Democracy’s Muse: Thomas Jefferson and the Burden of Legacy

One of the better books I read this month was Democracy’s Muse by Andrew Burstein, an examination of Thomas Jefferson as a political role model to a wide variety of movements, from Jacksonian Democrats and FDR to Reagan Republicans and the Tea Party. It was a truly fascinating examination of a multifaceted historical figure, and how the ideology and writing of one man can be easily twisted and flipped around by folks of all kinds to serve into one viewpoint or another. Burstein also examined how Jefferson’s legacy has shifted in the wake of his sexual relationship with his female slave Sally Hemings and his religious views.

51W88WaefoLDemocracy’s Muse was an interesting read considering that earlier this year I read American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis; the former laid out Jefferson’s self as seen by his successors, the later laid out Jefferson’s self as seen in a more historically placed context, less futuristic in its lens. Dovetailed together, the two books created a much fuller image of Jefferson than I had previously in my mind.

It is also interesting that the issue of legacy is so prevalent in this texts, considering that it is also a main theme in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s uber popular award-winning (Tony award winning!) musical, Hamilton, based on the Ron Chernow biography. Hamilton tries to protect his legacy but takes a disastrous misstep with the publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet, which destroys his political career and kicks off the first legitimate Washington sex scandal in U.S. history. But his immense library of writings, the financial systems and institutions he created, kept his name in the history books as a creator of things, not just a married man who slept with a married woman. Unfortunately, Hamilton worried so much about his legacy while he was living that he didn’t seem to see how secure it really was.

If Hamilton’s anxieties about his legacy seems obvious, Jefferson’s own don’t see so obvious until he is deep into middle age and beyond, in a state of semi-retirement in Monticello, wondering how his deeds will look to the future. Considering his disastrous second term as president, it’s safe to say that Jefferson was probably worried about how that would look against things he was actually proud of, like the formation of the University of Virginia and the purchase of the Louisiana Territories. If you asked the spirit of Jefferson now the parts of his life, his legacy, that he was truly proud of, I doubt his status as the nation’s third president would exactly figure into it.

Because of Jefferson’s status as quintessentially American, it becomes very “in” for politicians of all ideologies to use his writing and his name to bulk up their own works. Jefferson in death is a tool for small government, big government, less taxes, more taxes, separation of church and state, America as an essentially Christian nation, civil liberties, limited liberties, etc. It is always interesting to see which public figures are more than happy to cherry pick a dead man’s pocket for sentences divorced from context and use them in rather grotesque, self serving ways.

It is apparently a very popular if nerve wracking exercise for Jefferson scholars to wonder what the learned Virginian would do, say, think, act if he was alive in current times, if he could have witnessed the past forty to fifty years and made something out of America now from the viewpoint of America past. Problem is, it’s impossible, for the same reason it’s possible to use his writing in a full spectrum of thought and not see a contradiction: Jefferson is unreachable, his thoughts like smoke, always shifting and changing, never showing himself fully or enough to get a true grasp on what he was thinking at any one time. The people who could possibly ever give us true insight into his thoughts cannot tell us what they know, as they were Jefferson’s colleagues and have long passed as well. Therefore, uncovering the “true” Jefferson becomes a goal for historians, starting the second he left this earth, and will most likely continue for decades without end.

I am still digging, albeit shallowly (summer classes dig painfully into my reading time), into the legacy and life of Thomas Jefferson. He is one of our most fascinating and frustrating Founding Fathers, but I am glad for the challenge. If anything, Jefferson is never boring.

(I’ve got Ken Burns’ documentary on Thomas Jefferson sitting on my shelf from the library, waiting to be watched. It should be good!)

Featured image is from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello online, as an advert banner for a talk on Democracy’s Muse on May 5, 2015.

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