Conor Cruise O'Brien
Conor Cruise O'Brien
The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800
ISBN: 0226616533
The Long Affair
Mr. O'Brien talked about his book, "The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800," published by the University of Chicago Press. He talked about Jefferson's strong commitment to democracy at any price as evidenced by his unflinching support of the excesses of the French Revolution and his stance on race relations. He argued that Jefferson was not as reserved and controlled in his defense of liberty as most people who cite his legacy believe.
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TRANSCRIPT
The Long Affair
Program Air Date: November 17, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Conor Cruise O'Brien, where did you get the title for your book, "The Long Affair"?
CONOR CRUISE O'BRIEN: Kind of out of the air, really, because I realized when I started working on the Founding Fathers, in general, in relation to the French Revolution. Then I found one of them, Thomas Jefferson, was having a very, very special relation with the French Revolution. It meant tremendous amounts of things to him from the beginning of the Revolution to about 1794. And then it seemed, to me, like a kind of love affair that he was having. Title came into my head with that.
LAMB: Why were you interested in the Founding Fathers in the first place?
O'BRIEN: Well, I had written about Edmund Burke and who Edmund Burke -- the French Revolution dominated Burke's last years. Then I found that where he had been in very friendly contact with some of the American Founding Fathers, primarily Franklin during the American Revolution, afterwards there was a great estrangement with great hostility from some of the original Founding Fathers -- the Virginians, essentially, headed by Jefferson. And I wondered why that should be and I started writing about them. And then I found that Jefferson's personal position in relation to the French Revolution was something very strange and to my mind rather ominous in relation to later things. And so I got -- dug into that area.
LAMB: Let me come back to that later. But where do you live now?
O'BRIEN: I live in Dublin, Ireland, but I expect to be living in America for part of next year in academic circles.
LAMB: Where were you born?
O'BRIEN: Dublin.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in the United States?
O'BRIEN: My first visit to the -- I've always been interested in the United States. That's where most people are in the world anyway, most people certainly, but I first visited the United States in 1950 and I have been coming back over the years, teaching occasionally and what-not for a long time.
LAMB: What are a couple of the jobs you've had in your life?
O'BRIEN: Well, my first identification was with the United Nations. Afterwards, after my retirement from that, I was here teaching at New York University as Albert Schweitzer professor of humanities in the late '50s and then have been back in various teaching capacities normally for some years and hope to come back occasionally in my lifetime.
LAMB: But you've held elective office, too.
O'BRIEN: I have, yes. I was, first of all, a member of our Parliament in Ireland for eight years and then for four years as a member of the government as Minister for Communications. And after I retired from that, my life since then has been writing for newspapers, teaching, writing books.
LAMB: Where was Edmund Burke from originally?
O'BRIEN: Edmund Burke was from Ireland. Irish born, brought up entirely, made his career in the British Parliament where he played a large part in ending the discrimination against Catholics in Ireland which existed throughout his life. He himself was mainly Catholic in his origins, but brought up as a member of the Church of Ireland, which is the same as Church of England, which is Episcopalian; very complicated.
LAMB: When did he live?
O'BRIEN: 1729 to 1795.
LAMB: Did Thomas Jefferson know him at all?
O'BRIEN: I can't find that Thomas Jefferson ever actually knew him. The only American revolutionary with whom he was in close terms was Benjamin Franklin, when Benjamin was domiciled in Britain. They did know one another very well, respected one another and felt kind of pulled apart by the incipient stages of the American Revolution, which neither of them -- not even Franklin, at that stage -- wished to see. They didn't wish to see a break between Britain and America, but they were seeing it. And the last hope, really, that Burke had in the whole thing was when he offered to go to Paris to meet Franklin. But his own party leaders in the House of Commons said, "Hey, that's too hot stuff. We can't have that."
LAMB: What would you describe as Burke's philosophy?
O'BRIEN: Ordered freedom. Freedom was very, very important for him. But he thought that freedom, unless it could be combined with order, would not work. That's not a terribly original idea, and it was one shared by him and most of the American revolutionaries, not Jefferson. Jefferson is an unrestricted freedom person. Freedom is a pure, holy principle, and you just get out there and follow it and all will be well. That was not Burke and there the division between them begins with the earlier stages of the French Revolution.
LAMB: If Edmund Burke were in America and a politician today, where would he fit in our political spectrum?
O'BRIEN: I don't think he'd fit too easily. I really don't. But the general -- I'd say the general American setup would appeal to him well enough. There's a lot of freedom, a lot of continuity, a lot of law, all things that meant a great deal to Burke. So he'd be happy enough with the system, but I certainly wouldn't say he's out there rooting for either of the candidates in the present election. I think he would have considerable doubts about both of them, but not about the general system. I think the general system would be one for which he would still have an awful lot of time. It's basically what -- the general principles are those which he stood for.
LAMB: Where do you fit?
O'BRIEN: Near enough to that. I would regard myself as a Burkian, certainly a friend to this country, not uncritically in relation to its institutions, but seeing -- if this country were to collapse, which I think is unlikely, but which could happen perhaps in the second half of the next century -- it's not impossible -- I think democracy and liberalism everywhere in the world would go down. And I had a debate not long ago with Helmut Schmidt -- the former German leader -- and I put that to him and I found that he agreed without hesitation. Of course democracy in Germany would not survive if it collapsed in the United States. And this was quite casual, like that. I kind of inhaled a bit on that one.
LAMB: Why do you think it could collapse in this country in the second half of the next century?
O'BRIEN: Well, great and growing problems: poverty, race, language, possible inability to transfer the general value systems of what has been the American society to huge sections racially defined of the new and growing population. I don't know. Personally, I don't believe it will collapse. I think it has great internal strengths. And, as I say, I think the future of democracy on this planet depends on the survival of this society, however amended and what-not. Rhe amendments are not that important, but the central spirit of the thing is very important.
LAMB: Let me go to your book and go to the appendix first.
O'BRIEN: OK.
LAMB: You know what I'm going to ask you about.
O'BRIEN: I'm not sure.
LAMB: Madison Hemings' story.
O'BRIEN: Yes.
LAMB: Why did you consider this a necessary appendix, separate item?
O'BRIEN: First of all, I believe the story. What Madame Madison Hemings is telling us is that his mother told him that Thomas Jefferson was his father and the father of four of his siblings. And that's quite a detailed story. Madison Hemings tells it unemotively, plainly, seriously and I don't think it has ever been discredited. And at one time the, if you like, orthodox Jeffersonians did attempt to discredit it, using very disparaging language about Madison Hemings, which seems to have no justification at all. I believe the story. It seems to me to fit the rest of the picture as I've seen it. But it's certainly not proved. I tried to find out whether it could be proved by modern genetic testing. And what I learned, after a lot of consultations with quite important figures in that area here, was it can't be proved or disproved now. But improved methods of testing within the next 20, 25 years perhaps will demonstrate one way or the other whether Thomas was Madison's father. I believe he was.
LAMB: Who named Madison Hemings?
O'BRIEN: We don't know. I think Madison Hemings, if I remember rightly, says himself that Dolly Madison suggested the name, which seems a bit odd but maybe she did. She was a rather strange person.
LAMB: And you say that Sally Hemings was related to Thomas Jefferson's deceased wife.
O'BRIEN: That's right. Yes. That's right.
LAMB: How long was Thomas Jefferson married to Martha Jefferson?
O'BRIEN: Well, I think it was quite short. I think it was only about four, five years. I'm a bit vague on it because it's outside my period, which is the French Revolutionary period, and that was a little earlier, before he comes on for me onstage. But it's about five years.
LAMB: When did the whole story about Sally Hemings, a slave that he owned, come to light?
O'BRIEN: It was first published, I think, and I'm speaking now from memory, circa 1800, during his Presidency by a very scurrilous journalist called Callender, who had been employed by Thomas Jefferson on various political errands before that and felt himself ill rewarded and produced the story. That's when it's first published.
LAMB: And what's the relevance of the Madison Hemings story -- and by the way, where did you find that?
O'BRIEN: I can't give the citation immediately. It is to be found in the book. I do cite the ... .
LAMB: But one of the things I know is you found it in the Pike County Republican in Ohio.
O'BRIEN: It's published after the Civil War. Yes.
LAMB: And what's the relevance, though, to your whole story here -- the slave relationship?
O'BRIEN: The relevance is this: that Thomas Jefferson, by reason of his situation as the great apostle of freedom and an owner of slaves, right to the end, was in virtue of that caught in a very large paradox. You could say, "OK, the same applied to George Washington, for example, who also owned slaves." But Washington was not, if you like, an ideologue. He didn't dwell on the principle and so on. But he did emancipate all his slaves at his death, which Jefferson did not do. He only emancipated five who are probably his own children.
LAMB: Madison Hemings being one.
O'BRIEN: Yes, that's right. So there is that difference. He was, I think -- I argue in the book that he was considerably tormented by the great paradox and grappled with it in various ways throughout his life, which was essentially what the book is about.
LAMB: What do you really think of Thomas Jefferson?
O'BRIEN: I admire the immense capacities of the man, which included a great political capacity, an immense talent for molding the processes of his time in the ways that made him the third President of the United States and made his party the heirs to that for generations, up to the Civil War. Enormous talents, enormous resourcefulness politically and, of course, intellectually, the great framework which he had so that he could -- when things went bad for him as they did when he left Washington's first administration, he could retire and devote himself to intellectual pursuits and farming with the kind of ease and grace which most politicians can't obtain if they're not in office. And then coming back, seeing the first opportunities, cultivating that, playing it extremely well throughout his career -- I have a lot of detail on that. And admiration for his capacities. I don't want him as a human being. I do not, and I can say that I do, no.
LAMB: Why not?
O'BRIEN: Very cold and very false in everything he says about race. Everything is calculated, everything is false. The things he says against slavery are aimed at other white people, particularly in the North, to establish -- to distance him from the taint of slavery, but without ever giving up on slavery. And then they -- page after page of insinuations about the inferiority of black people, combined with an air of unwillingness to say such things but he is forced to say them because -- etc. And, you know, culminating in awful racist stuff about the supposed affection of monkeys for black women and so on and so forth. He argues this in thoughts and notes on slavery. You know, there is something which I find most repugnant in that part of Jefferson which touches on the suppressed black population of the period.
LAMB: You suggest that some of the Jefferson scholars avoid this area.
O'BRIEN: Yes. The most detailed investigation of Jefferson's career is Dumas Malone's six volumes.
LAMB: The former University of Virginia professor, deceased.
O'BRIEN: That's right, deceased. And who for certainly more than a generation dominated Jeffersonian scholarship. And he played down all the stuff in relation to blacks. He played up -- he was one of the first people to leave out what Jefferson actually said about what would have to be done with the slaves once they were emancipated. That's altogether left out of his book. And that was part of the -- it's still a valuable document, but it needs to be handled with great care.
LAMB: This is not about -- what I'm bringing up is not about the French Revolution. I want to get back to that in a moment, but it struck me in the epilogue on page 306 -- and it's a little bit complicated. I'm going to ask our director to roll tape because we're going to look at some videotape that Inez Perez, one of our camera people shot. And this was shot this morning, as a matter of fact. You can look over there on the screen, on this fall day. You can see the Jefferson Memorial.
O'BRIEN: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: Why did you talk about the Jefferson Memorial in here?
O'BRIEN: Well, the cult of Jefferson is important. It is important in American history and American society, and it reached its apogee under FDR.
LAMB: This is a plaque that shows the groundbreaking ceremony of FDR back in '39 and it was dedicated in 1943.
O'BRIEN: That's right.
LAMB: But there's some language coming up inside. You'll see the statue of Jefferson in just a moment that is on the side of the memorial internally and you put the language in your book. It's off here to the left and we'll read it because this, as you say in here, has some significance to you.
O'BRIEN: Yes.
LAMB: If you look up at top, it says: "God, who gave us life, gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free." And you say something's missing here, something's awry when you look at this. What is it?
O'BRIEN: Yes, because Jefferson in a passage running immediately after that -- I think I have it in my book and ...
LAMB: I've got it right here. As a matter of fact, we can show the audience what ran right after that ...
O'BRIEN: Yeah. The end -- right.
LAMB: ...but it's not on the wall. Let's look at this right here -- again, because we can see -- you see the language that runs right afterwards is left out.
O'BRIEN: That's right.
LAMB: "Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Native habit, opinion has draw indelible lines of distinction between them."
O'BRIEN: Yeah. That's right. His position was that, in theory at least, blacks should be freed but as soon as they had been freed, they must be deported from the United States. That was his position throughout his life. He never changed it. And it is totally distorted by that representation, though, on the monument.
LAMB: How did you find that? How did you discover it?
O'BRIEN: I suspected it and then I dug and I found what it is.
LAMB: Did you ask anybody at the memorial why this was done this way?
O'BRIEN: No.
LAMB: Why do you think it was done this way? And how often are words of Jefferson juxtaposed like that?
O'BRIEN: Well, I mean, I think FDR, who was like Jefferson himself -- FDR was a master politician, and one of the things he needed to do was to hold the South for the Democratic Party and to hold on to Jefferson while insulating Jefferson as far as the North was concerned from the taint of a pro slavery epilogue -- was very good politics at the material time, and FDR played it. That's how he managed to stitch together those great majorities.
LAMB: You know, there's a lot of other language around that memorial. Did you happen to check and see if anything else had been printed out of context?
O'BRIEN: No, I didn't want to work on that, but it would be an interesting topic.
LAMB: You say in here that Jefferson was demonstrably a racist. Those are the exact words.
O'BRIEN: Absolutely. Absolutely is. The whole idea in his writings, even when he's condemning slavery, he's also arguing, "Hey, maybe -- maybe" -- he studs his writings on the subject with "maybe" -- what it all amounts to is, "I'm not convinced that they are fully, equally human beings." That's it, and with a good deal of implied kind of civilized regret that there should be worry concerning it and so on. I found it a very unattractive performance, I must say, the whole thing -- everything he writes about blacks and race.
LAMB: How many books like this have been written that you -- when you did your research? Had many taken this position like you have?
O'BRIEN: Books, I think I cite in my last chapter if I remember rightly, about six studies, two of which are long essays, four of which are books; some of them are short. But they do break -- I'm not claiming terrific originality for what I'm saying. I'm just bringing a lot of things together. And these studies are mainly of the '60s and early '70s -- do look hard, honestly and well at the subject of Jefferson and race. And I cite these six works in my conclusions.
LAMB: How did you go about writing this particular book?
O'BRIEN: Well, as I think I said, started out as a Burkian, if you wish, and interested therefore in Burke on America -- which took up a lot of his first 15 years in politics -- his relations with America. And then I noted that after -- that whereas Burke had been among the most noted friends of America and Britain at the time, many people in America turned against him over the French Revolution. And I think I began with that discovery, if you like. And then while I was on a research project here, thought that that would be a good one to look at. Began by the Founding Fathers in general in relation to this, and then found Jefferson much the most interesting, much the most committed in favor of the French Revolution and went on from then. And then became interested in the link between love of the French Revolution and defense of chattel slavery, which don't seem to be positions that, on the surface, go closely together but did in Jefferson's life.
LAMB: What's the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution?
O'BRIEN: The limits. The American Revolution was always from the beginning, very like the English Whig Revolution. It was, "OK, our people have been intruding on our liberties. We need to defend our liberties against these intrusions, these innovations. We don't want them." But the French Revolution, from very early on, was concentrated on innovation. "We are enlightened people. All this stuff -- all the history that has preceded us is of tyranny and darkness and obscurantism, and we are going to break through into a new day." It was the utopian streak in the French Revolution which distinguished it from most of the American Revolution, but not from those American revolutionaries who, like Jefferson, thought that America could be done over all again through the inspiration of France, which was Jefferson's position from 1789 to 1794, after which it fades.
LAMB: Where was he during that time?
O'BRIEN: During the first couple of months of the French Revolution he was still in France. He was minister plenipotentiary of the American Republic in France. And then very early on -- I think it's September 1789 -- two months after the French Revolution started -- he was recalled at his own request to the United States, where he was then when Washington then offered him the position of Secretary of State, which he rather reluctantly accepted because in terms of the regional divide, it was a dicey one to be the leading Virginian in a government which was, toa large extent, dominated by the North.
LAMB: You spent a lot of time suggesting that Thomas Jefferson got most of his information on the Revolution from the Marquis de Lafayette ...
O'BRIEN: Yes.
LAMB: ... and that that was a skewed view?
O'BRIEN: Yes. He left America in September 1789. And bear in mind that the actual French Revolution, full blown, only starts in July. So he didn't ever actually have much experience with the French Revolution, didn't know much about it. But he had worked -- Lafayette didn't expect anything like what the French Revolution actually turned out to be. He found out when he was run out of the country. But Jefferson, on the whole, went along with Lafayette. He accepted Lafayette's interpretations of things, conveyed those back. As a diplomat, as a politician, I draw a distinction between Jefferson as a diplomat and as a politician. As a diplomat, it seems to me that his dispatches show him to be rather conventional, giving the interpretation of the leading group of the time, basically Lafayette's, which is everything, of course, going on to totally peaceful change, what-not. But as a politician later on, when he goes back to America and is using the topic of the French Revolution within American politics, he uses it brilliantly within Washington's first administration, to undermine the Hamiltonians, who were then dominant there. His brain is really working once he gets back to America. I find that in his French dispatches his brain is in basically suspense, French affairs, basically boredom when he's in France. But France as a topic in America, that's alive. And he comes alive.
LAMB: I wanted to read you back a line that you wrote -- page 150. "It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the 20th century statesman that Thomas Jefferson of January 1793 would have admired the most is Pol Pot."
O'BRIEN: That's right.
LAMB: Who was Pol Pot, and why did you say that?
O'BRIEN: Pol Pot was the Indochinese leader who practiced genocide on an enormous scale. And my reason for making the comparison is in the letter of Jefferson's which includes the word, "My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause" -- that's the French Revolution -- "but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the Earth desolated." And he goes on to embroider that sinister thought by saying that even if the whole population of, say, France were reduced to only two people, a modern Adam and Eve, from whom a free stock could be regenerated, this would be OK. Everybody wiped out, and it'll be OK.
LAMB: You also make a connection between Thomas Jefferson and Timothy McVeigh ...
O'BRIEN: Yes, indeed. I think I quote some passages there, do I not?
LAMB: You do.
O'BRIEN: Yes.
LAMB: But you also said there was a t shirt that people kept under wraps that suggested he was a follower of Thomas Jefferson.
O'BRIEN: I do. Yeah, that's right.
LAMB: Why would they be? Why would that Terry Nichols and that -- what would be the motive?
O'BRIEN: No, the whole idea was what is Jeffersonian when we're speaking of the Jefferson of the French Revolution? That freedom is a self evident absolute and that any number of people can be killed for it. That text, which is quoted on the back of my book, is what links the cult of Jefferson to these particular revolutionaries. And the two who are the prime suspects in the Oklahoma murders both quote Jefferson, that sentence of Jefferson's. They are, to that extent, Jeffersonian.
LAMB: By the way, who's William Short? Because that's who that letter went to.
O'BRIEN: William Short was at one time described by Thomas Jefferson as his adopted son. He succeeded Jefferson when Jefferson retired as minister plenipotentiary. He was not immediately replaced. But William Short took his place "en charge d'affaires" and was there through the ensuing stages of the French Revolution, was initially, like Jefferson, a partisan of the French Revolution during the Lafayette phase. But after the fall of the king in 10th of August, 1792, and the acceleration phase of the French Revolution that followed with many executions, murders and so on, William Short recoiled against the French Revolution. Jefferson did not immediately comment. He passed on his dispatchers to apparently to Washington, and Washington was impressed, Jefferson was not. And the rift between Washington and Jefferson expands at this point.
LAMB: You also talk about a lot about the image of Jefferson in this country, and you talk about Merrill Peterson's book -- he's been a guest here on this program -- "The Image of Thomas Jefferson."
O'BRIEN: Yes.
LAMB: Why are people -- why do people work so hard on the positive image of Thomas Jefferson?
O'BRIEN: I think it's an aspect of American civil religion, that he is felt and has been felt over the years to be a potentially bonding force, including -- and this, I think, was Roosevelt's idea in elevating him, as it were, within the pantheon -- potentially a bonding force between North and South, which he wasn't exactly during his lifetime, but -- OK. Looking back in that way to bring him in was felt to be very important. And when Roosevelt was, if you like, bringing him in there and putting together the Rooseveltian coalition, it was possible to do the kind of distorting thing we saw there, and that was he actually said about race, because the New Deal, after all, was a deal between Northern and Southern whites, primarily, and has worked. But to my mind, it cannot reasonably be sustained in modern time, considering what we know Jefferson's actual position was on racial matters, which is utterly racist.
LAMB: Which of the Founding Fathers that you studied were not racist?
O'BRIEN: I would say Washington was not. Washington was stuck with being a slave owner. He emancipated all his slaves -- all his slaves -- after his death. He never went in for rhetoric of any kind. He wasn't a great rhetoric man, as we know -- a great soldier, also a great politician and busy holding the United States together. Adams was anti racist, Hamilton was anti racist. Madison went along with Jefferson. Monroe went along with Jefferson. So you see the regional divide is, I think, very much ...
LAMB: Do you have any knowledge as why you got into this business in the first place?
O'BRIEN: No, I don't, really.
LAMB: What about your own family? What was it like?
O'BRIEN: Well, I was brought up in Ireland, and when we discussed politics at all, it was mainly Irish politics we were discussing. I didn't get into international politics until fairy middle life, when I worked for the United Nations.
LAMB: How did you get into that, by the way?
O'BRIEN: How did I get into that? I suppose -- well, I was in the Irish department of foreign affairs, and when Ireland joined the UN. Ireland didn't join the UN immediately because Ireland was neutral during the war, and the neutrals were kept out by Soviet decision, basically. But when we were let in, in the 1950s, I was at that that time counselor of embassy in Paris, and I was brought back to be head of the new UN division. In that capacity, I went out very often to the UN General Assembly. Dag Hammarskjold, who was then secretary general, got to know me. And when the Congo crisis broke out in the early 1960s and when it took a particular turn, he sent me out there to represent the UN in the Congo.

And all kinds of rather dreadful things happened about which I wrote a book, "To Kantanga and Back." And Hammarskjold was killed and I resigned from the UN to write a book about that experience, and went on from then -- I suppose from the Congo experience -- from that experience I had to think a lot about racial matters, a lot about what freedom is or might be and so on. And when I retired from UN service, I wrote a book about that experience, and then I went ahead and -- writing and thinking more or less in the same area, including a lot -- freedom, and color were associations for me because of the Congo experience and I suppose that took me a long way in the direction, that book.
LAMB: What party were you in in Ireland?
O'BRIEN: I was in the Irish Labour Party. I was a Minister for Communications in coalition government, which included Labour. And then after I retired from that, I was editor in chief of The Observer newspaper in London, and then retired from that and became a private citizen.
LAMB: Where did the name Cruise come from?
O'BRIEN: Well, I'm told it's of Anglo French origin. La Croix is the brutes, they used to pronounce the X. It starts somewhere in then. But that's a long time back.
LAMB: You have a number of dedications here in the beginning of your book.
O'BRIEN: Yes.
LAMB: Who are they?
O'BRIEN: Let me read them off.
LAMB: You got Conor McDowell, Jonathan Waters and Paris Young.
O'BRIEN: These are all three very young children, all born while this book was being written, children of friends of mine. Conor McDowell's parents are living here in Washington. His father is a correspondent here of Canadian Broadcasting. Jonathan Waters -- his parents are blacks associated with the University of North Carolina, where I was. And Paris Young is the son of my research assistant for this particular book in Atlanta, Georgia. And the book is written in the hope that these young people of different hues and backgrounds and nationalities will someday meet and talk over these things. I think they will.
LAMB: How hard is it for you to do the actual business of writing?
O'BRIEN: Not hard at all, only to begin the -- I mean, I like writing. I like the actual act of writing. I write columns for two Irish newspapers, and that is how I have earned my living here for some years, writing mainly about political issues.
LAMB: Where do you write?
O'BRIEN: Where do I write? Wherever I am. Mainly at my home -- I live on the Hill of Howth, which is a promontory near Dublin. We've lived there for the last 50 years. I like living there and I also like traveling. I like very much coming to this country. I'm very curious about this country and those things like that.
LAMB: What do you think of both Ireland and the United States today?
O'BRIEN: Very different things. Let's look at Ireland a little first. In Ireland -- the Republic of Ireland is more prosperous than it has ever been. It's, at the moment, among the more prosperous of the European nations, partly as a result of EEC membership, well-used and rather sensibly used. But then there is this awful running sore of the relations between the Republic and Northern Ireland. To my mind, a major reason why this is a running sore is the refusal of political people in the Republic to respect the wish of a majority of people in Northern Ireland, quite a large majority, about two thirds, to remain in the United Kingdom. We keep stirring that up and the stirring of that up by our political powers encourages the IRA to stir up by murder, which they still do.

And I have been opposing that. I have opposed it very strongly to the extent recently of joining the United Kingdom Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which is the smallest of the three Unionist Parties but very determined on the maintenance of the union. And I found -- I've had a fairly good response to that on the whole, considering that it's a rash -- it would seem to traditional nationalists like my parents, grandparents to be a rather outlandish thing to do. I've found that I've had quite a lot of support for it.
LAMB: What about the United States?
O'BRIEN: I'd rather learn more about the United States. When I come to the United States, I do come to learn and to listen. So I'm not at all a part of the politics of the United States. I simply hope they work out, mainly as I think I've said, and for the investment that the rest of the world has in the future success and stability of this country. And the working out of race relations here interests me very much. And I don't -- you know, I don't want to lay down the law on those issues.
LAMB: When you look at the scholarship that you went to prepare for this book -- by the way, you had a senior research fellow at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle, North Carolina.
O'BRIEN: Yes.
LAMB: How did you get something like that? Where's that come from?
O'BRIEN: They just asked me.
LAMB: You go down there to live?
O'BRIEN: Yes, we lived there for about a year and a half, and it's a marvelous place. And we got to know further -- a great atmosphere there. You get on with your work, you talk with other people who are interested in similar things -- informal gets together.
LAMB: Is there a school down there? I mean, there's an institute?
O'BRIEN: Yes -- no, it's the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. But it has close relations with the three universities of the area. It's in Research Triangle Park.
LAMB: University of North Carolina and Wake Forest? Are those the three schools?
O'BRIEN: That's right. Yes.
LAMB: And Duke?
O'BRIEN: That's right.
LAMB: You have a grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee?
O'BRIEN: Yes.
LAMB: What's that all about? How's that work?
O'BRIEN: That grant was essentially got for me by the National Humanities Center. These are backers of theirs. They have angels, if you like, in the area and they gave support for the research on which the book is based.
LAMB: And this is the University of Chicago Press. Is that an organization you had a lot to do with?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, an earlier book of mine on Edmund Burke was published by them -- which is a hefty book -- and then later a small book called "Ancestral Voices" essentially about Irish nationalism and Catholicism and the ways they interact. They published that about a year ago.
LAMB: Which political group in this country would more than likely like Edmund Burke? Who quotes him?
O'BRIEN: Everybody quotes him basically because speechwriters wanting a bit of moral or intellectual elevation for a speech, find Burke an OK guy to quote. Some of the quotes are things that he never said, invented by somebody else later, possibly an earlier speechwriter for a similar reason. But I don't find anybody much influence in any modern politicians -- much influence by him -- maybe. I don't think so.
LAMB: You point out that President Clinton's middle name is Jefferson.
O'BRIEN: Yes.
LAMB: What significance to you see in that?
O'BRIEN: Well, I wonder a lot about that actually because I think he'll have to look again at this -- at Jefferson. I'm indeed hoping somewhat that my book might have that effect, because I think to my mind, if we're talking about a multiracial America, and surely the future of America has to be multiracial, this guy is a bad prophet for a multiracial America -- that guy, yes. And I think Jefferson ought to see that -- I mean, the present President ought to see that. He doesn't seem to. But let's see.
LAMB: Well, if you were sitting in front of him right now, what are the things you'd tell him to watch out for in being an endorser of Thomas Jefferson?
O'BRIEN: Well, first of all, you should realize that this is a man who not merely said but maintained throughout his life that there was nor room for free blacks in America, that blacks would have to be deported, and that's what he taught and he drafted laws. For example, he was a draftsman of a law according to which a white woman who gave birth to a child of mixed race would be required to leave the state of Virginia, which was the area over which he was legislating at the time. And if she did not leave, then any Virginian who wished would have the right to take measures against her, kill her and the offspring. Well, you can't maintain that. A person who could say that, who never basically withdrew from that position -- you can't maintain him as an apostle and cult figure of a racially neutral America. You can't do it. It's not possible.
LAMB: How did the two families live together when Thomas Jefferson had the slave family, the Sally Hemmings family, and his own?
O'BRIEN: Well, he never married again. He had the two daughters who grew up. He maintained a very good relation with them. There's some evidence, but it's not conclusive, that the younger daughter may have been deeply disturbed by finding his liaison with Sally Hemmings. She certainly tried to enter a convent around the period when she is likely to have found out about the liaison. He got her out of the convent and back to America, and then darkness falls on that particular scene. I don't know.
LAMB: How could you be a racist and then have a liaison with a black woman and have four children by her? How could you have ...
O'BRIEN: That was normal. That was normal. You know, his own father in law had that and nobody in the Virginian culture of that time kind of did anything. The women averted their eye and they knew. Jefferson himself knew. It was normal to have a liaison with a black woman, children by a black woman. In Jefferson's case, he appears to have emancipated his own children by his will. But his grandchildren, within the same system, remained slaves subject to flogging and to all the other dispensations of the slave system.
LAMB: Julian Boyd you mention quite a bit.
O'BRIEN: Yes.
LAMB: Who was he?
O'BRIEN: Julian Boyd was the editor of most of the great series of Jefferson's correspondence. If I remember rightly, there are 27 volumes, I think, published; he edited 25 of them. And he was a most inspired editor, a brilliant editor. But for many of his years, he was also, if you like, a Jeffersonian cultist. But the cult clearly is beginning is to crack in the last two volumes of his series. He can't take it anymore and that's it. But it's one of the great editions of all time. It's a work of loving scholarship. And he digs up things that he finds personally inconvenient, repulsive, wrestles with them, tries to do anything with them but doesn't eliminate the actual stuff. It's a really great edition.
LAMB: Do you find yourself arguing with Jefferson scholars about all this?
O'BRIEN: No -- well, I have, though they were there when this book was -- before coming to the publishers, when they were deciding whether to publish or not. They then submitted it to two Jefferson scholars, one of whom was enthusiastically for, the other equally enthusiastic against -- "Kill it. It's awful stuff" -- and then a third was brought in who said, "It's OK. It ought to be published," and so it broke through. But there is -- I would expect -- we haven't any reviews in yet. I'm hoping they'll be in soon. But I would expect some Jefferson scholars to demur, possibly rather sharply. And I would like to debate with any of them who may wish to debate with me.
LAMB: You going to move to this country?
O'BRIEN: I'll be living here for the first six months of next year.
LAMB: For what purpose?
O'BRIEN: At Fordham Law School. I'm a kind of consultant professor there for the first half of next year.
LAMB: Are you going to write another book?
O'BRIEN: I hope.
LAMB: On what?
O'BRIEN: On Rousseau, making a kind of late 18th century triad: Burke, Jefferson, Rousseau.
LAMB: What is the relationship between those three? What do they have in common?
O'BRIEN: I think Rousseau and Jefferson have quite a lot in common, and on the whole, I think that what they have in common I find interesting but rather repugnant. And both are anti Burke. Burke was definitely anti Rousseau. Jefferson was definitely anti Burke. But it's a triad of interesting minds at work on similar phenomena at a similar period.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book. It's a portrait there of Thomas Jefferson. You know where this came from, the portrait itself?
O'BRIEN: Thhe portrait was done on the immediate eve of the French Revolution. I think the date is 1787, but I'm speaking from memory, I mean.
LAMB: Do you know where we can see it?
O'BRIEN: Sorry?
LAMB: You know where we can see it?
O'BRIEN: As a matter of fact, I don't, but I think it's available in this country, yes. I can find out.
LAMB: And as you can see here, the name of the book is "The Long Affair," and our guest has been Conor Cruise O'Brien. And we thank you.
O'BRIEN: Thank you very much.


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