Andrew Burstein

 

On his book Democracy's Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the While Being Dead

Cover Interview of April 12, 2017

In a nutshell

Democracy’s Muse examines why it is that Thomas Jefferson has come to represent American ideals for all modern generations, why the most emotive figure of the founding era appeals to the political Left as well as the Right. He was the first, but by no means the last, to designate his nation as “the world’s best hope,” and that’s part of it. But his malleability says more. It says that the historical Jefferson is manipulated with too little regard for context. How can he be a big-government New Dealer and a small-government Reaganite?

Jefferson’s political sentiments have reverberated across time and space in enchanting ways. Mikhail Gorbachev said that he frequently turned to Jefferson when he was fashioning reform of the Soviet system. Barack Obama, while better known for his embrace of Abraham Lincoln, met the visiting French president at Jefferson’s Monticello home, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in recognition of Jefferson’s embrace of French culture. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, offhandedly stated that he could foresee a monument in Washington celebrating his achievements––“but maybe I’d share it with Jefferson.” Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Jefferson.

It’s hard to say which of the two transformative presidents adored Jefferson more: Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. Both channeled the third president in their conception of government’s role in the lives of citizens. Given this curious conundrum, my book charts the strong statements of presidents, congressmen, and public intellectuals, from FDR’s time to Obama’s. Our self-anointed monitors of historical continuity have all struggled to define what the “Jeffersonian ideal” means to modern America’s national self-image. Sometimes they argue by resort to colorful language, and at other times they sound downright desperate.

FDR helped to design the Thomas Jefferson Memorial that proudly stands over at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. He opened it to the public on the founder’s 200th birthday, April 13, 1943. At the time of Jefferson’s 250th, in 1992, President William Jefferson Clinton recalled that day, fifty years earlier, attesting to FDR’s Jeffersonian credentials, while adding his own thoughts on the illustrious Virginian. Thomas Jefferson believed, Clinton said, “in government being constantly reformed by reason and popular will.” The Economist wasn’t so convinced that the historical Jefferson had a reliable connection to ordinary people, and questioned assumptions about Jefferson universality: “He is the intellectual’s president, the president of the uncalloused hands.” In 2004, Time magazine actually queried whether President Jefferson would have invaded Iraq.

Jefferson also remains a flashpoint in national conversations about the inherently secular or religious character of the American republic. And then there’s his sexual activity across racial lines. We care about the ways Jefferson is portrayed––so much so that politicians have been known to put their own words in his mouth and repeat invented Jefferson quotes that support whatever agenda they are pursuing. Democracy’s Muse is as concerned with popular culture as with the pathos and pathology of the present partisan environment; the book weighs in on what we can and cannot know about the historical Jefferson, and why that question matters.