Today is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Number 272, if you’re counting. Democrats safely claimed ownership of the founder of their party for the longest time. Nowadays, however, Republicans seem better equipped to do so, regularly isolating quotes that fix on Jefferson’s small-government credentials. No less curious and intriguing than Jefferson’s malleability in partisan politics is his universality: he continues to possess an aura that none of the other founders can claim. Mikhail Gorbachev proudly acknowledged that his college study of Jefferson influenced his own commitment to reform in the Soviet Union. After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the president of Bulgaria asserted that Jefferson was being “widely quoted” in his country. The Dalai Lama made his own pilgrimage to Monticello.
Jefferson may be America’s best-known slaveowner, but everyone still wants a piece of him; all politicians want to salvage something of the man I’m dubbing “democracy’s muse.” As an ideal, as the beloved blueprint of human governance, democracy cannot do without the historical figure most closely associated with its name. Democracy’s Muse has had a hold on Democrats and Republicans alike over the past 75 years, from FDR to Obama. Evidence abounds. But will Jefferson continue to matter? And do we even know what a “Jeffersonian democracy,” as it was construed when Jefferson lived, would look like in our world?
On April 13, 1943, the Revolutionary’s 200th birthday, President Roosevelt dedicated the Jefferson Memorial. In fact, FDR had a major hand in bringing the structure to life, down to approval of the dome element and the featured quotes on several sculpted panels. In keeping with New Deal initiatives on behalf of “the little man,” the most eloquent of the founders was almost everywhere regarded as a big government liberal once Roosevelt adopted him. Indeed, back in 1924, with big-business Republicans in charge of Washington, FDR had mused in print: “Is there a Jefferson on the horizon?” Either you were a “Hamiltonian” back then, comfortable with an alliance between the moneyed few and government; or you were a “Jeffersonian” who thought government should speak for the voiceless majority of citizens.
During World War II, Jefferson helped symbolize the fight against Nazism. In 1942, a U.S. senator from Utah projected the as yet uninvented United Nations in his patriotic book, "Thomas Jefferson, World Citizen." Harry Truman called Jefferson “my favorite character in history.” And in April 1962, at the lavish party he threw at the Executive mansion for forty-nine Nobel Laureates, John F. Kennedy ad libbed: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge . . . ever gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” In eulogistic reflection on the life of his friend Robert F. Kennedy, astronaut-turned-Senator John Glenn said of RFK: “He’d quite often quote Thomas Jefferson, who said that if our democracy was to work, every man must have his voice heard in some council of government.”
It is open to debate, however, whether any Democrat loved Jefferson as much as Ronald Reagan did. It was President Reagan who, more than anyone else, enshrined the third president as the champion of a small, non-intrusive federal government, and who insisted that the most Jeffersonian thing of all was an abhorrence of taxes and of passing on debt. In his First Inaugural Address, in 1801, Jefferson waxed eloquently about a “wise and frugal government” and called his nation “the world’s best hope.” In his Second Inaugural Address, in 1985, Reagan channeled that Jefferson: “Let history say of us, these were golden years–when the American Revolution was reborn, when freedom gained new life, when America reached for her best.”
Republicans ever since the Reagan era have relished that kind of assertive patriotism. And what politician wouldn’t? When a totalitarian enemy is seen to exist, whether Fascist, Communist, or terrorist, the words (circa 1800) that circle the interior of the Jefferson Memorial are democracy’s catechism: “I HAVE SWORN UPON THE ALTAR OF GOD ETERNAL HOSTILITY TO EVERY FORM OF TYRANNY OVER THE MIND OF MAN.
If Reagan resurrected Jefferson as a small government advocate, the meaningfully named William Jefferson Clinton began his 1993 inaugural journey by replicating–albeit by bus–the third president’s ride from Monticello to Washington, D.C. For Clinton, as for FDR and JFK, Jefferson was an agent of progressive change. On the founder’s 250th birthday that year, Clinton said: “We can honor him best by remembering our own role in governing ourselves and our nation: to change—for it is only in change that we preserve the timeless values for which Thomas Jefferson gave his life over two centuries ago.” In the year 1993 alone, President Clinton invoked Jefferson on twenty-five separate public occasions.
Why Jefferson? He is the closest to flesh and blood among the founders. George Washington was kind of a cold fish, and little that he said addressed the human spirit; history, therefore, likes him better in his marble, statuesque incarnation. James Madison is viewed in cerebral terms alone (which is dead wrong, if you’ll consult my earlier, coauthored book, "Madison and Jefferson"). John Adams was quite colorful, but not inspirational. Jefferson’s nemesis Alexander Hamilton was contentious, conniving, disdained democracy, and had no room for popular protest of any kind. Plus his writing is thick and unpretty and unmemorable. He was a snob of the first order.
Jefferson loved language. He was not an exciting public speaker, but his written words were, and remain, iconic. Americans have been debating the meaning of the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for two centuries. Did he simply crib from John Locke? No, but he employed a vocabulary that his peers around the political world understood, one that captured Enlightenment values. “Happiness” had a philosophical ring then, one that only exists in academic circles now. Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” connoted individual freedom and the realization of a broad moral community— ideas that might even seem contradictory in today’s partisan environment.
One thing is for certain, though: Jefferson would be thrown for a loop if he suddenly appeared, messiah-like, and witnessed all that was taking place in his political name. Among his present-day admirers, government haters aggressively quote one hyperbolic outburst from his time as the American minister in Paris: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” (Timothy McVeigh was wearing his “Tree of Liberty” T-shirt in 1995, when he blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City with chemical, rather than natural, manure.) As president of the National Rifle Association, actor Charlton Heston quoted Jefferson: “No man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
The historical Jefferson hated fanaticism about as much as he hated religious leaders who arrogated to themselves a superior knowledge of God. But the historical Jefferson doesn’t much matter in the ideological mud-wrestling that takes place on Capitol Hill when rival Jeffersons are being tossed about. Active-government Jeffersonians and small-government Jeffersonians shoot out-of-context quotes at one another much as aggrieved social protesters have been known to debate obscure biblical quotes. As the Civil War ignited, both Union and Confederacy claimed Jefferson. There is, even now, such a trade in Jefferson quotes–a phenomenon better described as Jefferson abuse–that the Washington Post saw fit in 2012 to call out Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas) for saying something Jefferson never said: “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those that are willing to work and give to those who are not.” Nice try, but the quote actually came from an encyclopedic text dating to the Reagan era, authored by one “John Galt,” a name lifted from Ayn Rand’s fictional libertarian hero.
One of the Jefferson quotes Republicans have wielded most confidently since the Reagan years applied to the small U.S. economy of the 1790s. In the balanced budget debate of the 1990s, the quote carried considerable weight. They’d say: “Thomas Jefferson wrote that if he could add just one amendment [it would be] prohibition against Congress borrowing money. Such an amendment, he reasoned, would defend the American people from the tyranny of government.” This quote still has currency among small-government proponents today. It does indeed capture a moment in Jefferson’s political career. But it also raises the issue of how much historical context matters. We should as readily question whether FDR’s co-optation of Jefferson into his New Deal agenda was historically overreaching, too. Interpolating the ideas of an eighteenth-century man and giving them relevance in the twentieth or twenty-first century is problematic, to say the least. But what are you supposed to do when the object is national self-strengthening?
After September 11, 2001, the “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny” quote got renewed attention. Though smoke could be seen rising from the Pentagon, it was still possible to derive strength and hope from the unsullied dome of the Jefferson Memorial. President Jefferson’s war against piracy emanating from the Islamic states of North Africa–America’s first war after Independence–resonated anew. In 2004, Time posed the question: Would Jefferson have invaded Iraq? And speaking at Monticello on July 4, 2008, President George W. Bush said unabashedly: “The power of Thomas Jefferson’s words do not stop at the water’s edge. They beckon the friends of liberty on even the most distant shores. They’re a source of inspiration for people in young democracies like Afghanistan and Lebanon and Iraq.” Talk about wishful thinking.
So what do we mean (or should we mean) when we refer to Jeffersonian democracy? It’s nothing concrete. Rather, it’s our best imaginable America, when the American Dream was in its infancy and sounded beautiful. It’s a golden age that exists in language, on the page, but cannot be fixed on solid ground. It’s a quasi-utopian experiment in designing policies that serve the public good and dictate against the growth of inequality.
The quotable Jefferson forms the moral backbone of the nation. If our civil religion requires a faith-inspiring text, then Jefferson penned the Book of Genesis. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Jefferson. We see our republic as a noble invention, a political culture built from precepts we have preferred to assign to Jefferson: He made millions believe that unified sentiments (the collective “pursuit of happiness”) could distinguish America from all crueler trends attaching to the Old World.
Jefferson’s universality is probably the most remarkable thing about his posthumous career. He has been embraced across the political spectrum, and by people we don’t ordinarily associate with Enlightenment humanism. Richard Nixon said that his favorite Jefferson quote was: “We act not just for ourselves but for all mankind.” This may not exactly be the Nixon that lodges in the historical imagination, but it does promote Jefferson as democracy’s muse. He is accessible, his aura felt, whenever one wishes to put a positive spin on policy. Government that works against the growth of a moneyed aristocracy, and that tends to the needs of common people; government that is restrained from over-spending–these are all Jeffersonian values.
Thus, the Jeffersonian currency is easily counterfeited. Internet traffic in spurious quotes got so out of hand in recent years that Monticello’s research department compiled a long list of them, posting explanations on its website so as to distinguish among the accurate, partially accurate, and wholly inaccurate. With such confusion, and with politicians who see a Jefferson who speaks only to their particular ideological persuasion, the “real” Jefferson gets lost. That guy, the historical Jefferson, was stubborn and immoveable on certain subjects, half-explaining the political philosopher’s refusal to address flaws in the scientific racism that prevailed in his mind across decades. He also lived in fear of a resurgence of monarchical tendencies among a breed of politician he did not even try to understand. And, long before the Civil War loomed, he conformed to his section’s tendency to perceive in Yankee enterprise a desire to dictate terms to the South.
Jefferson was a pretty lousy prophet, as things turned out. For one, he was convinced that Americans were too sensible to allow the religious battles of Old Europe to affect their national development–late in life, he predicted that within a generation or two, every American would die a Unitarian. It would seem difficult, if not impossible, to fit Jefferson (who was attacked as an atheist in his own time) into evangelical Protestantism; but that hasn’t stopped the self-taught “historian” David Barton, a collector and worshipper of all things founder-begot, who just a few years ago came up with a book titled “The Jefferson Lies,” so as to inform his wishful-thinking flock that Thomas Jefferson believed with all his heart in the efficacy of prayer and in a God who continues to take an active part in human affairs.
The truth? History is extremely fragile; it relies on the accuracy of human memory, something that is notoriously inaccurate. Every generation reshapes the past so that it speaks to the present in supportive ways. The Left doesn’t own Jefferson. The Right doesn’t either. The past does.
Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy. MORE FROM Andrew Burstein
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