the level of political philosophy? One of my favorite anecdotes about Churchill is connected to these themes. His friend F.E. Smith once sent him a copy of Aristotle's Ethics to read. Churchill returned it to FE with the remark that he found it interesting but that he already knew what was in it!

I read Wodehouse while I was writing my dissertation. I would reward myself, after writing a certain number of words. In this manner I worked through almost his entire corpus (plus many myateries as well). There was a terrific essay on Wodehouse in the OLD Claremont Review that I think Schramm godfathered when he was directing the Claremont Institute. Still have it somewhere. I can see you giggling.

It is of course impossible to know for certain about TJ and Sally Hemmings. It is true it could have been Peter Carr, which has always been the story from the Jefferson defenders. My opinion is derived from my reading of Jefferson's character, from the circumstantial evidence, and from an older man's realism about human nature.

Dennis: I am open to all you say in your last. That is why I said "apparent"--but I think, for the moment, I tend to lean more toward believing it than not. But here's something else: I don't think it really matters. If he did have an affair with her what does that mean? Do I lose respect for him? Not really. It doesn't change anything about who he was or what he thought and did. I don't buy the notion that it was some kind of abuse, for example. Because of who Sally Hemmings was (his dead wife's 1/2 sister, probably) and, at the time, probably one of the most educated and worldly women in Virginia (as she traveled with Jefferson in Europe and was educated there)--it is natural that she would appeal to TJ. And I'm sure he would have been quite appealing to her as well. But we probably won't ever know and, for my part, I don't really care. (Though there is a certain romantic part of my soul that sort of wishes it were true and that they were happy.) My only reason for bringing it up at all was to point out that Callendar connection and the rough nature of "media" even during the Founding. Otherwise, great points all around.

Kate, I think what is missing for a young person without the benefit of a good teacher is hinted at in yours above. Not liking Aristotle is not unusual if you pick it up cold. Fear plays a big part in motivating young people--to the good and to the bad. The fear of not being able to handle such material is one reason to put it down. The fear of bad consequences if you don't press on is another kind of fear that moves in the opposite direction. A good teacher makes things that seem--at first glance--to be inaccessible less intimidating. A good teacher persuades you to believe that you can do it. Young people who never have had the opportunity to test their mettle can be very intimidated by such texts without a guide. But practice and the demands of a teacher (whom you aim to please) work wonders. It was during my freshman year that I became persuaded that I could handle the Founders--and that took some doing. But then when we got to full texts in political philosophy during my sophomore year . . . I lost confidence again. But gradually the classroom proved to me that taking a deep breath and setting to work would produce results. Then something wonderful happened. I knew I was lost in this strange world forever when a few of us organized a Thomas Hobbes reading party in order to get through an assignment. None of us thought we could handle it alone. But when we got together it turned out that we all knew more than we thought we did going in. Soon we were engaged in a wild (and probably very untutored!) debate. We were getting all worked up and excited over things this long dead guy said--and we were comparing him to other things we had read and arguing with him! My copy of the Leviathan is still scarred with the passionate remarks I was jotting in the margins as we argued! It was one of the best evenings of my life--and at that point, it was probably the best evening of my life. But not one of us would ever have thought to do something like that without the necessity of the original assignment. Certainly we would never have thought to read Thomas Hobbes at the tender age of 19--not without someone telling us to do it.

Of course, now that I have had the massive advantage of having had wonderful teachers all throughout college and graduate school, I feel pretty confident when I go out on my own. Indeed, necessity now dictates that I do quite a bit of that because I am so often alone with my thoughts and my intellectual interests. But it is always better with friends and better still with friends who are good teachers. For example, Robert has done me an invaluable service by pointing me toward this Hamilton biography. I might have stumbled across it on my own, of course, but it's wonderful not to have to stumble.

Robert we're both up too late . . . Though you later than me! We must have been typing at the same time, so I didn't see yours before I posted my last. Yours is better and shorter. And about that Wodehouse essay in the old CRB . . . wasn't Steve Hayward the author? We should try to get that posted on-line. It is a fine essay.

It could have been Steve. I remember the article focused in substantial part on "Money in the Bank," the book that features Jeff Miller and Anne Benedick. Jeff had to learn "the Wodehouse method" of courtship. That requires that at a certain point the young man must embrace and kiss the young lady with deliberate enthusiasm. I'll try to locate it somewhere in my office, but they must have it in the archives. Were you a grad student then?

Two quick things. I do think the Hemmings business matters somewhat in our judgment of Jefferson, even if there was sincere affection. Also to Kate, I would not use the word "punk" to describe Hamilton. He was extraordinarily precocious and serious, had taught himself the military art and while still a "teen" was GW's chief of staff. AH and others, like John Laurens and Lafayette, had eyes for the ladies, to be sure. He was more like an American Lancelot who had been born to a lost but strong lady who found himself by genius and circumstance in a field where honor and a glorious death could be won.

Robert: No, by the time I came to Claremont the old CRB was already long defunct, but also legendary. We graduate student "punks" used to dig it out of the files at the Institute for good reading in between less interesting scut work. They really should archive all those old original issues on the web someday. If the essay you are talking about is the one where there is a lengthy discussion of "harpies" then I'm fairly certain it was Steve. Perhaps he can post it, if they won't.

I am forming opinions not pronouncing judgment on the question of Hamilton's relative "punk-ness" or Jefferson's character as it relates to Hemmings. I think there may be insights into the inconsistencies in Jefferson's soul to be garnered from an exhaustive study of the Hemmings affair but, since there is always some doubt about the veracity of the story, it seems like speculation on some level. As for Hamilton . . . I will read Chernow before I say more. Still, as for all of them . . . what a happy accident it was that they were all together as they were. And how is it that students can think American History is boring? Teachers who make their students think that should be tarred and feathered and hung in effigy.

Julie, you cannot mean this: "If he did have an affair with her what does that mean? Do I lose respect for him? Not really. It doesn't change anything about who he was or what he thought and did."
IF these charges are true, TJ not only had an "affair," he fathered 5 children out of wedlock -- he never once acknowledged them -- he did so by a woman who was his slave and thus unable to refuse his ("romantic?") advances -- and who was the sister of his wife -- and then perpetuated a self-righteous lie about it in public and private all his life.
You say you don't lose respect for him. Why not? Because he was such a brilliant Founder, thinker, rhetorician? Does that mean you don't lose respect only for great achievers? Or do you not lose respect for any average husband who would do what TJ is charged with doing?
The founding principles of America -- equality and liberty -- presuppose the integrity of the traditional family. We today are in a fierce cultural/political struggle to sustain those principles, and it is flat contradictory to uphold the centrality of the family and yet "not care" whether a Founder outrageously violated them.
Moreover, most people rightly connect the character of the Founders with the principles of the Founders. A friend reminded me yesterday that whenever he so much as refers to the original Constitution in the mind of the framers, he often gets a tirade about the fact that they owned slaves, so why should we pay attention to their political ideas?
You and I understand that that response is a travesty, but because the critics are in ignorance about the problem of slavery in the day of the Founders, not to mention their anguish about it and their effort to set it on the road to ultimate extinction.
I think also that the main proponents of the TJ-Hemmings relationship claim are radicals who precisely intend to undermine popular attachment to the founders' principles by libelling the Founders. So the matter of the master-slave relationship with Hemmings cannot be dismissed with indifference by anyone who would honor the Declaration and the Constitution.

dennis, maybe you are not a Christian, but for me, "he who is without sin may cast the first stone" has resonance in the possible Jefferson/Hemmings case. Any man may fail in some areas as a person, and still have value in other areas. It is not a matter of indifference, but of forgiveness for human flaws.


I could turn Shakespeare in this, too. "The good that men do lives after them;
The evil is oft interred with their bones;" That is the more hopeful and grateful way to look at the Founders.

Reading Aristotle has been like listening to Henny Youngman or Bob Hope telling jokes. I already know the punchline, which relates to Robert's Churchill story of #20. To read it with others or perhaps to be asked to teach it and show someone else how the ideas relate through history; now that might have real appeal. I used Poetics in my spring semester classes to indicate how consistent the principles of good writing have been. Anything that helps student see beyond the now helps. Never mind. More of Aristotle is my personal required reading for fall, after my summer classes are done.


Robert, your description of Hamilton in #23 is of my favorite kind of punk. We were very fortunate to have both Hamilton and Jefferson to bring a necessary balance to the American political debate of the Founding. And I DO agree with Julie about the teaching of American history and think that applies to the teaching of history of any time or place. The human is fascinating to humans.

Kate, I hope I may claim to be a Christian who takes faith in Christ seriously. Is it really necessary for a Christian to begin every discussion about moral character by protesting that he too is a sinner who seeks forgiveness from God and man? My question to Julie does not regard forgiveness but her claim that she has no less “respect” for Jefferson because of his supposed affair. Do we Christians deny there is such a thing as bad character?

I claim simply that any man who did what Jefferson is charged with doing would be a man of very bad character – compounded by the facts that he never either acknowledged that he did a terrible wrong to his wife, his slave woman, and his 5 illegitimate children or, goodness knows, sought any forgiveness from anyone about it.
However, my original point, which you perhaps missed (see comment 18) is that this is all based on a mistaken supposition that he did this thing…as I believe he did NOT and thus is innocent of libelous charges. My whole purpose was to vindicate Jefferson, not condemn him.

Let us say someone has been jailed for committing a series of horrible murders. The criminal is utterly unrepentant. Does it become the Gospel to pretend that this moral monster is a person whose moral character is no different than George Washington’s, Socrates’, or St. Augustine’s? Christianity has, among other things that recommend it, profound and shrewd insight into human nature, its virtues and vices, its nobility and baseness. It does not begin by pretending that there is no difference between sin and sanctity. That is the view of the moral relativism and nihilism at war with Christianity today, and Christians should not be fooled into thinking that moral relativism is what Jesus advocated when He said, “Judge not that ye not be judged…”

I will say more about this later when I have more time to compose an answer but let me just throw this out there now: "respect" may not have been the most precise word I could have used in that context. I mean to say that I do not lose respect for his achievements because of his personal failings. I also do not judge him as harshly for this failing as others may be inclined to do. I think it is very likely that Jefferson was in love with this woman and vice versa. What was he realistically to have done about that situation if, in fact, it was the situation? I think he really did have the wolf by the ears. He handled it with discretion and, upon his death, he did let them all go. If he could not step up and embrace them as whole-heartedly as our modern sensibilities would prefer we forget much about the prejudices that prevailed in that day--and, I confess--even to some extent in Jefferson's own heart. But rather than seeing some black spot on his soul because of this, I am open to the suggestion that this showed Jefferson's own personal prejudices were not even as strong as he proclaimed in his famous passages in the Notes on the State of Virginia. In other words, much of that may have been filtered for public consumption. In his own life and with his own affections, he was much more in line with his own sentiments on equality. Of course, he was also invested in protecting his interests and preserving his political ambitions. He was in debt up to his eyeballs and that weighed heavily in influence much of his conduct as well as his expensive tastes. Jefferson is so complicated that I tend to believe that most explanations of his conduct--however studied--are just scratching the surface.

My old friend Dennis has given the hard line view of the stakes involved in the Hemmings business. I think, however, he should give more weight to Kate's Portia-like wisdom. After all, Jefferson's wife had died, he was no doubt lonely and a sucker for intimacy, if not love. I could not fault him for concealing the truth of the concubinage, which in the context of slave society would have destroyed his political career and reputation.(By the way, that's why they never would have married.) Even had he loved her he could not have revealed it. Another thing in Jefferson's favor is, that if it is true, it was likely a long term thing and not a few one night stands. Now for my qualms about the business. The relationship would have started when Sally was VERY young. Her age, in combination with her servitude, invites manipulation. I cannot believe there was coercion in the strict sense. Also, if there was love or affection one might have expected this to have affected Jefferson's views on slavery or his practices regarding it. In point of fact, Jefferson became more hard-nosed about slavery as he became older, and could never contemplate giving up his epicurean life for the sake of democratic justice for his slaves. Making gods of the founders doesn't help us in the post-modern age. They were real people--but as Julie says sooo interesting! This is what is good about many recent biographies. McCullough and Chernow, for example, are honest about the character flaws and peccadillos, but the greatness of the men speak for themselves. I don't think our judgement of TJ's character stands or falls by the Hemming business. Questions about his character of perhaps a more serious sort, or at least deeper and more permanent, have been raised by recent biographies (at least they have been raised for me), and questions about the nature and cogency of his political thought have been raised as well. As Julie says, it makes the founding era come more and more alive for me.

To Kate: When I first read Aristotle with a real teacher, I was constantly saying to myself, sotto voce, "yes, this is the way it is, the way it is...." Anticipating the punchline.

Dennis, I am sorry to not have taken a better reading of your #18. ISN'T it tedious that so many people feel the need to protest against this (yes, unconfirmed and probably unprovable) aspect of Jefferson's character every time they speak or write about him? He did have other evident character flaws, such as the staggering acquisitiveness Julie mentions, that did harm. Although, I think it might have helped us acquire the Louisiana Purchase, which was such a great deal, a real bargain that Jefferson was unable, by his nature, to pass up. A good thing for us, too. It did not comport with his ideals of limited government.


I am trying to think if I am a moral relativist. If a reluctance to pass judgment and a sense that there is a far better judge available and inevitable makes for that, then I plead guilty. Christianity has, among other things that recommend it, profound and shrewd insight into human nature, its virtues and vices, its nobility and baseness. I don't know if "Christianity" can have that. Christianity is made up of Christians, who may use their Bibles to try to acquire those insights. Even with that good guide, I think we are not always Christ-like in our judgments. I could serve on a jury for your moral monster and vote for death, but I am very glad never to have been asked to do so. This lack of judgmental eagerness may be a moral failing on my part and if so, I apologize to you, society, and God for it.


The divide between a person's ideals and who he is makes for very interesting examination, indeed. Julie's take on Manners - and I wonder why he called that query "Manners"? - is interesting in that respect. I was writing something yesterday about the utility of masks in public and politics. I wonder how well and throughly placed TJ's was in his time? Judging him by our modern standards, the mask is part of the flaw. At this point, Jefferson, in God's hands, has been judged one way or another for his character. Surely some of his words transcend whatever he did and are respectable on their own. Whatever he did, whatever else he said, we can respect him and be grateful for the good he gave us.

I've forgotten to say that my understanding of "punk" was too small. Needed womanly instruction.

Kate, Robert, Dennis, etc: Am I opening up another can of worms when I suggest that as brilliant a bargain that purchase of Louisiana may have been, it did rather set the stage for the worsening of the struggle over slavery and--eventually--the Civil War.

I tend to agree wholeheartedly with Robert that these more honest and yet forgiving biographies of the Founders are more to my taste and match my sense of what is right. But there is a danger in them of substituting the whole truth for the higher truth. Or, put another way, of obsessing about blemishes and not seeing the whole complexion. It seems forgiveness and an ironic understanding of human frailties (as Peter L. put it in a post above regarding Fred Thompson) is such a necessary condition to getting these things as they should be gotten and not missing the higher truth. I don't have a firm or settled opinion about this, but may I suggest for consideration the question of whether this may be too much to ask of most readers/students/citizens. I hesitate to say that we need our propaganda--but I think we do need our poetry, at least in the absence of this deeper understanding. And, I think I'd even be willing to say that we need it in addition to this deeper understanding. Why? Because that kind of understanding is almost god-like and difficult to keep going all the time. Those who have it, or who think they have it, should remember to humble themselves with occasional thoughts (or recognition) that they might not. More than anything, however, we need it for the young. The young--who lack forgiveness even more than they seem to lack judgment--are buoyed by pedestals. The trick is not to disappoint them too greatly and turn them cynical when their heroes have to take a step or two down. I just saw Flags of our Fathers last night. It addresses this theme of the whole truth vs. the higher truth. There is danger in over-emphasizing both directions, of course. I think I still prefer the direction in which we're headed but with the caveat that we should recognize that it is untried ground and that it will require even more diligence to maintain a respect for higher truths/greatness.

It would be another can of worms. There wasn't much choice from a national security point of view (FDR popularized the phrase "national security" by the way, before WWII), but Jefferson saw the new territory as a way to spread slavery out and make it less a matter of the wolf by the ears, and so he supported the Missouri Bill and heard fire bells in the night because he wanted it nationalized. Hamilton was right though in his guess that TJ would govern less ideologically than he wrote, though his foreign policy gave us 1812.

There is truth in the romance of the Founding, and I think it is possible to sing the high notes while at the same time entertaining our ironic and deeper understanding. Realism is important now however as we think anew about the American future.

This thread may be over but we will renew......

Yes, the poetry or teaching the higher truth rather than the whole truth to the young is important. Children rarely understand anything about adult life. I used to carefully explain EVERYTHING to my children and they still thought the most outrageous things and had unexpressed questions. Each, becoming adults, needed time to talk about the events of their childhood and sort out truth from false impression. Truly, you might as well give them the ideals and repeat those till they are heart-bound as a child's grasp of the real is so chancy.


I thought I had understood that Jefferson did not intend to extend slavery into the territories.

Kate, one can't read Lincoln back into Jefferson. By 1820 he wanted to dilute the slave population by spreading it out. There was a certain logic to this for the sake of the politics of the South. I THINK it's Sean Wilentz who has done work on this recently. At any rate, I heard a good paper of his at a recent meeting of The Historical Society where this came up.

You're right, students pick up on random things, hard for them to "conjugate" everything rightly.

Robert, it was some defense of Jefferson on the slavery question and I can't remember where, who or what well enough to defend the stand so I'll accept your correction. Maybe I am thinking of his plan for the Northwest Ordinance, and this reference, which was certainly pre-1820.

You're right about the Northwest Ordinance, and I'm ready to be corrected by s.o. who knows more Jefferson than myself. We're going to Delaware tomorrow. My daughter is having a get-together with her homeschool internet friends. They've communed for 3-4 years on the net--met through an online classical/Christian academy. Neat. Thought you'd appreciate it.

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