Storm Over Jefferson

Those of us who grew up in the middle of this century thought that Jefferson’s star could never be dimmed, much less flicker or go out. In fact, we were surprised to learn that in the early decades of the century the star had disappeared behind clouds of hostility. Theodore Roosevelt referred to our saint as a “scholarly, timid, and shifting doctrinaire” and described any cult of him as “a discredit to my country.” Roosevelt reflected the imperial mood in which America ended the nineteenth century, with naval adventurism into Cuba, the Philippines, and the Far East. The prophet of naval power at that time, Alfred Thayer Mahan (surely the only admiral who was ever the president of the American Historical Association), joined others in seeing the active government envisaged by Alexander Hamilton as the vehicle for America’s rise to the status of a world power. Henry Adams, though he did not share his fellow imperialists’ admiration for Hamilton, made endless fun of Jefferson for his belief that America could sustain a realistic foreign policy with the help of a few shore-hugging gunboats.

As the country moved from turn-of-the-century imperialism into the Progressive Era, reformers found that they, too, needed Hamilton’s strong government for the remaking of society. The leading voice here was that of Herbert Croly, who found in Jefferson’s libertarian ideals only “individual aggrandizement and collective irresponsibility.” Well into the Twenties, Americans were assured that ordinary people were incapable of conducting their own affairs in a time of rapid and necessary technological innovation. Robert and Helen Lynd, famous for Middletown (their sociological study of Muncie, Indiana), concluded that the bewildered modern housewife could not keep up with the new tools and markets she must use, and turned her over to the advice of experts to be specially created for her guidance. Walter Lippmann, in The Phantom Public (1929), claimed that the average voter could not judge complex issues involved in modern public policy, and wanted boards of experts to make the real decisions, which voters would simply ratify.

It was only with the crash of the high hopes for governmental omnicompetence—it was only with the Great Depression—that a new emphasis on the plight and dignity of common people led to a resurgence of the great celebrator of the American yeoman, the plowman, the common man, the citizen. By the 1940s both political parties were invoking Jefferson—even Republicans now remembered that their own greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, called Jefferson, in his 1854 speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the man “who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history.” They had discovered the whole founding dream of America in Jefferson’s words. The dedication of the Jefferson Memorial on April 13, 1943—the two hundredth anniversary of his birth—lodged him in that high stellar place where my contemporaries first encountered him. It seemed there would be no further wavering on the place of Jefferson at the center of America’s historical commitments.

Yet Jefferson’s formerly…

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