Historical interpretations of Thomas Jefferson's presidency, including progressive, counter-progressive, and republican views.

Essay by saveferr1sUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, May 2003

download word file, 6 pages 5.0

Downloaded 106 times

Historian Gordon Wood writes in 1993, "Jefferson scarcely seems to exist as a real historical person. Almost from the beginning he has been a symbol, a touchstone, of we as a people are, some invented, manipulated, turned into something we Americans like or dislike, fear or yearn for, within ourselves - whether it is populism or elitism, agrarianism or racism, atheism or liberalism." In saying this, Wood strikes on one of the main problems in historical writing, the tendency to use history to further one's own ideas. Most historians do not do this consciously, but every historian has an agenda which, consciously or not, he slips into his work. Because of this, nearly every piece of "objective" history becomes an outlet for one person's political, ethical, or religious point of view. The various interpretations of Thomas Jefferson are perfect examples of this historiographical agenda-pushing. Thomas Jefferson has ceased to be a real man to Americans, if he ever was.

He has become instead a mythological entity: the author of the Declaration of Independence, a founder of our nation. Jefferson has become larger than life, a giant among men, in our nation's collective memory. In truth, Jefferson was just one man with many qualities, both good and bad. He had both noble and ignoble intentions, made good and bad decisions, had practical and utopian dreams for the new republic. Unfortunately, few historians are able to express Jefferson in these terms. They take the good or the bad, the noble or the ignoble, the practical or the idealistic, rarely both. They present Jefferson as a liberal, moral, inspired leader, or as a power-hungry, impractical elitist. This sort of historical writing perpetuates the nation's view of Jefferson as a caricature, a symbol, rather than a man. Many historians ascribe these same qualities to...