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September 12, 2011

Do we worship Thomas Jefferson?

In the Spongebob Squarepants film, Patrick looks at the icons on his underwear and realizes that he indeed worships the Goofy Goober. He and his friend Spongebob are not only fans of the fictional peanut, they live for him.

The more I read the news, the more I see accusations that we “worship” Jefferson, or at least hold him in too high esteem. One came from British pop-historian who teaches at Columbia. Now, there’s a guy who writes for the Arizona daily star  who makes a similar assertion.

Thomas Jefferson in profile, black and white woodcarving

Thomas Jefferson, portrait, from William Bryant’s “Popular History of the United States

So, apparently “leftists” and “right wing extremists” hold this TJ guy in too high esteem.

Well, let’s go over the accusations one by one.

First, the attacks against Jefferson

1. Jefferson owned slaves.

 

We know this by now, thank you very much. Slavery was terrible and inexcusable. I wish that Jefferson had freed his slaves during his lifetime, even if it made him bankrupt.

2. Jefferson was inconsistent.

We see a man torn between his interests and his conscience. Also, a man who has an incomplete knowledge. And, we recognise this completely.

3. The Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional.

Well, it was covered under the “general welfare” clause, and also under the government’s ability to make treaties.  Jefferson considered the Constitutionality of the purchase, and in his consideration he hesitated.  So what?

The Louisiana Purchase, according to a French book I’ve read, was necessary for America’s defense.  With only one side of the Mississippi river, the United States was vulnerable. Also, if Napoleon lost the war, a power hostile to the United States would probably get the land anyway.  (As it happened, Spain later claimed it and fought us in the War of 1812.)

There were some important Americans who are said to have opposed the Louisiana purchase.  According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, naval hero Stephen Decatur Jr told him he wished to be bordered by the British on all sides.

Decatur was said to have wished for America to be one of those “compact states” like ancient Greece that grows tough from having to fight tooth and nail for it’s survival.

Whether Decatur really said this or not is debatable.  We do know that other people didn’t like the Louisiana purchase.  Many of those people didn’t like France.

As one Welsh University’s motto once said, often “Great Minds don’t think alike.”

Now, let’s tackle the criticisms usually dished out against Jefferson’s admirers.

  1. They consist of “leftists” and the “extreme right.”

Well, those are two stock insults that the willfully ignorant usually throw at thinking people to discredit them.

As far as I know, that jerk in Norway didn’t quote Jefferson.  Neither does the British National Party, it prefers to quote Winston Churchill (and it has even quoted Shimon Peres to make its points.)  I haven’t even seen the News Max crew make much of a fuss over Jefferson.

R.B. Bernstein claims that Timothy McVeigh cited Jefferson.  Yeah, and?  Didn’t that crazy guy from Arizona credit Alice in Wonderland on his Facebook page? Perhaps some psycho lurking out there somewhere admires R.B. Bernstein.

As far as leftists go, well, why can’t people on the left of the spectrum admire people from history? I mean, they’re allowed to admire Nelson, Disraeli, Dickens, Churchill, and all those other dead Englishmen. Can’t leftists admire anybody from their own country?

  1. They worship him and find him infallible.

No one thinks that Jefferson knew everything, there’s no little Red Book (or Green Book) of Thomas Jefferson.

If there’s any Founding Father who is taken as scripture, that’s Ben Franklin. I know people who’ve been getting up early for their whole lives and are still fat, dumb, and poor. Still, I like quoting to old man, he’s got a grandfatherly face.

We don’t quote Jefferson the same way. If I find out that Jefferson thought that mammoths still lived in New Zealand, I’m not about to book a Woolly Kiwi safari.

Yes, Jefferson doesn’t always fit the label “Jeffersonian.” Karl Marx doesn’t fit the way we use the label “Marxist”, Machiavelli wasn’t always “Machiavellian” and McCarthy wasn’t the strongest example of “McCarthyism” in his lifetime.

Was Jackson “Jacksonian”? Slightly, sometimes.

Does anybody fit their label? No, because people are complicated.

Jefferson, I hate to say, was a bit of a hypocrite sometimes. He didn’t always do the things he said people should do. He knew that he, like others, had a tendency to mismanage things.

That’s why the founding fathers created a constitution with checks and balances. And that’s why they refused to serve for more than two terms. They were aware of their own failings.

In fact, Thomas Jefferson was so aware of his own failings as a President that he didn’t want his presidency on his tombstone. He didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who fumbled in the White House for the best part of a decade. Thomas Jefferson felt that he had three much greater achievements than what he did for his eight years in office.

The founding fathers allowed the Constitution to be amended because they knew it, like them, wasn’t perfect. Future generations would make it better by outlawing slavery, extending the vote to all Americans, clarifying election procedures, protecting civil rights and setting term limits.

They made it difficult to amend in order to avoid tyranny of the majority. Simple majority referendums can, and have, brought constitutions down and tyrants to power. They’ve disenfranchised groups of people and turned large minorities into exiles in other lands.

Whenever we quote Jefferson, we get someone parroting the truisms that we somehow “worship Jefferson.” No, nobody ever accuses me of “worship” when I quote Churchill, Clinton, Yogi Bera or even Groucho Marx. But quoting Jefferson is, apparently, a sign of worship.

Jefferson like all human beings, indeed like all heroes, made mistakes. We don’t believe that he ascended to heaven in a cloud of dust. We know that he’s as dead as the two dollar bill. We learn from his mistakes and failures as well as his great triumphs.

We do, however, respect him as one of the men who made our country what it is today. We respect that his wisdom well exceeded that of the average man, even the average PhD academic.

As John F. Kennedy once fed a group of Nobel Prize winners in the White House. He called the occasion

“probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius in this house except for perhaps those times when Thomas Jefferson ate alone.”

Is that worship?