Why is Texas Afraid of Thomas Jefferson?


Matthew Crow is a PhD candidate at UCLA and a contributor to the History News Service.

Who’s afraid of Thomas Jefferson?  Lots and lots of people, apparently.  Jefferson argued that unless there was a just distribution of goods and institutional structures for every citizen to actively participate in public decision making, the country would be headed “downhill” in the wake of the American Revolution.  After decades of oversimplified, if understandable, disputes among historians and the public about the importance of studying the figures who we traditionally call “Founding Fathers,” the Texas Board of Education has turned the world upside down.

In their revision of a report by social studies teachers, board members recently decided to cut Thomas Jefferson from the list of historical figures whose thought influenced or expressed political revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  By doing so, the board has solved the widespread perception of a democratic deficit in Western countries today with an educational scheme that won’t suffer the people to actively ask what calling ourselves a democratic society might demand of us as citizens.

At the time of this writing, the plan of the board is to replace Jefferson with John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, and William Blackstone.  Especially in light of the prevalence of religious fervor today and the consequent growth of writing religious history, Calvin is actually the most timely and interesting suggestion.  He should have been on the list anyway, provided we include outbursts of revolutionary politics before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like the Dutch Revolt, the English Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Aquinas, a Catholic cosmologist and political philosopher who lived in the thirteenth century, while certainly an important part of the history of natural law ideas, was simply not the source of the arguments about natural rights that emerged out of the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 1700s. Americans of the time, by and large, would hardly have had, nor wanted to have had, recourse to the writings of a medieval Dominican friar.

Blackstone, the great English jurist, systematized the development of parliamentary sovereignty in the constitution of the British Empire in his massive Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in four volumes between 1765 and 1769.  A powerful critic of colonial claims to enjoy the rights of Englishmen, he would no doubt be shocked to find himself remembered in the tender young minds of the Lone Star State for supporting and influencing revolutionary claims against the authority of law and government, concerned as he was to use both natural and common law arguments to curtail claims of customary and natural rights.  Greater familiarity with British constitutionalism would be a favorable improvement in historical education.  But a fountain of revolutionary fervor Blackstone was not, nor would his Commentaries be my first choice for high school summer reading.

At least some of the move on the part of the Texas Board of Education has to be understood in light of neoconservative ambivalence about the Enlightenment and its legacy.  The bulwark of Western claims to reason and individual liberty that buttressed the moral argument for the Iraq War, Enlightenment secularism also serves as the scapegoat for the perceived loss of European cultural identity amidst the influx of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants, or for the loss of supposedly traditional, “Judeo-Christian” values in the United States.

Quite rightly, those seeking to walk back the American constitutional commitment to a “wall of separation between church and state” understand that they need to do something with the figure of Thomas Jefferson.  Given the fact that arguments for a divinely sanctioned natural law background to the U.S. Constitution continually rely on Jefferson’s “Nature and Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence as evidence, erasing Jefferson for the sake of combating secularism may prove problematic down the road.  Nevertheless, conservative members of the board who supported the recent revisions correctly point out that Jefferson was not at the constitutional convention, nor does his later interpretation of the First Amendment as separating church from state appear in the actual text of the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights.  To this, one is compelled to point out that contemporaries of the Founding Fathers were deeply aware of the fact that God does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, either. The preamble begins “We the People,” not “Our Father...”

But religion, as is often the case, is only half the story.  If those who aim to include thinkers outside of what we usually recognize as the Enlightenment in the story of modern thought were serious, they would have naturally been drawn to Thomas More, a critical player in any history of the modern state, church-state relations, individual conscience, or political philosophy.  Of course, a humanist whose major work Utopia questioned the logic of private property would hardly be a safe figure for students, especially when, as one of the reformers successfully proposed, the word capitalism needs to be replaced by the phrase “free-enterprise system.”  After all, it was feared by some board members that capitalism, especially these days, has such a negative connotation.

The conservative project to appropriate the narrative of the American Revolution and the world in which it took place is an attempt to censure the active, collective memory of democratic life, a memory of which the corporate-financed Tea Parties of our current world are at once both tragedy and farce.  Nowhere is this more on display than in eliminating the description of America as a democracy in favor of “constitutional republic.”  While that might be more accurate in ways that the board members could not have intended, what they are doing is trying to write any substantive meaning of the word democracy out of our understanding of who we are and what we have been doing here.

Some historians have been justifiably – and in some sense correctly – trying to get us past a celebratory, optimistic Jeffersonian narrative of American history.  But if the recent events in Texas show us anything, it is that historical narratives are constantly being remade by their inheritors, and for this reason tending to these narratives and their discontents will need to be a vital endeavor for all citizens, historians included.  Writing Jefferson out of American history is the political equivalent of telling the public at large that their highest civic responsibility is to not worry and continue shopping, just as then President Bush told the nation shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Undoubtedly, Jefferson was deeply flawed and troubled human being, and it is his failures, mistakes, and downright barbarism as much as his language, ideals, and civic-mindedness that warrant attention today.  And yet Jefferson remains a threat in the eyes of interested parties because his vision for democracy required more than consumerism and optional participation in periodic voting days.  It was no accident that he fixed on education as a central part of such a vision, and did so in a spirit totally antithetical to the actions of the Texas school board.  In an effort that warrants our remembrance and care more today than ever, Jefferson wanted education to foster critical attention to history and politics, so that in a true democracy we the people could prepare ourselves for our awesome responsibility.

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John M Shaw - 5/20/2010

I should have checked in sooner. Your Argument by assertion - "you are spreading misinformation" - is unsubstantiated. So let me be more precise.

Here is the World History standard the Texas board changed: "explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present."

Here is the replacement standard that was approved: "explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone."

How does that not: a) leave Jefferson out; and b) completely change the thrust of the original standard?

Lisa Kazmier - 4/23/2010

I didn't address females because it's not really chronologically related to this period of US history. The reason I suggested Burke was that he was a friend to America (his notion) before hostilities commenced. I take his "Reconciliation with America" as an example. He was with the Foxites in Britain for a long time but began to drift when the "American Revolution" turned violent.

Basically the break was complete by the time he wrote "Reflections on the Revolution in France." In way, his disdain with that shares a common threat with Americans who wanted to distinguish themselves from the French (I am thinking of an article by Rebecca Stang, I think, on this).

I am also thinking of the film "The Madness of King George." As you might know, Burke is not in the film. I thought about why. There's no where to put him. He couldn't be with the Foxites by the end ("forgive America" is fine, so in the beginning he might be there, egging Prince George on). The issue of France alarms him fairly early. By 1789 and the threats to Marie Antoinette, he's going to side with Pitt the Younger. Isn't he?

The above is a project advanced students might find appealing. Maybe it's too far.

Lisa Kazmier - 4/23/2010

You didn't have to tell me of your Tea affiliation. It is also blatant in your problems of fact and thinking that anyone who does not share your distorted historical nonsense is somehow biased.

Jefferson using the phrase in a letter does not negate the approach. He didn't suddenly have a revelation of something new or different here.

And Tea Party Express among other contributors to your movement are led by Dick Armey and other GOP astroturfers. Truth hurts. Too bad.

Matthew Crow - 3/20/2010

Ms. Kazmier- Burke would be interesting, although the standard is thinkers who inspired revolutions. His speeches in Parliament during the imperial crisis would be good, and most college students read at least snippets of those in the US survey. His critique of the French Revolution is so classic- although his defense of custom and the importance of institutions probably doesn't allow him to fit easily into anybody's secondary educational standards agenda.

Another concern that occurs to me is the focus on (male) individual figures rather than nations, philosophies, ideologies, movements, or denominations. I guess that would require a level of accuracy, knowledge, and substantive generality that is outside the parameters of what the good board members had in mind. I might be mistaken, but I failed to catch names like Wolstonecraft or Stanton- were they not part of revolutionary movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

As to Ms. Hortsmann- the article explicitly states that the "separation" phrase does not appear in the text of the Constitution. Rather, as Jefferson and Madison are considered intellectual progenitors of the First Amendment, we have good reason to take Jefferson's interpretation seriously, and lawmakers and courts have done so for quite some time. In a common law system, that matters in a constitutional sense.

Moving on, I would no more stop describing the Tea Party movement in general as corporately financed because you are quite legitimately and sincerely a member than I would stop describing the Democratic Party as corporately financed because some college students gave it 50 bucks a pop two years ago.

Of course, the problem here is that the only people you seem to consider "concerned Americans" are people you happen to agree with. You make reference to a generic, repeated, but never specified attack on the good, real, "people," as if I were not one of the people or a citizen myself. My chief concerns might not be to paint the current president as a fascistic socialist, whatever that is, but I remain a concerned American all the same. That is to say, whatever else we would or would not agree on, the actions of the Texas school board are a cynical parody of public education that openly fly in the face of what should be widespread concern for the maintenance of an open and informed citizenry. If there is specific disagreement as to the point at hand, it is about the meaning of being concerned, what avenues the story of democracy we tell ourselves compels us to explore, and if critically exploring that very story should be one of them.

Matthew Crow - 3/20/2010

Mr. Williams- thank you for reading the post and responding. Needless to say, I find a Fox News clip of one of the board members an unconvincing and insufficient response for me to consider myself a spreader of misinformation. Secondly- the vote took place after an election but before the new reps had a chance to take their seats- hardly an example of republican integrity. I would never want to limit our own political or historical imagination to what Jefferson thought it should be, or what we think Jefferson thought it should be, but all the same anti-intellectual faux populists using mass media talking points to spread conspiracy theories about liberal historians to control and enforce a religious narrative of history is hardly what any vision for public education and an active citizenry could permit. That the other big target of the board was the Civil Rights Movement is a sign that something much more nefarious was at work than amending the swinging of a pendulum. I guess one wouldn't understand King's "But I thought read somewhere" without knowing anything about what he had been reading, or more importantly, what he was doing with it.

Michelle Horstman - 3/19/2010

This article is full of distortions and sad to see from a site supposedly interested in actual history. Is this a history site or a political site? Beacuse this is certainly a politically slanted article.
Just to name a few:
constitutional commitment to a “wall of separation between church and state” was not in the Constitution ut in a letter Jefferson wrote.
"corporate-financed Tea Parties"
Blatant lie. I am in a local tea party and money is completely contributed by individuals concerned about their country. They are not wealthy and their donations are heartfelt. This is a slap in the face (again) to concerned Americans, even if you don't agree with them.

Lisa Kazmier - 3/19/2010

Just wonder why they never looked at Edmund Burke, esp. if they're going to take Jefferson out.

Stephen Kislock - 3/19/2010

As proven by the election of these people, the Mindless have won!

Richard Williams - 3/18/2010

You're spreading misinformation.


Jefferson is not being left out, as you suggest. And the action of the school board is nothing more than a correction of the pendulum swing by duly elected representatives of the citizenry, something Jefferson would have no doubt applauded - the functioning of a representative republic.

John M Shaw - 3/18/2010

The Texas board’s selection of John Calvin to supplant Thomas Jefferson from history curriculum is proof positive that some religious conservatives want to exalt a murderer to kill the natural rights legacy our nation was founded upon. What better example could our children learn from the fact that in 1553 Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake in Geneva for heresy (anti-Trinitarianism). The apparent lesson is that if someone disagrees with you, kill them (and burn their books). Thus Calvin – allegedly the great protestant theologian - violated the core Protestant tenet of "Sola Scriptura" by murdering an alleged doctrinal heretic without scriptural justification or adherence to the rule of law. Even worse, Calvin committed pre-meditated murder. In 1546 Calvin went on record as saying: "If he [Servetus] comes [to Geneva], I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight." Anyone who disputes these facts should read Standford Rives book, Did Calvin Murder Servetus. In fact, Texas should add it to their required reading list. Of course, largely due to James Madison, the unalienable and natural right of liberty of conscience, bolstered by the separation of church and state, won out ultimately, thanks to the heirs of Servetus (like Jefferson) - not Calvin!