Periodic Jefferson Image reminder — September 7, 2016

Periodic Jefferson Image reminder

On one of the recent episodes of The Room Where It’s Happening (a podcast about Hamilton because, like I mentioned, I’m obsessed), they play a message from a caller who says, basically, “Wow, it sounds like Jefferson was a real bad guy. I’m glad I’m learning differently about him now.” Nothing wrong with hearing something different about a Founding Father, of course. But while we’re walking down that road anyway, I’d like to reiterate my love of a book called The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. It’s less about Jefferson the man (if memory serves, the book starts when Jefferson dies, or shortly before), and much more about what’s become of how we perceive him in the centuries since his death. That angle is, perhaps, as interesting as the man himself. You could, if you wanted, tell a coherent story of American governance as the playing-out of the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian strains in American thought over 200-plus years. (Probably more valuable to tell the story of America as two centuries of trying to atone for our original sin of slavery, but sure: Jefferson/Hamilton is a good one.)

Depending upon the country’s self-perception, and depending upon what the ideology of the time called for, Jefferson’s image swung from socialist French fairy to Jacobin anarchist to father of freedom itself. It’s actually pretty funny.

A few years ago we had the David McCullough bio of John Adams, which landed pretty hard on the anti-Jefferson side. Now we have Hamilton (the musical) taking a few little jabs at Adams (“That poor man / They’re going to eat him alive!”). Opinions change. Seems kind of silly to commit yourself to a battle over personalities. Committing yourself to a historiographical battle is more interesting. But it’s still more interesting, I think, to understand the forces that these men put into play, and what those forces mean for the basic structure of American governance.