Thursday, June 07, 2007

Should Thomas Jefferson be the Democrat’s Hero?

Susan Dunn asks the question of whether the Democratic Party should still be using Thomas Jefferson as their mascot. FDR brought Jefferson to his high point in the 1930s by choosing him as his personal mascot.

Dunn illustrates that while FDR used one Jefferson, his opponents used another. FDR’s Jefferson was:
an Enlightenment thinker who believed that the young republic offered limitless possibilities for liberty, equality, and happiness. His imagination was ignited by the idea of perpetual change and renewal -- especially in laws and constitutions. "The earth always belongs to the living generation," he jubilantly wrote to Madison. Optimistic, forward-looking, he embraced the unknown. "I steer my bark with hope in the Head, leaving Fear astern," he wrote in 1816.

His opponents saw a different Jefferson:
During the Depression, Jefferson was also the hero of FDR's most virulent opponents, especially the two conservative Democratic senators from Virginia -- Carter Glass and Harry Byrd -- who loathed the New Deal. Believers in pay-as-you-go, simple Jefferson-style government, Glass and Byrd voted against farm bills, labor bills, unemployment bills, minimum wage bills, and public works programs -- virtually all the legislation that comprised the New Deal. "I am seventy-six years old in genuine Jefferson Democracy," Glass declared in 1934, "and I do not care to mar the record before I die by embracing brutal and despicable bureaucracy."

Glass and Byrd were hardly the first southern leaders to put a conservative spin on Jefferson. They were merely following in the footsteps of Virginians of the early 19th century -- men like U.S. Representative John Randolph of Roanoke and Virginia Judge Spencer Roane -- who took inspiration from Jefferson as they struggled to keep the industrializing and urbanizing modern world at bay.

Dunn ends by saying that while we can ignore the flaws of Jefferson as so many have done, we would be better to accept them as part of who he was:
Or, more courageously, we can embrace the duality of Jefferson -- hailing the idealist and the democrat, the icon of Roosevelt's New Deal whose soaring words about equality and unalienable rights still inspire us to greater moral heights, while also accepting and seeking to understand the conservative Virginia planter who was so different from us and who saw, through the windows of Monticello, a very different world. Instead of denying those differences, Democrats might instead study and learn from them -- to gain more insight into Jefferson's belief in the land, the South, and the states and his faith in liberty, equality, and happiness. And in so doing, we might also gain a deeper understanding of the long, complex history of the Democratic Party.

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