Historian: How would Jefferson view Trump?

tags: election 2016, Trump

Joseph J. Ellis is the author of many works of American history, including the Pulitzer Prize winner "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation" and "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson," which won the National Book Award. His most recent book, "The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution," is out in paperback from Vintage Books. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Question: What would the Founding Fathers think of Donald Trump?

This is a loaded one, designed to elicit a comparison between now and then that contrasts the debased currency of our current politics with the gold standard of the founding generation. 

The editors of The New Yorker have already answered the question with a cover on their February 1 issue, showing replicas of George Washington et al. reacting in mock horror at the cartoonish depiction of Trump. One can almost hear late-night comedians tossing off jokes about how our current presidential candidates demonstrate that Darwin got it exactly backward.

I've seen this movie before. When I was giving talks about my book "Founding Brothers" in 2001, audiences often asked why we had to choose between George Bush and Al Gore in 2000 when, 200 years earlier, voters could choose between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. I found myself saying that, if you knew how dirty the election of 1800 really was, the contrast between now and then would not be so dramatic.

This is not to mention the press coverage Jefferson received upon election about his relationship with his former slave, Sally Hemings, which made Bill Clinton's dalliances with Monica Lewinsky seem like mere peccadilloes. 

 Don't get me wrong. The presidential candidacy of Trump defies national comprehension, though the Republican establishment, for good reason, is not laughing. And I have devoted much of my professional career to recovering the founding generation as the most gifted and creative political leaders in American history, who have much to teach us. ...

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