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Democracy's Muse

How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the While Being Dead
Andrew Burstein

BUY Cloth · 270 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813937229 · $45.00 · Apr 2015
BUY Ebook · 270 pp. · ISBN 9780813937236 · $19.95 · Apr 2015
BUY Paper · 270 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813939827 · $19.95 · Feb 2017

In political speech, Thomas Jefferson is the eternal flame. No other member of the founding generation has served the agendas of both Left and Right with greater vigor. When Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the iconic Jefferson Memorial on the founder’s two hundredth birthday, in 1943, he declared the triumph of liberal humanism. Harry Truman claimed Jefferson as his favorite president, too. And yet Ronald Reagan was as great a Jefferson admirer as any Democrat. He had a go-to file of Jefferson’s sayings and enshrined him as a small-government conservative.

So, who owns Jefferson--the Left or the Right? The unknowable yet irresistible third president has had a tortuous afterlife, and he remains a fixture in today’s culture wars. Pained by Jefferson’s slaveholding, Democrats still regard him highly. Until recently he was widely considered by many African Americans to be an early abolitionist. Libertarians adore him for his inflexible individualism, and although he formulated the doctrine of separation of church and state, Christian activists have found intense religiosity between the lines in his pronouncements.

The renowned Jefferson scholar Andrew Burstein lays out the case for both "Democrat" and "Republican" Jefferson as he interrogates history’s greatest shape-shifter, the founder who has inspired perhaps the strongest popular emotions. In this timely and powerful book, Burstein shares telling insights, as well as some inconvenient truths, about politicized Americans and their misappropriations of the past, including the concoction of a "Jeffersonian" stance on issues that Jefferson himself could never have imagined.

Here is one book that is more about "us" than it is about Jefferson. It explains how the founding generation’s most controversial partisan became essential to America’s quest for moral security—how he became, in short, democracy’s muse.


I feel confident in saying that Thomas Jefferson would've approved of Andrew Burstein's interpretation of his political afterlife in this book. I do so because--as Burstein so thoroughly and entertainingly chronicles--seemingly everybody else in American history has felt confident in saying Jefferson would've approved of whatever they were doing or saying about him.

Keith Olbermann

Democracy's Muse is a lively and opinionated look at Jefferson's latter-day admirers. You won't agree with everything Andrew Burstein says about them--but then they disagree so flamboyantly with each other.

Richard Brookhiser, author of Founders' Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

Likely to be a landmark in Jefferson studies while making an original contribution to our understanding of the ‘culture war’ that has become such a toxic element of contemporary politics.

Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh, author of Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy

Andrew Burstein's book focuses tightly on the uses and abuses of Thomas Jefferson's legacy. 'The politically minded,' he writes, 'choose to forget that [he] couldn't solve the most intractable problems of his own time; instead, they unearth a morally supportive quote and grant it universal power.'"... Does it really matter if politicians revise the Founders' story to suit their own needs? Burstein argue[s] compellingly that it does. Burstein observes that it is hard to challenge the politically sacred without being labeled unpatriotic. Therein, he says, 'lies tyranny over the mind'--the very tyranny that Jefferson warned against throughout his political life.... Eminently readable.

Wall Street Journal

Burstein reviews both how presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama have harnessed the image and words of Thomas Jefferson to bolster their respective campaigns and initiatives and how recent scholars and schemers have grabbed hold of Jefferson’s words and memory to do battle over questions of race, science, and religion.... Burstein writes engagingly, and, at times, quite entertainingly.

Daily Beast

Reminiscent of Merrill Peterson’s pathbreaking The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), Democracy’s Muse describes a Jefferson whose authority generations of liberals and conservatives have regularly cited, usually through cherry-picked quotes to advance their respective agendas.


Democracy’s Muse forces us to confront the past on its own terms and challenges us to ask the same of our political leaders.

Jeffrey Malanson, Indiana University · Political Science Quarterly

Democracy’ s Muse engages with the small but robust scholarship on thememory of Jefferson and the American founding...the book’ s second section is where Burstein’ s insight really shines, as he hunts bigger game than how Jefferson has been invoked in the political Burstein uses Jefferson’ s image as a lens through which to consider the intersection of memory and the practice of contemporary political discourse, bringing to bear the author’ sexpertise on the historical Jefferson and his savvy as an observer of contemporarypolitics for such outlets as Salon and Politico.

Andrew M. Schocket, Bowling Green State University · The Journal of Southern History

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