Democracy's Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, A Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the While Being Dead.
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. On this score, Burstein agrees with Cogliano and, together, the two authors have, in effect, updated and supplemented Peterson's The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960). No honest historian knows where the Sage of Monticello would have come down on today's policy questions, with the possible exception of religion, where, the author argues, the terms of the debate have not changed as much. Of course, most people with an axe to grind do not have much concern for historical reality, other than for what they can mine or distort it. However, Burstein chronicles a surprising amount of genuine interest in Jefferson on the part of FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan. Not so with the Tea Party, whom he describes as a "theatrical caricature of Jeffersonian populism" (109), or evangelicals such as David Barton, whose The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2012) claimed that the religious libertarian prayed regularly for the unity of the Christian Church and was part of a movement called the "Christian Connection" (181). Burstein excels at uncovering such flagrant "Jefferson abuse" (103). The Tea Party emerged when fabricated Jefferson quotations became so widespread on the Internet that Monticello's website now devotes a page to debunking them (104--10).
His inclusion in the culture wars raises the question of why it is that Jefferson is so contested. Why is he America's muse? Here one could argue that the Right and Left part ways, with the Left's use of Jefferson being more pragmatic and the Right's more idealistic. Most conservatives do not share Barton's concern with tying Jefferson to Scripture, but many see American history itself as Scripture. The founding was the Garden of Eden from which we have fallen, and it is essential that Jefferson, the main personification of this origin myth, maintain an unvarnished reputation to help redeem us. To this end, Democracy's Muse analyzes not just subjective interpretations, but also defenders of Jefferson's reputation, such as the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, that insist that his younger brother, Randolph Jefferson, fathered Sally Hemings' children. For Burstein, the "persistent myth of Founder infallibility is a fantasy of almost Biblical proportions" (146) and is representative of a larger plague in applying history's unstable narrative to the present. Will Burstein succeed in challenging such "glib assertions"? He is off to a fine start with this book. Now, he will need to follow through on some well-situated talk shows and blogs to explain the real context of Jefferson's writings.
Austin Community College
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|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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