Plantation Owners with a Troubled Conscience: Another Look at Jefferson’s Bible and Tolstoj’s Gospel in Brief

Martin Bidney, Binghamton University

In 1979 Ihor Levitsky first briefly compared Thomas Jefferson’s and Lev Tolstoj’s attempts to refashion the Jesus legacy by recomposing Christian scriptures to emphasize ethics and to eliminate miracles and mysteries. A Jefferson-like enlightenment rationalist deism makes a sudden comeback in Tolstoj’s Russia – but Levitsky doesn’t suggest why.  Jefferson, the adaptable compromiser, uses only Jesus’ own words and keeps his revision a secret; Tolstoj, the uncompromising absolutist, widely publicizes his nonviolent pro-chastity polemic – but Levitsky explains the contrasts only as a difference in philosophic temperament. Yet why should Jefferson and Tolstoj, as they grew older, have unpredictably decided to formulate a systematic ethics of altruism in contrast to the self-assertion that had satisfied them in their younger years (Tolstoj’s earlier monist vitalism; Jefferson’s longtime stoic-epicurean morality in the Bolingbroke tradition)?

In my biographically contextual response to Levitsky, I take account of recent research into Jefferson’s life and writings, and into Tolstoj’s legacy of memoirs, in order to clarify the two men’s shared moral dilemma and their contrasting gospel-rewriting moral/psychological solutions. I think these ethically troubled plantation owners, confronted with a moral crisis after they had engaged in sexual relations with slaves or former serfs, may each have been led to seek an elusive mental peace by foregrounding the altruistic doctrines of Jesus in a detailed and time-consuming scripture-rewrite project. Tolstoj, however, blends the altruism with an anti-sexuality that expresses, and projects, an intensified sexual/religious guilt revealed notably in an incipient  conversion-experience memoir written while he was schoolteaching at Jasnaja Poljana (a memoir more explicit in this regard than the better-known Confession). Jefferson processes his own remorse quite differently, on a more superficial mental level, by tortuously theorizing that a white master could “clear” the blackness of a light-skinned slave woman (such as Sally Hemings) in the succeeding generation by fathering children who could pass for white--supposedly a benefit to all. The two sexually active landlords are not philosophizing about ethics in a vacuum. Rather, each makes a new Jesus as an ideal self-image to appease guilt and to mollify a moral crisis.