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New Priests of Jefferson

ISSUE:  Summer 1936

The Living Jefferson. By James Truslow Adams. New York: Charles Scribncr’s Sons. $3.00. The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy. By C M. Wiltse. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $3.00.

Thomas jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, founder of the University of Virginia, past president of the American Philosophical Society and of the United States of America, died at Monti-cello on July 4,1826. For more than eighty-three years, he had lived a life of intense and varied activity. His weary old body was, after a decent interval, interred on the hillside below his home, and to his grave, for more than a century, the devout have made pilgrimages. Especially numerous are the pilgrims to the shrine of Saint Thomas of Monticello when April with sweet Virginia showers has prepared the land for garden week. The casual visitor to the shrine is impressed by the spacious mansion and grounds, and by the no less spacious life of the man who lived there in those bygone days when the republic was young. Even the most callow tourist feels a not unworthy envy of the man, who in a simpler time lived so splendidly, and on the whole so nobly. The more reflective must admire anew that restless and inquiring mind which touched upon almost every problem which concerns the happiness and well-being of mankind. The thought and spirit of Thomas of Monticello are so near to the fabric of the American dream that the people will not willingly let them die.

Today, we are all Jeffersonians—as, indeed, we are all Federalists. The most stalwart defender of the entrenched greed of big business cites the Jeffersonian doctrine of lais-sez faire, and the frenzied advocate of a planned economy in the interest of the forgotten man appeals to the no less Jeffersonian ideal of social justice. Franklin Roosevelt and Al Smith, Herbert Hoover and Rex Tugwell, all are devout Jeffersonians. That politicians of every party and of every faction should acknowledge Jefferson as their political father is hardly worthy of remark. Baal, Burr, or Benedict Arnold could be assured of some five hundred and thirty admirers in the halls of Congress alone, if the odor of their political sanctity were as strong in the nostrils of American voters as is that of Saint Thomas.

But it is not merely because of political profit that men of conflicting, and often of irreconcilable views, profess to find in the writings of Jefferson inspiration and authority. During the greater part of eighty-three years, Mr. Jefferson’s mind was generating high-voltage thought, a tremendous amount of which has been preserved in the enormous storage batteries of his papers and correspondence. It is not without significance that he invented, among other things, a polygraph. Nor was Mr. Jefferson’s great dynamic mind often troubled by the short circuit of consistency. It is quite possible to find warrant for almost any social, political, or economic policy somewhere in his voluminous writings. Sacerdotal cults have thus arisen, differing among themselves, but each professing the exclusive validity of its own interpretation of the American scriptures according to Thomas Jefferson.

Recently ordained to the Jeffersonian priesthood is the reformed stockbroker, Mr. James Truslow Adams. In his tract, “The Living Jefferson,” Mr. Adams not only endeavors to illuminate the national pathway by the selection and intepretation of choice passages1 from the writings of the master; he also, with priestly legerdemain, recreates the living Jefferson. Using no props, not even pictures, by a simple choice and arrangement of words he gives the appearance of life to his image. Lifelike indeed, but of more than merely human wisdom and power, is the shape which, under the Adams magic, comes genie-like from the pages and hovers benignant and brooding over bewildered America.

Having impressed his audience by this demonstration of his virtuosity and power, Mr. Adams then proceeds to deliver a sermon to a drunken nation, which is rushing headlong to destruction by the easy gradient of an unbalanced budget. His warnings of the impending crisis in America may be timely, and his advice valuable; the mere fact that the Liberty League has already stated most of his views should not blind us to their possible truth. But neither Mr. Adams nor any one else knows what Mr. Jefferson’s views would be if he were alive today. For in spite of many statements to the contrary, Mr. Jefferson was not a theoretical philosopher. He was always concerned with concrete and practical problems; and policies which he considered desirable for a nation of four million free farmers, endowed with an apparently unlimited area for expansion, separated from one another by vast distances and from Europe by a wide ocean, he might, or might not, condemn today. In Jefferson’s time, the United States enjoyed neither the blessings of integrated industry nor of a proletariat, and commerce was tolerated as a handmaid to agriculture. What Jefferson might consider the wisest course for a nation, all of whose farmers are on relief and half of whose population is composed of property-less urban workers, nobody knows. Mr. Adams, formerly a stockbroker, more recently an historian, is at present best described as a writer,

While Mr. Adams has, as a result of the publication of his latest book, forfeited his standing among American historians, another interpreter of Jeffersonian doctrine, Mr. Charles Maurice Wiltse, has without doubt added to his reputation among political scientists. These people, that is political scientists, possibly because of professional reasons, possibly because they have minds of a particular sort, seem to believe that governmental forms and political theories have independent vitality, instead of considering them merely the empty shells of social evolution and the rationalizations of economic desires. In his book, “The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy,” Mr. Wiltse has ascertained the opinion of the old master on many problems of government. He has given us Jefferson’s views as to the proper functions of the state, the separation of powers, the relations of executive and judiciary. He has also endeavored to show where Jefferson obtained his ideas on such topics, and what has happened to these ideas since they were first announced. As Mr. Jefferson neither wrote a treatise on government nor collected his views in regard to the state, Mr. Wiltse has had a difficult task. He has been forced to comb the vast mass of Jeffersoniana, and at times he has been compelled to scrutinize the actions of his hero, to see how practice agreed with precept. Difficult as his task was, he has done it well. He has done a good, sound, scholarly job, which has much to interest not only professional students of government, but all those capable of enjoying a study of the evolution of ideas.

If Mr. Jefferson had one abiding fear, however, it was of the tyranny of the dead hand of the past. The man who believed that each generation should have its own revolution, might well have insisted that each generation should produce its own political ideas.


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