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Jefferson and Democracy

From: American Quarterly
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2007
pp. 41-78 | 10.1353/aq.2007.0026

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The core of Thomas Jefferson's political thought is a project for democracy—an endeavor perhaps more urgent and realizable in our day than it was two hundred years ago. And yet it is difficult to pronounce the word democracy today. It feels uncomfortable in the mouth. It tastes like ashes, as if the beautiful dreams it once contained have been burnt out by political reaction and cynicism. The most visible political projects today that fly the banner of democracy, in fact, really promote something closer to its opposite—war, authoritarian government, and social inequality. In most parts of the world when you hear the word democracy, it is a good idea to run in the other direction, because the bombs are sure to start falling soon. Since the term democracy has been so corrupted and abused, many contemporary political thinkers deem it better to avoid the word altogether. My view instead is that we should struggle over the concept rather than abandon it. Reading Jefferson, in fact, is one way to restore or reinvent the concept of democracy, recognizing again what democracy is and what it could be.

Jefferson also provides us, before arriving at a concept of democracy, with a democratic critique of U.S. democracy. He argues, in other words, against the undemocratic character of many of the social forms and institutions that are commonly conceived as central to democracy in the United States: the Constitution and its schema of representation, the forms of authority that maintain social order, the social and political hierarchies that result from unequal property ownership, and much more. This critique of U.S. democracy, which is equally applicable today, is a first step in the demystification of the concept of democracy, stripping it of at least some of the distortions and corruptions it has suffered. Such demystification is necessary to clear the space for the articulation of a new concept. Jefferson, of course, occupies a particular position of authority for such an operation, since he not only played a central role in the early construction of the United States but also remains at the pinnacle of the official national pantheon. In the context of a national discourse that still gives so much weight to the views and intentions of the framers and founders, the difference between Jefferson's democracy and that of the United States is particularly potent.

One of the obstacles to reading democracy in Jefferson's political thought, however, is the mentality of U.S. exceptionalism that has plagued and continues to plague studies about the United States both within and outside the academy. For most of the twentieth century, the major currents of academic and popular writing about the United States (with notable exceptions, of course) reinforced the center of the tradition and often served as an arm of the project for U.S. global hegemony, preaching the virtuous exception of the United States, its supposed unity, social equality, and democratic way of life. Innumerable hagiographic studies present the founders of the republic, in particular, as the best and the brightest, moral exemplars, founts of inexhaustible wisdom. Since the 1970s, however, and increasingly in the last decade, the major streams of scholarly work on the United States have shifted focus away from the center towards groups that have been marginalized, particularly those that have been subordinated based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. The result has been a wonderful flowering of new perspectives on the United States from below, offering a multifaceted and plurivocal panorama.

This shift, though, bringing the margins to the center, raises a new question: what to do with what used to be considered the center? What to do in particular, in this case, with the eighteenth-century revolutionaries such as Jefferson who have so long populated the official political discourse? One obvious and logical response is simply to ignore them: they have far too long been the objects of popular and scholarly attention and now it is time to focus on others. A second response is to continue the focus on the center but reverse the polarity. Such studies tend, in general, to repeat the old U.S. exceptionalism in an inverted form. The United...

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