Floyd Abrams

Happy 4th of July, Mr. Jefferson

VTR Date: September 7, 2001

Guest: Abrams, Floyd


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Floyd Abrams, Esq.
Title: “Happy 4th of July, Mr. Jefferson”
VTR: 9/07/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And undoubtedly our program today would be best suited for screening around the Fourth of July. Indeed, it is occasioned by a fascinating and timely OpEd piece in The New York Times that ends, “Happy 4th of July, Mr. Jefferson”. Which would have been a far better and more appropriate title for the piece than the deliberately provocative and controversial one the Times gave it, “Is John Adams Overrated?”

Now maybe that got better ratings, not for Mr. Adams, or for Mr. Jefferson, to be sure. But for the Times and its OpEd page. But better, it seems to me, to ask my guest, Floyd Abrams, the brilliant Constitutional attorney and author of the piece what we should make of its substance and of its title.

ABRAMS: Well, I wrote the piece out of frustration. I wrote it because I had, I had been reading David McCullough’s wonderful biography of John Adams and Joseph Ellis’ Pulitzer Prize winning study of the founding brothers. And it seems to me that when they got to one of the most critical events in Adams’ life, uh, an event for which he should be judged very harshly, they passed over it as quickly as they could, as if they were sort of embarrassed. And that was the Alien and Sedition Acts. Which John Adams signed into law, enforced as President, and which was the, the single law in our history which is the most repressive, anti-free speech law we’ve ever had. And here are these two celebrated, and wonderful, writers who have fallen in love with Adams to the point that while they’ll use a word like “reprehensible” or a word, a phrase like, “It’s always haunted his image” … don’t really acknowledge that the single most important domestic thing President Adams did was to sign into law the single most repressive law we’ve ever had.

And in the course of their writing, they come on hard against Jefferson for reasons we can talk about, but it didn’t seem to me that they were willing to focus on a central difference between them. That Jefferson, although flawed and inconsistent, and elusive in a lot of ways, was at the end of the day, from beginning to end, basically a great civil libertarian. And John Adams was not. And that’s why I wrote, uh, my, my piece. And I just sort of sat down and … this is a piece the Times didn’t ask for. I just sat down and said, “I just can’t …, I can’t go on anymore …”.

HEFFNER: Well, now, I, I don’t want you to feel too desperately …

ABRAMS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … about this, Floyd. But you say … or I would say that this is a love affair, a love affair with John Adams. But isn’t it more, or equally much a falling out of love with Jefferson. Don’t you feel that there is something more at play here?

ABRAMS: Yeah. Yes. There’s, there’s no doubt that both of these authors, um, having done their work and gone through their thinking were, indeed, just as you say … sort of fallen out of love with Jefferson. They found him duplicitous, elusive, as I said, uh, … they didn’t like his character. And he had slaves. And here was Adams, uh, you know, sort of Harry Truman like, you know, cursing out people and writing angry pieces for newspapers and not getting along with almost anyone and trying to do the best job he could, obviously as President. And a genuine Revolutionary hero, who’d never gotten much praise. I mean throughout the course of American history. And I think both of them … and it’s interesting it’s at the same time, both of them have rejected what they believe is the mythological Jefferson …

HEFFNER: And created a new myth?

ABRAMS: … and, and … well, I think so. I think so. I think that, that particularly McCullough has, you know, is so enamored of the plain spoken Adams, and is in love, as everyone must be, I must say, who reads these books …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

ABRAMS: … with Abigail Adams. But, but I think that, uh, you know, I don’t want to say it’s a replay of the whole Clinton matter, but, but there is something of that, I think, in the air. That here is John Adams plain spoken, you know, what you see is what you get, saying … always getting in trouble with people. And, and always irritating people, because he was irritating. And he was a pain. And here’s the Olympian Jefferson, Monticello, who takes inconsistent positions, who engaged in party politics, as if that’s a sin … and denied it … at the time. And both of them, I think, you know, interestingly, around the same time, reached the conclusion, “You know, John Adams is really a great human being.” And Jefferson was not. And, and I am both left with, and on re-studying, what I’ve had a chance to do at least, re-reading a lot of the material, I find myself, sort of, more enamored of Jefferson than before. I, I was struck recently reading his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence and seeing some of the things that were edited out. And Ellis keeps using the word “lyrical” about Jefferson. But it’s, it’s more than that. I mean it’s, it’s Bach, it’s deep musical ability to, to describe things. Here’s a, here’s a line from Jefferson that they cut out of the Declaration of Independence. He had written that (with respect to the English, and particularly King George) “we must endeavor to forget our former love for them. We might have been a great and free people together.”

HEFFNER: Lovely.

ABRAMS: Isn’t that, isn’t that gorgeous. Now like a lot of things Jefferson write, it really didn’t turn out to be right, did it? We are a great and free people, in a sense, together. But, but writing at that time, uh, it’s just sort of stunning. And it was a little too much for the, for the people who met in Philadelphia and that’s, that’s amongst the material that they cut out.

HEFFNER: Why did you say … makes you think a little of Bill Clinton?

ABRAMS: I think that, that a part of the reaction to Clinton, uh, may have been a greater regard for the virtues of being, you know, plain spoke, meaning everything you say, not being so verbally skilled. The virtues of, as I say … the, the Adams virtues of absolute probity. I mean none of his enemies … at least looking back on it … no one anymore would every say, and Jefferson never said, that Adams was anything other than absolutely true to himself. That’s a very important virtue. It happens not to be the only one of … there, there are lots of others that, that matter. But it is important and it may be in the, you know, post-Clinton age that that seems even more attractive now to some people.

HEFFNER: But you know, you’re talking about personal characteristics … Jefferson certainly couldn’t be relied upon in terms of actions, but could be relied upon in terms of basic philosophy …


HEFFNER: … and I wondered whether this wasn’t part, also of a rejection of that philosophy that we are talking here, to some extent, Floyd, about those who don’t feel all that uncomfortable with the Alien and Sedition Acts. And those who do feel uncomfortable with some of the words spoken by Thomas Jefferson …

ABRAMS: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: … let alone now the political actions.

ABRAMS: I think there’s a lot to say to what you say, Dick, and, and I mean I think when you re-read Jefferson, you see even in areas in which we may think he was wrong, and indeed areas he concluded he was wrong … his view that, that France was the hope of the future, and that the Revolution in France really wouldn’t get out of control. But Jefferson was a revolutionary. I mean he, he was a President who was not a revolutionary. But his thinking really was revolutionary. And Adams was anything but that. And one of the great battles, uh, after the formation of the country, and Ellis describes this very well. Relates to just what was the revolution about? What was the revolution? And Jefferson had a much more radical, revolutionary world view that this was the beginning of revolutions around the world. That these principles were not American principles, but principles which would and should sweep the world. And in good part they have. I mean Jefferson’s language has been the language of, um, revolutionary movements for freedom around the world. And I agree with you that that makes some people, uh, uncomfortable.

HEFFNER: It’s always made people, some people uncomfortable. My point, and I don’t know whether you would accept this … is that increasingly there are people who are uncomfortable with that. We live at a time, shall I say, of consolidation and of, um, greater respect for the authority that Adams represented. And yet the two men came together in such a beautiful fashion for so many years, toward the ends of their lives …


HEFFNER: I mean not just dying together on the same day, which happened to be July 4th, fifty years after the declaration was adopted. But again I wondered in larger part whether you feel that there is a, um, growing conservatism when it comes to, um, matters relating to freedom. To free speech. Whether Jefferson stands now as a person whose, whose inclinations are not that well accepted today.

ABRAMS: I think there is a lot of that. I think it is growing, um, and I know that the Jefferson enemies, then and now, would tell you that you’re being too kind to him because he wasn’t that consistent about free speech either. But, but your broader point, I think, is well taken. And that is, um, the language of the Declaration of Independence, in particular, is language that, that makes people uncomfortable. Now an interesting thing has happened … Conservatives, very conservative people have taken up the Declaration of Independence as if it was theirs. Clarence Thomas, for one, for example, who wrote articles about it. Very Right Wing groups love it because it seems to be based on natural law. And, and has references which they use for the proposition that, that, you know, all states, all governments are wicked, and that everything is personal, internal, and the like, which they like in part because it helps them beat back economic regulations.


ABRAMS: But, um, I do think that there is a resistance, a growing resistance, to the call for freedom embodied in Jefferson’s great prose. And, while as I say, there are areas in which Jefferson himself acknowledged that, what, his enthusiasm, his passion for certain things lead him astray. As, regards France, for example. That, that one of the reasons that Jefferson is under attack today, and he is, is not so much his inconsistencies, real, real inconsistencies, but what he really was saying at his best. The sort of passionate cry for freedom in Jefferson’s writing and philosophy makes people uncomfortable.

HEFFNER: There is another aspect to your OpEd piece that I made some reference to … I don’t know the degree to which you’re willing to pursue it. But I think you told me that when the Jerusalem Post …

ABRAMS: When the …

HEFFNER: … reprinted it.

ABRAMS: When the Israeli paper, Ha’Artz …


ABRAMS: Translated it and published it in Israel, they titled it, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Jefferson”. ,

HEFFNER: Which was quite logical because that’s the way you ended it.

ABRAMS: Yes, yes, and that’s what I meant. I, I really … I mean I was critical of Adams, but I really wasn’t saying that Adams was overrated. I mean I was saying that these authors had essentially refused to look at reality in the face and that they had to that extent overrated him. But, but I wouldn’t have titled it that way.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re being very kind by saying you wouldn’t have titled it that way.

ABRAMS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I really want to deal with the fact that a, a … not an uncontroversial or non-controversial piece, but an analytic piece was made into a contest between Jefferson and Adams. This is your free press, Mr. Abrams.

ABRAMS: [Laughter] Yes, well, Jefferson would have understood.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

ABRAMS: And, uh, I think he would have, he would have enjoyed the whole thing. And I think, I think he would have enjoyed the letters that followed. Also, one that I thought that was especially amusing was by a biographer of Abigail Adams who, in essence said how can I blame Adams for one signature? How can I hold him accountable for one signature on one Bill. As if one ought not to hold historical figures accountable for just that.

HEFFNER: Of course, as the same time, the letter that the Times chose to lead with, Richard Brookheiser’s … he said, “Come on, Floyd Abrams is perpetuating a myth as old as Thomas Jefferson when he credits him with ending the reign of witches begun by the Sedition Act”. And he says, he makes the point that … and I don’t share it … and I think he mis-reads history … but he makes the point that Jefferson wasn’t above … not throwing not quite as many people into quite as dire prisons … but he wasn’t adverse to, uh, scaring people with threats. No?

ABRAMS: Look, there was a state … state, not federal sedition prosecution in New York. Mr. Brookheiser’s hero, Alexander Hamilton, defended the accused editor. It was the Republicans, Jefferson’s party, that was behind that. You know, Jefferson was not immune from occasional censorial instincts. But, but the core of Jefferson, I think it fair to say, was, was one which did put free speech and free expression at the very top of the list of causes to be protected. And he was, in general, a very protective person of free speech, while he was President. And it is simply a fact that he made no effort to revive the Alien and Sedition Act, which expired by their terms at the end of John Adams’ presidency … another extraordinary event. I mean to just to pause on that … I mean here we have this terribly repressive law which makes it essentially a crime to say anything bad about The President and a wide range of other officials in Washington except the Vice President, because he was Jefferson. And which expired by its terms at the end of Adams presidency, so that it could not be used by the next President against the Federalist newspapers.

HEFFNER: Those Founders were pretty damn clever, weren’t they?

ABRAMS: [Laughter] They were. And they were … look, they were very human and, and certainly one of the things that both books, McCullough and the Elllis books are, are very good, I think, at pointing out is the, the humanity, you know, of our leaders. I mean they …

HEFFNER: They were just like us.

ABRAMS: They fought and battled. I don’t think … I wish I could think that we were just like them …

HEFFNER: That wasn’t what I said. [Laughter]

ABRAMS: … but I really don’t. They had the same human frailties. But I would feel a lot more comfortable as a citizen if I thought that there were a few folks around with the talent that they had.

HEFFNER: You know … well, it’s like John Kennedy’s comment, um, about when he had all those Nobel laureates in the White House, saying such an accumulation of talent hadn’t existed in that room since Thomas Jefferson dined there alone.


HEFFNER: You know, you …

ABRAMS: Kennedy was a fine President for that line alone.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Floyd, you talked about the core of Jefferson’s belief. I don’t think we’re very good at identifying the core of a person’s belief and then permitting actions to be taken that seem to run against that without denying that core; without … James MacGregor Burns and Arthur Schlesinger were at this table taping programs, respectively, on different programs. We were talking about “The Lion and The Fox”, FDR. And I always think of “The Lion and The Fox” when dealing with Thomas Jefferson because there was the fox, who was a politician, and Jefferson was. But a lion, a leader and a thoughtful person who knew what it was he wanted. The core of Thomas Jefferson.

ABRAMS: Yeah. Well, one of, one of the things that I think is difficult to deal with is that in Jefferson you have someone who, much as he may have hidden it from himself, wanted power. He wanted to be President, he wanted to have his party, the Republicans in control.

HEFFNER: For a good reason.

ABRAMS: Indeed, for good reasons. But, one of the reasons was he thought he would do a better job. But, I, I distinguish that in a sense from philosophy. I mean at that, at the time of the early days in the Republic, of course, I mean it was thought to be “bad form” … Adams said of Jefferson … as if it was one of the worst things that you could say about him, that, that he was actively involved in trying to get elected. And, you know, there was something in the air, and there was … there were statements of Washington and Adams than to the effect that, you know, one ought not to do that … it’s wrong. Well, that’s one sort of issue. That’s not a philosophic issue, that’s a personal issue, a political issue. It’s Jefferson, the poet, that I think that we should look back on with special appreciation more than Jefferson, the President.

HEFFNER: But, you’re reading of Jefferson … does it lead you to believe that his search for power, for political power was for something other than to provide the setting for his philosophy.

ABRAMS: No. I don’t, I don’t think so. I mean, I, I’m always prepared to believe that people, you know, have a certain amount of ego, and, and they may deceive themselves about it, but that said, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, the Virginia Republicans believed deeply that the Adams Presidency was headed in the wrong direction. And that if not royalist, it was certainly not small “d” democratic in its orientation and that it was not at all as committed to the notions, of among other things, civil liberties, as they understood it. Which is a lot closer to the way we understand it than, than the opposite. I mean that, that was one of the, not the only, that was one of the great battles being fought their in the election of 1800 really was, I mean, a critical, defining moment in American life. And that Jefferson was, uh, chosen to become President and did become President changed the country more than I, than I would say any election since than other than Abraham Lincoln’s election. And that of Richard Nixon.

HEFFNER: Well, of course … I beg your pardon.

ABRAMS: I think the election of Richard Nixon, uh, set the country off on a profoundly wrong-headed and dangerous direction in a lot of ways. And I think we would live in a different and a better country if Hubert Humphrey had been elected as he almost was.

HEFFNER: I’ll go along with you on that, it was so hard for me to take Jefferson …

ABRAMS: I understand.

HEFFNER: … Lincoln …

ABRAMS: I understand.

HEFFNER: … Nixon …

ABRAMS: … I don’t mean Nixon in that sense. But I mean about the significance of the election in terms of direction. Of course, I shouldn’t have left out FDR, but, but I would include the Nixon election as one of the critical, earth-shaking elections we, we’ve had.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m looking forward now to what I sense is going to be a Floyd Abrams book on the Revolution of 1800 …

ABRAMS: [Laughter] Well, I’m working on a book. I’m not sure if that will be in it. But if not, I hope I can come back and talk some more about it.

HEFFNER: Okay. I appreciate that. And Floyd, that OpEd piece provoked me so and stimulated me, I can’t say to people “run out and get it’, but on the … if you’d been willing to give up some of your authorial rights …

ABRAMS: I gave them up.

HEFFNER: … they can get it on the, on the web.

ABRAMS: July 3rd. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Floyd Abrams, thanks so much for joining me again today. And thanks, to you too, in the audience. I hope that you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.