Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Democracy's Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, A Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, Allthe While Being Dead

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Democracy's Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, A Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, Allthe While Being Dead

Article excerpt

Democracy's Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, A Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the While Being Dead. By Andrew Burstein. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015.

This case study on the "politics of memory" from Andrew Burstein fits in with works by Merrill Peterson (e.g., Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography [New York: Oxford University Press, 1975]), Francis Cogliano ('Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy [Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2006]), Peter Onuf (Jefferson Legacies [Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993]), and others on Jefferson's malleable legacy, with special focus on books about Jefferson that were written in the twentieth century. Jefferson's prolific and inspirational writing set him apart from the other Founders, and politicians and theologians easily wrench his quotations out of context. According to Burstein, he is the Founder "whose political sentiments reverberate the loudest," making him the "supremely articulate superego of the American nation" (ix--x). While Burstein shares other historians' skepticism of "Founder Fundamentalism," Jefferson has proven a durable symbol of the "American way of life" among a diverse population, even as his reputation has waned among the academic left because of his racism and slaveholding. That is because Jefferson was full of contradictions, and what he symbolizes varies so much in the eye of the beholder. "Our problem with Jefferson is that there are simply too many of him, and they are all ghosts" (196).

Instead of acknowledging Jefferson's complexity, Americans plunder his writing in a distorted cherry-picking festival. Burstein describes Jefferson as "ammunition held in reserve [as] moralizing fodder" (x). Conservatives, for instance, do not want to "saddle our posterity with our debt," but dismiss the quotation's context: Jefferson's disapproval of Madison's taxing to win the War of 1812. Conservatives see Jefferson as a "sentinel against big government," while "old liberals" point to his advocacy of participatory democracy and each generation remaking laws to suit changing circumstances. Conservatives overlook that Jefferson feared strong, centralized government precisely because of its association with powerful banks and corporations. Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was likewise playing fast and loose when he proclaimed, in defense of the New Deal, that "[e]ven Jefferson realized that the government must intervene ... not to destroy individualism but to protect it." Burstein reinforces this Jeffersonian "ventriloquism" by weaving in John Dos Passos' ongoing use of Jefferson as the author transitioned from left to right (The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson [New York: Doubleday, 1954]).

Burstein navigates seamlessly between past and present, showing how partisans share a misunderstanding of Jefferson's time--a preindustrial era when America's population was 1% of what it is today. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.