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


Here’s something I find revealing, though it is by no means a scientific measure of anything. The portraits that grace the White House Cabinet Room have always been thought to provide insights into the management style or private inspiration of a sitting president. Presidents do decide which of their predecessors will hang in this solemn location. The one presidential portrait every chief executive from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama saw fit to feature in the Cabinet Room is that of Thomas Jefferson. His name has been cited in a good many State of the Union addresses over the years, and the Jefferson Memorial has been the backdrop for many presidential announcements. The “camaraderie” modern presidents feel when they visit with the symbolic Jefferson (similarly, the symbolic Lincoln) most relates to two things: texts and stated principles. As the featured author of the nation’s long-form birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson is borrowed so as to “ground” us, to convey a certain kind of moralism, as well as achievement, that is expressed whenever the “American Dream” or “American exceptionalism” are touted in public speeches.

My hope for this book is that it might jumpstart a conversation or two about the dangers inherent in claiming knowledge of how admired historical actors would regard modern political thinking, had they survived to our time. It is absurd to insist that Jefferson is a partisan Republican or a partisan Democrat, as we define the platforms of the organized political parties of our century. Yet members of Congress have repeatedly attempted to claim Jefferson for their party, as I illustrate in the book.

In Jefferson’s exceptionally eloquent First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801, he exhibits characteristics that express both liberal humanist sentiments and small-government advocacy. “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things” makes him sound like a conscientious liberal, seeking to remove social injustice. He says we should “unite in common efforts for the common good.” But he also calls for “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” That’s Reaganomics.

Franklin D. Roosevelt adored Jefferson for being the first American statesman to stand up for the “little man,” the laboring citizen. FDR was utterly convinced that the contest between Jefferson and Hamilton for the soul of the republic was revived in the Depression-era crisis, in which the personal greed of business moguls had damaged the lives of millions. For him, there’s “the party of business” and “the party of the people.”

Yet for Reagan, too, Jefferson reliably stands on the side of democracy. “Jefferson said that the people will not make a mistake if they have all the facts,” he once wrote.

In the twentieth century, Jefferson had a greater hold on Democrats; in the twenty-first century, he has a greater hold on Republicans, who have found a slew of enticing quotes attesting to the inherent wisdom of local citizens and the inherently oppressive tendencies of a large, centralizing, regulating government. So, it certainly seems that Jefferson isn’t done with us yet. As long as social justice remains in the hands of legislators, the emotive founder Thomas Jefferson will have some role to play in their deliberations.