About Corazon

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Decline of Jefferson and Rise of Adams

Over the past few years, I can't help but take note of the fact that there seems to have been a major shift in the way both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are perceived by the general public. In a nutshell, John Adams has surged in popularity while Jefferson is being left in the dust. Obviously the hit HBO drama on the life of John Adams has done much to bolster this one time self-defeating founder (as Adams himself put it, "History will remember very little of me...I will have no monuments.") while Jefferson is being removed from textbooks because he "wasn't Christian enough."

While it is true that John Adams was once considered a "lesser" of the Founding Fathers, recent events and research have propelled Adams to a higher level of recognition and appreciation. On the flip side, the once prominent Thomas Jefferson (personally speaking, my favorite Founding Father) has witnessed a decrease in his popularity. The man who was once hailed as the greatest political mind of his era is now being remembered more for his views on religion and slavery. Jefferson's lack of Christian orthodoxy, combined with his views on slavery (not to mention the huge impact of the Sally Hemmings affair) have caused Jefferson to slip a little.

Is this fair? Should we promote Adams at the expense of Jefferson?

If there is one thing I have learned from studying Jefferson and Adams it is that their legacies are joined at the hip. Their on again, off again, on again friendship is a highlight of the revolutionary era. Like Batman needs the Joker, Jefferson and Adams often needed each other. The fact that they were polar opposites on virtually every political (and sometimes religious) issue serves as a template for later social and political struggles the United States would face. When we compare Adams and Jefferson, we are often comparing North v. South, Puritan v. Anglican, Federalist v. Republican, aristocrat v. farmer, passionate v. reserved, tall v. short, sophisticated v. crass. As a result, I guess it would only be natural for one man's stock to go down as the other's went up. As the American political/social pendulum swings from left to right, so does the general public's approval of Jefferson v. Adams. As historian Joseph Ellis states, Jefferson and Adams really were "the head and the heart of the Revolution...a brotherhood that illustrates America's diversity of thought." As a result, it is only natural that Americans today will, from time to time, see Jefferson and Adams in different ways...as representations of America's continually shifting pendulum.

In conclusion, I couldn't help but include my all-time favorite Jefferson quote. In one of his final letters to John Adams (who had earlier written Jefferson to complain about the current course of American politics in the typical Adams doomsday style) Jefferson responded with this. Enjoy:

"We shall have our follies without doubt. Some one or more of them will always be afloat. But ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not bigotry. Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism. Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders and hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priests and kings."


Mark in Spokane said...

Jefferson's problem is that he has violated the primary tenets of both the Left and the Right. You correctly point out that many on the Right no longer are interested in Jefferson because of his religious views. But the real shellacking for Jefferson has come from the Left. Jefferson's localism, his commitment to aristocracy, and his slave-raping have simply made him radioactive among liberals. For good reason.

And Jefferson simply isn't a sympathetic character once one studies him. He's not a noble person, he's not particularly hard-working, he piles up massive debts, he rapes his slaves, he's treacherous to his colleagues (Connor Cruise O'Brien does a great job of detailing this in his books on both Jefferson and Washington), he is thoroughly politically unprincipled.

Brad Hart said...

I agree with you, Mark...to a point. Yes, Jefferson was a stereotypical aristocrat. Yes, he had a relationship with Sally Hemmings. Yes, he could stab his political colleagues in the back. BUT, I don't think this all makes him "not a noble person" or "politically unprincipled." Jefferson was an idealist. As his biographer Joseph Ellis states, Jefferson saw his world in terms of black and white, good and evil, virtue and vice. When people got in his way he simply pushed them out. Not too terribly different than many today.

Sure, slavery is and always will be wrong. Jefferson can't get a pass on this. It's his personal Waterloo. But I also think Jefferson transcends today's political parties because he was/is a party unto himself. Jefferson can be (and has been) embraced by Republicans for his devotion to limited federal government and strong states, while Dems have praised him for his belief in a democracy of the people and his anti-big business beliefs. Heck, it was FDR who invoked Jefferson during the New Deal and even commissioned to have the Jefferson Memorial built.

Bottom line, Jefferson is an enigma...probably even to himself. I think the title to Joseph Ellis' bio on Jefferson is appropriate. He really is the "American Sphinx."