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Thomas Jefferson, Still the Democratic Party's Hero?

Should Thomas Jefferson remain the icon of the Democratic Party? For almost two hundred years, Democrats have celebrated the Virginian, hailing him as the party's polestar. But with all that we have learned about Jefferson, is it time for Democrats to jettison him and look elsewhere for inspiration?

Jefferson's high-point as Democratic hero came in the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt adopted him as the symbol of his administration. FDR might reasonably have celebrated Alexander Hamilton instead, for the New Yorker would surely have approved of strong, expansive government.

But Roosevelt dismissed Hamilton as an "aristocrat," and, in 1938, broke ground for the Jefferson Memorial. He placed the Virginian on the first-class three-cent postage stamp as well as on the popular nickel. FDR had Jefferson's favorite tree, tulip poplars, planted on the White House grounds, and he commissioned murals depicting his life for the new wing of the Library of Congress. In addition, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission began the interminable project of publishing a complete edition of all of Jefferson's writings.

Who was FDR's Jefferson? He was an Enlightenment thinker who believed that the young republic offered limitless possibilities for liberty, equality, and happiness. His imagination was ignited by the idea of perpetual change and renewal -- especially in laws and constitutions. "The earth always belongs to the living generation," he jubilantly wrote to Madison. Optimistic, forward-looking, he embraced the unknown. "I steer my bark with hope in the Head, leaving Fear astern," he wrote in 1816.

Roosevelt saw Jefferson as the mirror-image of himself -- for the Virginian, too, had declared war on the privileged few and, in forming an opposition party with James Madison, had sought to wrest power from the aristocratic Federalists and the nation's financial elite. "He lived, as we live, in the midst of a struggle," FDR said, between rule by ordinary citizens and "the self-appointed few."

And yet other fervent and insightful admirers of Jefferson had a completely different take on him. During the Depression, Jefferson was also the hero of FDR's most virulent opponents, especially the two conservative Democratic senators from Virginia -- Carter Glass and Harry Byrd -- who loathed the New Deal.

Believers in pay-as-you-go, simple Jefferson-style government, Glass and Byrd voted against farm bills, labor bills, unemployment bills, minimum wage bills, and public works programs -- virtually all the legislation that comprised the New Deal. "I am seventy-six years old in genuine Jefferson Democracy," Glass declared in 1934, "and I do not care to mar the record before I die by embracing brutal and despicable bureaucracy." Glass and Byrd were among only six senators who voted against the Social Security Act. "Children are supposed to look after their parents," Byrd sermonized.

In the 1950s and 60s, Byrd would trot out Jefferson's name to denounce the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education desegregating public schools and later to encourage massive resistance to desegregation and to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The policies of Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, Byrd railed, stood "in violation of the principles of Jefferson."

Glass and Byrd were hardly the first southern leaders to put a conservative spin on Jefferson. They were merely following in the footsteps of Virginians of the early 19th century -- men like U.S. Representative John Randolph of Roanoke and Virginia Judge Spencer Roane -- who took inspiration from Jefferson as they struggled to keep the industrializing and urbanizing modern world at bay.

Spellbound by the Jeffersonian idyll of gracious plantation life and an agrarian nation, these men opposed diversifying the Virginia economy. Their sacred text was Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia: "While we have land to labour, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench," Jefferson wrote. "Let our work-shops remain in Europe."

They agreed with Jefferson that large cities were like "sores" on the human body, and, like him, they opposed the rise of a white working class. They shunned capitalist finance, recalling Jefferson's complaint that "our deluded citizens are clamoring for more banks, more banks." And when they began toying with the idea of secession, they extolled Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, in which he had warned that, if the federal government continued to assume "undelegated powers," the states would be driven "into revolution and blood." Casting themselves as Jeffersonians, they succeeded in turning the nation's premier state into an impoverished, stagnant, backwater province.

Can the fallible Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, still be the hero of Democrats?

In truth, Jefferson left us a rich but ambiguous legacy. Some of his anti-modernist and states' rights positions had tragic consequences. And his judgments about race still profoundly dismay us. Although he inspired the world with the ringing words that "all men are created equal," he pronounced blacks inferior to whites. And, although he fathered mixed-race children, he feared that the amalgamation of the races would produce "a degradation" of the white race "to which no lover of his country . . . can innocently consent."

We Democrats could blind ourselves to Jefferson's deep flaws and aching weaknesses. We could tell ourselves, with the appearance of certainty, as Woodrow Wilson did, that "if Jefferson were living in our day he would see what we see."

Or, more courageously, we can embrace the duality of Jefferson -- hailing the idealist and the democrat, the icon of Roosevelt's New Deal whose soaring words about equality and unalienable rights still inspire us to greater moral heights, while also accepting and seeking to understand the conservative Virginia planter who was so different from us and who saw, through the windows of Monticello, a very different world. Instead of denying those differences, Democrats might instead study and learn from them -- to gain more insight into Jefferson's belief in the land, the South, and the states and his faith in liberty, equality, and happiness. And in so doing, we might also gain a deeper understanding of the long, complex history of the Democratic Party.