A portrait of our most controversial Founding Father as a genuine radical possessed of dangerous, frightening ideas about human nature and government.
Thomas Jefferson was alone among his revolutionary peers in anticipating the advent of American democracy and striving to assure its peaceful birth, the author writes: “He resisted the notion that political equality was a chimera and strove to root out the last monarchical remnants from American culture,” a project that set him in constant opposition to his privileged peers and particularly in opposition to the Federalist Party, the political organ of their class. Appleby (History/UCLA; Inheriting the Revolution, 2000, etc.) takes quite seriously Jefferson’s boast that his election represented “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form”; furthermore, she reckons with some amazement that no American with such a radical bent has met with quite the same level of electoral approval as did Jefferson, though it could be argued that we have never achieved his vision of a liberal, democratic America in which the governors and governed alike possessed “rationality, the drive for self-improvement, the capacity to work independently and to cooperate without coercion.” Jefferson was a dreamer, impractical and torn by contradictions, Appleby allows; what is remarkable is that a man of such resolute devotion to liberty could have emerged from his class and position, even if his notion of liberty kept it the province of white men. For all that, Appleby insists again and again, Jefferson was a true radical whose polished words were not mere rhetorical exercises. When he said, “I like a little rebellion from time to time. It clears the atmosphere,” he meant it.
A useful slap against the reactionaries who today claim descent from Jeffersonian ideals.