President William Jefferson Clinton began his administration by invoking the memory of Thomas Jefferson. Not only did he launch his inaugural week at Jefferson’s home, Monticello, but he followed Jefferson’s route to the White House and cited him in his inaugural address. It is not surprising that Clinton should have tried to use Jefferson as a symbol of his desire for change. Jefferson was after all the presumed founder of the Democratic Party and has long been seen as a champion of liberal causes. But Jefferson does not belong just to the Democratic Party. Republican Governor William Weld of Massachusetts calls himself a Jeffersonian. And President Reagan repeatedly called upon Jefferson in order to justify his attempts to reduce the size of the federal government; indeed, he urged us all to “pluck a flower from Thomas Jefferson’s life and wear it in our soul forever.”
And so it has gone almost from the beginning of our history. More than any other of our so-called “founding fathers” Jefferson has become a symbol, a touchstone, a measure of what we Americans are or where we are going. “Jeffersonian” is a word of general appeal. We are continually asking ourselves whether Jefferson still survives, or what is still living in the thought of Jefferson; and we quote him on every side of every major issue in our history. No figure in our history has embodied so much of our heritage and so many of our hopes. Most Americans think of Jefferson much as our first professional biographer James Parton did. “If Jefferson was wrong,” wrote Parton in 1874, “America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.”
As Merrill Peterson has shown us in his superb book published over thirty years ago, the image of Jefferson in American culture has always been “a sensitive reflector…of America’s troubled search for the image of itself.” And the symbolizing, the image-mongering, the identifying of Jefferson with America, has not changed a bit in the generation since Peterson’s book was published—even though the level of professional historical scholarship has never been higher. If anything, during these turbulent times the identification of Jefferson with America has become even greater—until at this moment in 1993 of the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth all our present anguish and turmoil seem to be embodied in the life of this single man.
Anniversaries of great men and great events are times for commemoration if not for celebration, and they are also times for historical reassessment. But they can be tricky affairs, as we found out last year during the commemoration of the quincentenary of Columbus’s discovery of America. It is not likely that Jefferson will become as politically incorrect this year as Columbus did last year, but he is getting there—as suggested by the book under review and the conference that spawned it, the first major historical and scholarly reassessment of this 250th anniversary. There is a likelihood that …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.