Who’s afraid of Thomas Jefferson? Lots and lots of people, apparently. Jefferson argued that unless there was a just distribution of goods and institutional structures for every citizen to actively participate in public decision making, the country would be headed “downhill” in the wake of the American Revolution. After decades of oversimplified, if understandable, disputes among historians and the public about the importance of studying the figures who we traditionally call “Founding Fathers,” the Texas Board of Education has turned the world upside down.
In their revision of a report by social studies teachers, board members recently decided to cut Thomas Jefferson from the list of historical figures whose thought influenced or expressed political revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By doing so, the board has solved the widespread perception of a democratic deficit in Western countries today with an educational scheme that won’t suffer the people to actively ask what calling ourselves a democratic society might demand of us as citizens.
At the time of this writing, the plan of the board is to replace Jefferson with John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, and William Blackstone. Especially in light of the prevalence of religious fervor today and the consequent growth of writing religious history, Calvin is actually the most timely and interesting suggestion. He should have been on the list anyway, provided we include outbursts of revolutionary politics before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like the Dutch Revolt, the English Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Aquinas, a Catholic cosmologist and political philosopher who lived in the thirteenth century, while certainly an important part of the history of natural law ideas, was simply not the source of the arguments about natural rights that emerged out of the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 1700s. Americans of the time, by and large, would hardly have had, nor wanted to have had, recourse to the writings of a medieval Dominican friar.
Blackstone, the great English jurist, systematized the development of parliamentary sovereignty in the constitution of the British Empire in his massive Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in four volumes between 1765 and 1769. A powerful critic of colonial claims to enjoy the rights of Englishmen, he would no doubt be shocked to find himself remembered in the tender young minds of the Lone Star State for supporting and influencing revolutionary claims against the authority of law and government, concerned as he was to use both natural and common law arguments to curtail claims of customary and natural rights. Greater familiarity with British constitutionalism would be a favorable improvement in historical education. But a fountain of revolutionary fervor Blackstone was not, nor would his Commentaries be my first choice for high school summer reading.
At least some of the move on the part of the Texas Board of Education has to be understood in light of neoconservative ambivalence about the Enlightenment and its legacy. The bulwark of Western claims to reason and individual liberty that buttressed the moral argument for the Iraq War, Enlightenment secularism also serves as the scapegoat for the perceived loss of European cultural identity amidst the influx of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants, or for the loss of supposedly traditional, “Judeo-Christian” values in the United States.
Quite rightly, those seeking to walk back the American constitutional commitment to a “wall of separation between church and state” understand that they need to do something with the figure of Thomas Jefferson. Given the fact that arguments for a divinely sanctioned natural law background to the U.S. Constitution continually rely on Jefferson’s “Nature and Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence as evidence, erasing Jefferson for the sake of combating secularism may prove problematic down the road. Nevertheless, conservative members of the board who supported the recent revisions correctly point out that Jefferson was not at the constitutional convention, nor does his later interpretation of the First Amendment as separating church from state appear in the actual text of the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights. To this, one is compelled to point out that contemporaries of the Founding Fathers were deeply aware of the fact that God does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, either. The preamble begins “We the People,” not “Our Father...”
But religion, as is often the case, is only half the story. If those who aim to include thinkers outside of what we usually recognize as the Enlightenment in the story of modern thought were serious, they would have naturally been drawn to Thomas More, a critical player in any history of the modern state, church-state relations, individual conscience, or political philosophy. Of course, a humanist whose major work Utopia questioned the logic of private property would hardly be a safe figure for students, especially when, as one of the reformers successfully proposed, the word capitalism needs to be replaced by the phrase “free-enterprise system.” After all, it was feared by some board members that capitalism, especially these days, has such a negative connotation.
The conservative project to appropriate the narrative of the American Revolution and the world in which it took place is an attempt to censure the active, collective memory of democratic life, a memory of which the corporate-financed Tea Parties of our current world are at once both tragedy and farce. Nowhere is this more on display than in eliminating the description of America as a democracy in favor of “constitutional republic.” While that might be more accurate in ways that the board members could not have intended, what they are doing is trying to write any substantive meaning of the word democracy out of our understanding of who we are and what we have been doing here.
Some historians have been justifiably – and in some sense correctly – trying to get us past a celebratory, optimistic Jeffersonian narrative of American history. But if the recent events in Texas show us anything, it is that historical narratives are constantly being remade by their inheritors, and for this reason tending to these narratives and their discontents will need to be a vital endeavor for all citizens, historians included. Writing Jefferson out of American history is the political equivalent of telling the public at large that their highest civic responsibility is to not worry and continue shopping, just as then President Bush told the nation shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Undoubtedly, Jefferson was deeply flawed and troubled human being, and it is his failures, mistakes, and downright barbarism as much as his language, ideals, and civic-mindedness that warrant attention today. And yet Jefferson remains a threat in the eyes of interested parties because his vision for democracy required more than consumerism and optional participation in periodic voting days. It was no accident that he fixed on education as a central part of such a vision, and did so in a spirit totally antithetical to the actions of the Texas school board. In an effort that warrants our remembrance and care more today than ever, Jefferson wanted education to foster critical attention to history and politics, so that in a true democracy we the people could prepare ourselves for our awesome responsibility.