He may have written the Declaration of Independence, but were he around today Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have a prayer of winning the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. It wouldn’t be his liaison with the teenage daughter of one of his slaves nor the love children she bore him that would be the stumbling block. Nor would it be Jefferson’s suspicious possession of an English translation of the Quran that might doom him to fail the Newt Gingrich loyalty test. No, it would be the Jesus problem that would do him in. For Thomas Jefferson denied that Jesus was the son of God. Worse, he refused to believe that Jesus ever made any claim that he was. While he was at it, Jefferson also rejected as self-evidently absurd the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection.
Jefferson was not, as his enemies in the election of 1800 claimed, an atheist. He believed in the Creator whom he invoked in the Declaration of Independence and whom he thought had brought the natural universe into being. By his own lights he thought himself a true Christian, an admirer of the moral teachings of the Nazarene. It had been, he argued, generations of the clergy who had perverted the simple humanity of Jesus the reformer, turned him into a messiah, and invented the myth that he had died to redeem mankind’s sins.
All of which would surely mean that, notwithstanding his passion for minimal government, the Sage of Monticello would have no chance at all beside True Believers like Michele Bachmann. But Jefferson’s rationalist deism is not the idle makeover of liberal wishful thinking. It is incontrovertible historical fact, as is his absolute determination never to admit religion into any institutions of the public realm.
So the philosopher-president whose aversion to overbearing government makes him a Tea Party patriarch was also a man who thought the Immaculate Conception a fable. But then real history is like that—full of knotty contradictions, its cast list of heroes, especially American heroes, majestic in their complicated imperfections.
Take another of the Founders routinely canonized in the current fairy-tale version of American origins that passes muster for history by those who don’t actually read very much of it: Alexander Hamilton. Outed by the Andrew Breitbart of his day, James Thomson Callender, for having had an “amorous connection” with the married Maria Reynolds, Hamilton responded by making an unapologetic preemptive confession—insisting that since on the truly serious issue of whether he had profited from the management of public finances he was innocent, the rest was nobody’s business but his own. Callender retorted that Hamilton had owned up to the sexual impropriety as a cover for the more serious financial one.
True history is the enemy of reverence. We do the authors of American independence no favors by embalming them in infallibility, by treating the Constitution like a quasi-biblical revelation instead of the product of contention and cobbled-together compromise that it actually was. Even the collective noun “Founding -Fathers” planes smooth the unreconciled divisiveness of their bitter and acrimonious disputes. History is a book of chastening wisdom to which we ought to be looking to deepen our understanding of the legitimate nature of American government—including its revenue-raising power, an issue that deeply captivated the antagonized minds of that first generation. But unfortunately, there is little evidence of citizens engaging in close, critical reading of The Federalist Papers, of the debates surrounding constitutional ratification, or of the dispute that pitted Hamilton and James Madison against Patrick Henry over what was at stake in Congress’s authority to make laws “necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the…Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States.”
Instead of knowledge, we have tricorn hats. Staring at a copy of the Constitution in the National Archives and making promotional pilgrimages to revolutionary New England didn’t prevent Sarah Palin from butchering the truth of Paul Revere’s ride, turning it into some sort of NRA advisory to the British to keep their gosh-darned hands off American firearms.
Facts, as John Adams insisted when defending British redcoats after the Boston Massacre, “are stubborn things.” He would be horrified by the regularity with which American history is mangled in the interests of confirming prejudices. It matters when Glenn Beck’s guest Andrew Napolitano pins the responsibility for the 17th Amendment, instituting direct election of senators, on a Wilsonian plot against American liberties, rather than the proposal of a Republican senator in 1911 that was approved by Congress before Wilson ever set foot in the White House. It matters when Bachmann mischaracterizes the Founding Fathers as working “tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” What made the Constitution acceptable throughout the Union was a Faustian bargain that counted slaves as three fifths of a citizen, thus artificially bloating the political representation of the slaveholding South.
With adult history buffs so deluded about the reality of the American past, it’s even more alarming that the National Assessment of Educational Progress recently rated history as the subject at which students are least proficient. This wouldn’t matter if history were just some recreational stroll down memory lane. But it isn’t. In the fiery debates of Americans long dead can be discerned the lineaments of the same core issues that divide us today. Right now, the education that might inform such a debate has turned into a schoolyard shouting match.
As the electioneering rises to a din, those who dare to read history for its chastening wisdom will be fatuously accused of “declinism.” But it is those who reduce history’s hard and honest reckonings to exceptionalist chest-thumping who will be the true agents of degeneration. As one of Jefferson’s favorite books, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, so luminously argued, there is no surer sign of a country’s cultural and political decay than an obtuse blindness to its unmistakable beginnings.
Schama, a professor of history at Columbia University, debuts as a NEWSWEEK/DAILY BEAST contributor in this issue.
Books: The Historical Founders
Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove.
Compulsive and compulsory reading on the Revolution and forging of the Constitution.
Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America by Benjamin L. Carp.
A wise and illuminating study of the original tea party.
American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier.
The definitive book, and a thrilling read, on the writing of the Declaration.
The Federalist Papers. The priceless document of two mighty intellects, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, united in common cause of creating an enduring American government.