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The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers…

The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our…

by David Sehat

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The Jefferson Rule is an alternative history of the United States, a tour based on constitutional crises, of which there seems to be an unlimited supply. At some point, there’s always someone who refers to Thomas Jefferson in defense of a position. So what is it about Jefferson that is so reinforcing?

If you want to make a point, cite Jefferson; he’s probably got it covered. Both the abolitionists and the slavers did. Both the Federalists and the Republicans did. Both the broad and strict constructionists did. Both the Tea Party and the Democrats do. By 1832, the press was saying things like “What principle in the political ethics of our country might not be sustained AND refuted by the writings of Mr. Jefferson?”

But as Sehat points out near the end, Jefferson learned hard lessons along the way. One cannot maintain a totally rigid, principled stance in a society. It is critical to compromise, and compromise he had to, again and again. That part of the lesson doesn’t get much play today.

Jefferson’s story is the country’s story – listing from crisis to crisis, patching, adapting, backing off, moving sideways. This whole history is a mirror image of the constant struggle the founders had in coming to any sort of agreement at all. They pinched their noses and signed, those who showed up at all. Reading it, you see nothing much has changed.

Sehat cites Justice Thurgood Marshall, who did not quote Jefferson when he said “The government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for individual freedoms and human rights that we hold fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite “The Constitution,” they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the framers barely began to construct 200 years ago.”

David Wineberg ( )
  DavidWineberg | Jan 4, 2015 |
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Beginning with the debate between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over the future of the nation and continuing through the Civil War, the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution, and Obama and the Tea Party, many pols have asked, "What would the Founders do?" instead of "What is the common good today?" Recently, both the Right and the Left have used the Founders to sort through such issues as voting rights, campaign finance, free speech, gun control, taxes, and war and peace. They have used an outdated context to make sense of contemporary concerns. This oversimplification obscures our real issues. From Jefferson to this very day we have looked to the eighteenth century to solve our problems, even though the Fathers themselves were a querulous and divided group who rarely agreed. Coming to terms with the past, David Sehat suggests, would be the start of a productive debate. And in this account, which is by turns informative, colorful, and witty, he shows us why.… (more)

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