One of the most popular stories on the Newsweek/Daily Beast site right now is the debut column of Simon Schama, a professor of history at Columbia University. Part of the column's popularity no doubt comes from its title, "The Founding Fathers, Unzipped," and part comes from the promise of controversial religious revelation offered in the first paragraph:
He may have written the Declaration of Independence, but were he around today Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have a prayer of winning the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. It wouldn’t be his liaison with the teenage daughter of one of his slaves nor the love children she bore him that would be the stumbling block. Nor would it be Jefferson’s suspicious possession of an English translation of the Quran that might doom him to fail the Newt Gingrich loyalty test. No, it would be the Jesus problem that would do him in. For Thomas Jefferson denied that Jesus was the son of God. Worse, he refused to believe that Jesus ever made any claim that he was. While he was at it, Jefferson also rejected as self-evidently absurd the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection.
Brutal campaigning genius Thomas Jefferson
OK, actually, I'm pretty sure it would be his liaison with a teenaged girl that would doom him. It's hard to imagine that it wouldn't have, not after the recent Weiner meltdown. (And, well, if he were running today and had slaves... yeah, some bigger issues become a problem). Beyond this, though, the religious question to which Schama refers is one that Jefferson faced even within his own time; it's why he wrote an essay about how much he loved Jesus and leaked it to Republican doubters when he was running for president (see, please: American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis).
Yet according to Schama, it's this problem of personal belief that would have ended Jefferson's claim on our modern attentions. "All of which would surely mean that, notwithstanding his passion for minimal government, the Sage of Monticello would have no chance at all beside True Believers like Michele Bachmann."
No. No. No! I am absolutely sympathetic to Schama's argument -- "We do the authors of American independence no favors by embalming them in infallibility," he writes -- but we also do them, and ourselves, no favors by imagining that now is a harsher time when these men would not have survived our political system. Thomas Jefferson was a political genius who would have set Karl Rove's brain on fire with his brilliant ability to pivot strategically on critical issues, use power to render his enemies incapable, hide his own personal shortcomings behind a self-sculpted facade of heart-stopping charm and grandeur, and remain both an intellectual hero and a simple farmer's best friend. Were he alive today, Jefferson would be the standard bearer of whatever party he chose to front -- Tea Party, Democratic Party, Jeffersonian Awesomeness Party. He would master television and Twitter. Heck, he probably would have invented Facebook.
We do a disservice to two central American qualities -- self-aware hypocrisy and bone-deep cynicism -- when we re-tell the story of the Revolution as though it couldn't have happened today. Of course it could have! Jefferson, and Hamilton, and Adams and Madison and a hundred others spent all of their Continental Congress and Constitutional meetings cutting back room deals, spreading scandalous rumors about each other, and then putting on their wigs and smiling across the argument tables. These were not simpler times and they were not, by any means, kinder. The public that Jefferson faced was not more tolerant of difference; Congress didn't work more smoothly together because they all understood the need to neatly compromise; these gentlemen-scholars were often neither.
So, would John Adams "be horrified by the regularity with which American history is mangled in the interests of confirming prejudices"? Yes, certainly, he would be, but he wouldn't be surprised by it. He was horrified pretty much all the time back in his own day (and particularly when Alexander Hamilton published a pamphlet -- the modern equivalent might be "sent a mass text" -- to his closest Federalist followers questioning Adams's mental state). Not all of our leaders then were great scholars -- George Washington fairly lucked into his job -- and not all of those who lead us today are devoid of all historical knowledge. This has been the way of the world for many, many years. Manipulation of an ignorant audience is nothing new in American politics.
Schama worries that "those who dare to read history for its chastening wisdom will be fatuously accused of 'declinism.'" Well, perhaps, yes, if they insist upon making our past sound like a time when wisdom ruled and when differences of opinion were easily overlooked because everyone was busy being earnest, if flawed. It has never been easy to be a ruler or a fighter or even much of a thinker in this country, and that is the lesson that taking a hard look at our Founding Fathers should give us.
If Professor Schama wants to educate people about the realities of history, I'm all for it! I look forward to his column at the redone Newsweek. I hope, however, that it will take into account that right now, Americans need history lessons as much as ever, not more. The history of an intellectually tolerant America is one that hasn't been written because it hasn't yet happened.