You are here
All Things to All People
No Founding Father has as a greater public following than Thomas Jefferson. Embraced for over two centuries by everyone from abolitionists to laissez-faire capitalists, from atheists to evangelicals, Jefferson speaks to people in a way that somehow transcends class or race or political affiliation. But when the agendas of his followers range so widely, is it inevitable that many must be misinterpreting his beliefs? Jefferson scholar Andrew Burstein shares the long history of appropriating Jefferson, a practice that even presidents are not above, in his new book, Democracy's Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All While Being Dead. Professor Burstein agreed to answer some of our questions about his provocative book and what it reveals about both the third president and the generations that have followed him.
* * *
Q: You are known as one of the top scholars on Thomas Jefferson, but the subject of your latest book—while centered on Jefferson’s thought—takes you into a distinctly modern discussion. What drew you to this line of inquiry, and what are the challenges in such a project for a historian who has spent his career studying the early republic?
A: For several years now, I have been contributing history-accented pieces to the online journal of contemporary politics and culture salon.com. In the course of writing about the historical antecedents of today’s partisan debates for Salon, I found many extraordinary misreadings of America’s past in the statements of prominent public figures. The Congressional Record alone reveals a good many Jefferson quotes dredged up to promote bills before the House or Senate, and an awful lot of these have either miscast the historical Jefferson or invented quotes from him that “sound like” something he might have said. Because the Left and the Right both seem to think they best represent Jefferson’s political principles, I wanted to investigate just how that mindset arose.
Q: Democracy’s Muse shows how Jefferson is appropriated by groups with conflicting beliefs and agendas. He must be the greatest example of being all things to all people. But we can’t all be right, so does this indicate a terrible misreading of his life and work by many of his admirers? Or is there something peculiar to Jefferson—some ambiguity or elusiveness—that invites multiple, plausible interpretations?
A: It’s right there in Jefferson’s exceptionally eloquent First Inaugural Address, March 1801: he expresses both liberal humanist sentiments and a small-government advocacy. “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things” makes him sound like a conscientious liberal, seeking to remove social injustice. He says we should “unite in common efforts for the common good.” But then, he also calls for “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” That’s Reaganomics, and indeed, Ronald Reagan loved this particular quote. Franklin D. Roosevelt adored Jefferson for being the first, after the Revolution, to stand up for the “little man,” the laboring citizen. FDR believed that the New Deal was a most Jeffersonian policy prescription. So, yes, there is no one quite so malleable as the quotable Thomas Jefferson.
Q: Presidents on both the left and the right have admired Jefferson. Do you think this partly reflects a common ground all people who have held the office feel with each other? One thinks of George Bush the first invoking, of all people, Harry Truman when he ran for reelection in 1992. What role do you think simple presidential “camaraderie” plays in so many presidents’ reverence for Jefferson?
A: The portraiture that graces the White House Cabinet Room may or may not mean a lot, but presidents do decide which of their predecessors to hang in this stately location. The one president every chief executive from Reagan through Obama has seen fit to feature here is Thomas Jefferson. He has been used in multiple State of the Union addresses, and the Jefferson Memorial has been the backdrop for many presidential announcements. The “camaraderie” modern presidents feel probably relates to two things: Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence—the nation’s “long form” birth certificate—and Jefferson as the emotive proponent of the moral principles that have come to define the American national identity.
Q: Unlike Europe, the U.S. does not have a long history of celebrating its public intellectuals, and yet Jefferson’s appeal is extremely broad, reaching all strata of society. Do you find this unusual for a man prized for his mind at least as much for his actions—and can you shed any light on why this might be?
A: As a famous bibliophile, as an expressive letter writer whose body or correspondence has been published in large, accessible volumes, Jefferson exhibits an amazing curiosity about such areas of human endeavor as architecture, botany, classical thought, and the history of language. He was global in his concerns, asking knowledgeable others about a Siberian expedition or owning a copy of the Koran. So, it is not surprising that he should continue to draw international scholars as well as political thinkers to the body of his work and his descriptions of the world around him. In Democracy’s Muse, I write about how Mikhail Gorbachev said that a college text he had held onto, which explained Jefferson’s political principles, affected him deeply as he contemplated reform in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Jefferson’s appeal is his ability to combine a concern with the human spirit with a belief in the power of the educated individual.