Patience and the Reign of Witches (1798)

A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake. — Thomas Jefferson, cited all over the InternetPatience and the Reign of Witches (1798)

Have you seen this quotation popping up all over the Internet?

I thought I’d look it up, and here’s the sentence that immediately precedes the selected passage:

They are circumscribed within such narrow limits, & their population so full, that their numbers will ever be the minority, and they are marked, like the Jews, with such a peculiarity of character as to constitute from that circumstance the natural division of our parties. A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over…

Jefferson is speaking of a particular political faction — the Federalists — that won votes from the people by choosing General Washington as their candidate. If more people knew about the casual anti-semitism immediately preceding the popular passage, I wonder if this quote would be so useful right now for liberals seeking consolation over the US election results.

Of course, Jefferson was writing in a very different world than ours. Still, how ironic to see on so many liberal websites this passage from a slave-owning anti-semite who was writing it to defend the Republican Party.

That statement is factually correct, but very misleading. Just doing a little Michael Moore on ya to see if you’re paying attention.

Jefferson did own slaves. I’m not an expert on Jefferson’s relationship to Jews, but I gather that he, as a product of his time, was probably no more anti-semitic than the rest of his society, and quite possibly much less. He wrote in an age before society at large began to frown on language that needlessly highlights racial differences. But it’s a stretch to fault this statement with any excessive hatred — he was just reaching for a metaphor that had power in his time and age, and the metaphor of the Jews as outsiders, while not exactly a sensitive choice when judged by today’s standards, fit the bill.

As for Jefferson as Republican — he was calling for patience, counseling that secession was not the answer, and affirming his belief that the nation would eventually return from the “anti-republicans” into the hands of republicans, because, as he put it, “The body of our countrymen is substantially republican through every part of the Union.”

Language is a funny thing… a fact can be accurate, but terribly misleading without proper context.

Jefferson was writing in defense of a party that was at that time called “republican,” (as opposed to the “federalist” alternative). It shared the name, but little else, with the modern Republican party. The GOP wouldn’t form until the middle of the following century. (Ironically, it formed in part as a response to Democrats who not only wanted to secede, but did — chiefly over the slavery issue).

Jefferson was undoubtedly a brilliant man, but history is always much more complex than a quotation or slogan repeated like a mantra.

Since I’ve criticized what I see as a shallow rhetorical response to the election (seeking consolation in a misapplied, out-of-context quotation), I’ll link to another that I found more rhetorically interesting: “An Open Letter to Unhappy Democrats.”