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

The wide angle

The discipline of history demands of professional historians that we do our best to re-encounter and faithfully restore to the modern mind the physical, moral, intellectual, social, political, emotional boundaries – the outer and inner world – that encompassed the lives of earlier generations. So, in that sense, I attempt in this book to contrast the political reality Jeffersonian Americans faced with that of modern generations. This includes the expectations citizens had from their government, and how their elected representatives “sell” a message.

What explains the tendency to give our national creation story a defining role in describing who we are as a people? Why do we expect the past to instruct us? When Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, the total population was 1/100 of today’s figure. As George Washington’s secretary of state, he had a staff of three. So, I see my work as a cautionary exercise in critical thinking. Historical memory is a fascinating subject all on its own.

We must be very careful before we try to extrapolate from the past, or ask the question: “What would the founders do in this or that situation?” Looking backward, the concept of “big government” versus “small government” is almost irrelevant. So, then, how should we use Jefferson? When is it actually possible to suggest what Jefferson would have said or done in approaching today’s culture wars? On race, it is impossible to say: the racial science he relied on was pseudoscience, rooted in the assumption that factors such as skin pigmentation and weather conditions were key indicators of qualities of mind and cultural achievement. On religious life and freedom of conscience more generally, I contend that the historical Jefferson was quite explicit, and indeed, still speaks to us.

When you inquire about my personal path to this book, there are two distinct answers. After writing several books about Jefferson and his time, The Inner Jefferson (1995), Jefferson’s Secrets (2005), and Madison and Jefferson (2010, coauthored with Nancy Isenberg), I still could not get out of my mind an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery where I viewed the draft of President Kennedy’s iconic April 1962 speech to a gathering of 49 Nobel laureates. Kennedy adlibbed a line about the outstanding collection of genius before him, saying that there had not been such an assemblage at the White House “since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” It made me think about that Jefferson.

In a very different sense, I came to write this book after “defecting” from the study of Chinese language and culture (my undergraduate major) to the study of American history. Either way, I have always sought to understand the power of language; my doctoral dissertation analyzed the emotional script in Jefferson’s prose style, especially as it derived from his letter-writing habit. His hold on the imagination has always been a function of a refined, humanistic vocabulary. In attempting to categorize the “American Enlightenment,” Benjamin Franklin is the starting point, but Jefferson was left in charge of fulfillment. Asking whether the American Enlightenment was practical in its conception or execution is a different sort of question; but the importance of understanding the hold of the past on the present makes complex, possibly unanswerable questions great motivators for a professional historian.