Jefferson, Jackson and the Territory Between Hagiography and Demonology

So along with the Democratic Party of Connecticut, I’m getting some attention as the Savanarola of the Left, determined to seek out and burn any extant images of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. That’s seems to be what Jazz Shaw of Hot Air thinks I meant by my post yesterday agreeing with Connecticut Democrats that it’s time to retire Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinners. Check this out:

More interesting, though, are what seem to be the real complaints of Kilgore vis-à-vis Jefferson and Jackson. They were big believers in hard money policies and states’ rights. Perish the thought! Something which was essentially embedded in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is horrifying to the thought leaders on the Left. (9th and 10th amendments, anyone?) And that’s what this really boils down to. Liberals don’t truly disdain Jefferson and Jackson for owning slaves. If you dug back far enough in the family trees of any of these writers who come from colonial era families you’d probably find some slave owners there as well. No, what Kilgore and company really hate is the fact that these historical figures represent the foundations of conservatism.

Note the words “horrifying” and “hate” in this litany. I’m not “horrified” by strict limited government or states rights doctrines, though they have certainly wrought some horrific consequences (hint! hint! Civil War!). I just don’t think their expositors are especially appropriate primary symbols for the twenty-first century Democratic Party. It’s fine with me, and entirely appropriate, that conservatives who believe in things like permanent, immutable and absolute private property rights would wish to identify themselves with eighteenth and nineteenth century figures whose only vice in their minds was extending those permanent, immutable and absolute private property rights to other human beings.

This does not mean, as I thought I made clear in the original post, Democrats cannot find things to admire in Jefferson’s and Jackson’s legacy. I understand Martin Longman’s reluctance to “disown” Jefferson, but you see, I’m not asking anybody to “disown” any historic figure. There’s more than a little territory between making someone the symbol or co-symbol of your political party and banning all references to them, and that’s where I make my stand.

Yes, I understand the impulse to trace your party back to the Founders, but you don’t see Republicans holding Hamilton-Adams dinners, do you? Thomas Jefferson embodies many of the Founders’ complicated mix of great virtues and startling limitations, but he is not some sort of deity. If conservatives want to worship at his or at Jackson’s altar, then let them be the ones who have to deal with embarrassing contradictions of their own convictions–not just their complacency about slavery and racism but their hostility to economic elites. If we have to have names on fundraising dinners, then they should be the names of those who can be quoted today, right now, without fear or deception. And this shouldn’t be an especially controversial proposition.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.