U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Nothing Is More Tedious Than Detailed Discussions of ‘What Historians Said’”

The above title is a quote from Merrill Peterson’s not at all tedious—at least to this reader—The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960). Not precisely a lost classic but not a popular citation of late in cutting-edge scholarship either, the book is as interesting for the model of scholarship that it represents as it is for its content: The Jefferson Image is, above all, useful, privileging collation over interpretation. While not as miscellaneous as something like Merle Curti’s The Growth of American Thought (which Paul Murphy luminously revisited very recently here on the blog), The Jefferson Image works because of its crowded canvas; one’s experience while reading it is primarily one of being informed, not necessarily of critical engagement. One pauses at the end of a page to consider the distance crossed and the details filled in rather than the arguments presented.

Which is not to say that the book lacks strong arguments, but rather that its arguments are the results of accretions of minutiae rather than the products of analytical set-pieces. As someone who is trying to balance the two in his own writing, this is very useful stuff.

What prevents these minutiae from becoming tedious, I think, is the genius of Peterson’s subject: there is manifest importance in writing about the snakes-and-ladders nature of Jefferson’s reputation both within and, at times, separately from the Democratic Party. “All American history, it sometimes seemed, represented the effort to discover Jeffersonian answers to the problems encountered in the nation’s progress,” Peterson wrote. The Jefferson “image” is an elegant way to organize the tracking sectional, partisan, interest-group, or class tensions as they play out over time. The symbol of Jefferson has been deployed as cover for an extraordinary range of political agendas and personal passions; the patterns which emerge in collecting these instances of invocation reproduce some of the most basic questions about state power and democratic control, political economy and foreign relations in U.S. history.

The glaring gap in the book is its lack of sources from women and from racial minorities; these questions are submerged in a way I can’t imagine being true if the book were written fifteen to twenty years later. But Peterson’s story anticipated in a way its own silence on the roiling issues of the 1960s and 1970s: his main argument of the back half of the book is that the New Deal as a whole and FDR as a particularly acute case had effectively removed Jefferson from the intensively partisan uses for which he had been deployed and elevated him into a more neutral pantheon alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. That made Jefferson no longer the repository of a code from which precise answers to concrete situations could be drawn, and thus we might expect him to sit out future conflicts, hors de combat. Peterson wrote:

After the Roosevelt Revolution, serious men stopped yearning for the agrarian utopia, politicians (and most historians too) laid aside the Jefferson-Hamilton dialogue, and almost no one any longer maintained the fiction that American government was run, or ought to be run, on the Jeffersonian model. What mattered was the faith in the power of free men [sic] constantly to rediscover their heritage and to work out their destiny in its spirit. The New Deal consummated the process by which Jefferson came to stand, above any other American, the hero of this faith, and for great clusters of civilized values as well. Paradoxically, the ultimate disintegration of the Jeffersonian philosophy of government heralded the ultimate canonization of Jefferson (376).

That in itself has changed once again (if it was ever at any point actually true), and recent works like David Sehat’s The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible (2015) and Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (2011) and, above all, Andrew Burstein’s amusingly titled Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the While Being Dead (2015) tell why by, in some measure, bringing Peterson’s story up to date.

I have not read Burstein’s book yet, but I wonder if books like these three—or some of Jill Lepore’s other writing or John McKee Barr’s Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present—do not portend a return to scholarship something more like Peterson’s, albeit a little less tweedy, a little more slashing and polemical. But a book titled The Hamilton Image in the American Mind would be genuinely useful now, and not just because of the musical. Or, even more obviously, something similar on Martin Luther King? Or JFK? Somewhere between a reference and a monograph, could we—as historians and as citizens—not seriously benefit from simply greater knowledge about the patterns of uses these figures have been put to over the decades? It would undoubtedly be onerous—even tedious work—but I suppose the question is, has someone got to do it?

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post Andy. I wonder if the recent vogue of reception histories is something of a return to the Peterson model, which itself seems indebted to “myth and symbol”. But today we might dress it up a bit and say “the Jefferson Imaginary in American Discourse”. What role do you thing reception theory plays in the newer histories?

    • That is, as always, an extremely insightful question. My feeling is that the new reception histories are doing something quite different from what Peterson’s book does, or what I imagine Burstein’s does. The reception histories are about encounters between a thinker and a reader, and Peterson’s book is about a set of deployments of Jefferson as a tool.

      Very few of the figures Peterson examines change in any meaningful way because of reading Jefferson, or if they do, it is almost always as a youth (for instance, Claude Bowers, who idolizing the Federalist-minded Albert Beveridge). The few times someone makes a shift (for instance, the Hamiltonian Nicholas Butler Murray, who discovers Jefferson later in life) Peterson explains it not as the result of an epiphanic reading of Jefferson but because of political contingencies. Jefferson is simply a more useful tool for the ends they have in mind, at that time. I find that to be so different from, say, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s Nietzsche book.

      I do think that you’re very right to connect Peterson’s project to myth-and-symbol American Studies. It has seemed to me as if Thurman Arnold is, in some measure, an intellectual (evil) godfather of the myth and symbol school, although perhaps that’s on my mind because Peterson in fact writes about him. At any rate, I don’t see the same kind of Arnoldian influence on the reception histories, although I might be missing it.

    • Dan Wickberg:
      today we might dress it up a bit and say “the Jefferson Imaginary in American Discourse”

      If one wanted to be grumpy, one might say that comparing, as titles, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind to a (hypothetical) The Jefferson Imaginary in American Discourse shows what has happened to academic diction (discourse?) in recent decades — and it ain’t that pretty.

      p.s. Very minor point: Andy, I think you must mean Nicholas Murray Butler — just transposed the middle and last names.

  2. I can see an article about this kind of “toolship” being written about M.J. Adler, (i.e. Adler as Myth and Symbol), from just before his death to about ten years after. Indeed, I sort of cover on part of that legacy in an article I wrote about him on his Catholic conversion. But another could be written from the perspective of Adler’s opponents (i.e. opponents of the great books idea and his particular incarnations of the same). But my dissertation and subsequent book were about the reception of Adler, his works, and the great books idea over a large chunk of the 20th century.

    I draw on my personal research and writing here to underscore, anecdotally, that I agree with Andy that the reception of a person, their ideas, and their personae *differs* from how others use them as a tool for other purposes, reconstructing that person, her/his ideas, and personae for other ends. – TL

    • Great point, Tim–I feel like you illustrated very well in your last chapters how Adler and the Great Books image detached from any real encounter with the original project and became reified or weaponized. It seemed to me, though, that you argued–at least tacitly–that Adler was more or less complicit in this, that he began enjoying the position of culture warrior more than the role of actually representing the ideas behind the Great Books?

      • On your last question, yes, for a bit around 1990-91—right after the release of the 1990, 2nd edition of Britannica’s set. But that’s a weird, egoistic case (highly particular) of a person seeing himself as a symbol and myth! But you see reification move in and out of the history of the great books idea after the original 1952 production of the set. Thankfully, the idea was *larger* than reification, even for Adler himself, who returned to less determinstic visions of the idea for awhile in the 1970s and 1980s. …It’s complicated, right? – TL

  3. For those who are interested, a book capturing the trajectory of opinions concerning Alexander Hamilton was written over a decade ago. Check out Stephen F. Knott, Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth.

  4. You mention MLK and JFK in passing. I’d like to note that I am attempting something along the lines you are suggesting in one section of my current project: “John F. Kennedy and the Quest for Modernity,” which deals with JFK’s lingering image. This includes the weaponization of his legacy by both sides of the ideological divide. My hunch is that we will begin to see more scholarship on the constructions and uses of “image,” because image is increasingly being acknowledged as intertwined with (or it has become part of) reality.

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