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Review of David Sehat’s "The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible"

Contemporary American politics tend to frustrate many potential voters who perceive the system as overwhelmed by lobbyists and large donors influencing politicians who are increasingly partisan, inflexible, and unwilling to compromise. Considerable campaign rhetoric is devoted to nostalgia for the nation’s Founders who concentrated upon the national interest rather than narrow partisan political advantage. To bolster their positions, contemporary Democrats and Republicans often focus on what passes for political debate upon which party better adheres to the founding principles of the country. In The Jefferson Rule, David Sehat, associate professor of history at Georgia State University and the author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom (2011), which received the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians, challenges the assumption of nonpartisan Founders and argues that concentrating upon the birth of the republic actually does a disservice to contemporary political discourse.

Despite his warnings about faction and political parties, George Washington presided over the formation of the first party system as cabinet officers Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson collided over conflicting perceptions of the Constitution and powers of the federal government. Sehat argues that both men believed they represented the proper vision of American republicanism and their opponent was a threat to the Constitutional consensus. Although Hamilton enjoyed the support of Washington, Sehat insists that in the final analysis Jefferson carried the day by championing states’ rights against a tyrannical central government’s imposition of the Alien and Sedition Acts. As President, however, Jefferson often embraced Hamiltonian policies to serve larger national interests. Thus, he abandoned his Constitutional objections to the Louisiana Purchase, while his enforcement of the Embargo Act contributed to the industrialization of America favored by Hamilton. The Presidency of James Madison found a Democratic-Republican Congress approving Hamiltonian policies such as the tariff, National Bank, and internal improvements following the War of 1812.

After Jefferson opposition to the principles of Jeffersonianism would be viewed as political heresy, but due to the inconsistencies in his record it would be possible for different parties and politicians to claim they were his true heirs while their opponents were heretics. Sehat concludes that Jefferson’s triumph “obscured the deep disagreement that existed nearly from the moment that the Constitution was ratified and that continued to be present in the differences between Jefferson’s initial principles and the ones he used in office” (37).

During the Jacksonian era, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay tried to place Clay’s nationalist American System within the sphere of the Jefferson Presidency and principles, but they were opposed by Andrew Jackson, who asserted that a proper reading of the Jefferson legacy pointed toward a smaller central government free from institutions such as the National Bank. Yet, Jackson faced a challenge from John C. Calhoun, who insisted that South Carolina could nullify the tariff in the spirit of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which were written by Jefferson and Madison. Jackson now assumed the role of the nationalist Jefferson and threated to invade South Carolina. The Compromise Tariff of 1833 helped to avoid a Constitutional crisis, but the Nullification controversy certainly demonstrated that conflicting claims to the Jefferson legacy could result in violence as it did with the Civil War thirty years later.

According to Sehat, Abraham Lincoln was a Jeffersonian who believed that the Founders were opposed to slavery and created a Constitution that placed the institution on the road to extinction (Lincoln cited as evidence the provision forbidding slave importation after 1808). Accordingly, Lincoln argued that his opposition to the expansion of slavery fit well within the Founders’ framework. On the other hand, Stephen Douglas insisted that popular sovereignty and the Kansas-Nebraska Act followed the Jeffersonian principle of self-government, while the republic could endure divided over the slavery issue. Failure to reconcile these positions culminated in the Civil War which, along with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, constituted a revolution of national purpose rather than simply a restoration of founding principles. Sehat maintains that in the interregnum between Reconstruction and the Great Depression there was considerable political conflict over issues dealing with industrialization, but debate was not focused upon the intentions of the Founders. Instead of rehashing the Constitutional Convention, political discourse concentrated upon reordering the system to fit with new political and economic realities.

Jefferson, however, continued to cast a giant shadow, and the opponents of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal asserted that the extension of federal regulation represented a threat to Constitutional principles. While Roosevelt initially defended his programs as a response to changing economic times, the success of the big business-backed Liberty League in gaining some traction with their Constitutional arguments encouraged the President to embrace the Founders as supporters of the New Deal. Despite overreaching with the “Court Packing” plan, Roosevelt was able to positon himself (like Andrew Jackson) as a conservative defender of the people and Constitution against perennial opponents of founding principles. Thus, the New Deal created the liberal consensus that dominated American politics into the late 1970s.

Sehat argues that in achieving victory through the embrace of the Founders, Roosevelt paved the way for the Ronald Reagan counterattack upon the liberal consensus during the 1980s. Accordingly, Sehat concludes, “Though Roosevelt won the debate, he did so, much like Jefferson had done over a century before, by demonizing his opponents as Tories and by promising a founding consensus that he alone represented. In that way, he ratified the cynical argument of the American Liberty League that American politics was premised on the maintenance of a supposed founding consensus; a consensus that required constant vigilance to uphold” (154).

The assault upon the Roosevelt consensus was led by Reagan who articulated that the expansion of the New Deal welfare state betrayed American individualism and the vision of the Founders. His analysis that government regulation and taxation were responsible for the decline of America meshed well with the evangelical New Right belief that the nation could be restored if the American people reconnected with the Christian principles of the Founders. Rather than discussing the religious views of Jefferson’s generation, Sehat concentrates his examination of the Reagan Revolution upon the Republican President’s faith in supply-side economics. Sehat well documents the economic failures of the Reagan administration that resulted in larger deficits. Nevertheless, as a true believer Reagan persisted in his revolution against the federal government; brandishing his political enemies as betrayers of the Jeffersonian tradition and appointing judges, such as Antonin Scalia, whose position of Constitutional originalism asserts that we must rigidly follow the original intent of the Founders.

Sehat perceives the Tea Party as an effort to carry forward the Reagan Revolution into the twenty-first century; denouncing efforts of the Obama administration to expand the focus of government into areas such as health care. The Tea Party sees no reason or grounds for compromise. After all, Jefferson was not a proponent of government health care. Sehat observes that the Tea Party believes that the values of the Founders were betrayed in the past, and we must now reassert their ideas or live under tyranny.

But the key contribution of Sehat’s book is the argument that the Founders were “a querulous and divided group that did not and cannot offer the guidance that we might wish” (241). Sehat argues that contemporary politicians create the Founders in their own image; providing justification for ideological intransigence. The author concludes that we should “dispense with the talk of the Founders in order to make a straightforward case for whatever policy is under discussion. Doing so would not solve all of the problems. But it would be a first step to a better political debate” (243).

In The Jefferson Rule, Sehat provides a well-written book intended for the intelligent general reader and voter while making an important case for moving our political discourse beyond the simplistic yet quite complex question of what Jefferson would do. But how to get out of this ideological straitjacket is another question. For example, it would force our politicians, including President Obama, to confront the myth of American exceptionalism that limits any realistic discussion of American history and politics. It will take some courageous politicians to move us beyond the Founders in addressing the twenty-first century problems facing the nation and perhaps most importantly confronting the issue of how we wrest control of the American political and electoral system from billionaires and corporate donors.