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 11, 2017

A close-up

The book’s preface lays out how Thomas Jefferson came to be “the supremely articulate superego of the American nation,” how his Revolutionary writings translate as the conscience underlying American values. After that, I would direct readers to those pages that speak to the ways the Jefferson image was held dear by some of our most consequential presidents. For starters, at the end of 1925, several years before he was elected president, Franklin Roosevelt wrote a book review – the only one he ever published – praising Claude Bowers’s Jefferson and Hamilton. He was so enamored that he later appointed the author as U.S. ambassador to Spain. President Reagan kept favorite sayings on 4x6” notecards, and his numerous Jefferson quotes came in handy whether he was talking about married life or the evils of government.

Another representative Jefferson lover is John Dos Passos, famous for his U.S.A. trilogy, who went from being a Leftie to a Rightie over the course of several decades, without changing his opinion of Jefferson one iota. He authored two books attempting to make sense of Jeffersonianism: The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954) and The Shackles of Power: Three Jeffersonian Decades (1966). I scoured the Papers of John Dos Passos in the archives at the University of Virginia library, and found him constantly posing (and having trouble answering) key questions that others have grappled with across generations: “When you start to write a book on Jefferson are you writing an epitaph?” he scribbled. “How much of Jefferson is alive today?”

I would suggest that the reader’s takeaway from such discussions is this: Jefferson’s writing style, unlike the stiff, less approachable work of a George Washington or an Alexander Hamilton, retains direct links to the human heart. He gets caught up in a fantastic conversation with himself about what he sees as the promise of the American political experiment. As a great bibliophile, and as an expressive letter writer whose body of correspondence has been published in large, accessible volumes, Jefferson exhibits an amazing curiosity about such areas of human endeavor as architecture, botany, classical thought, and the history of language. He was global in his concerns, seeking out superior strains of a plant, asking knowledgeable acquaintances about a Siberian expedition, purchasing a copy of the Koran. On that level, it is not surprising that he should continue to draw international scholars and a range of political thinkers to the body of his work.