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?