I’m back at home for Thanksgiving, and when I’m home and it’s a Saturday, that can mean only one thing. Or more things too, but one thing in this case: going to the library with dad.
I stopped by the book sale at the library – hardcovers for $1! Paperbacks $0.50! – and found a really, REALLY interesting book.
The title is “The Hero in America: A Chronicle of Hero-Worship.” It was written in 1941 by Professor Dixon Wecter, and the edition I found was a 1972 reprint. For a dollar, mind you. The book is fascinating: it’s a pre-WWII account of the history of American hero worship, from John Smith to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Each chapter is an essay on a different American “hero,” and a discussion on how they came to be seen as a hero. I went straight to the chapter about Thomas Jefferson. In Virginia academics, there is no man more unabashedly deified than Thomas Jefferson.
Prof. Wecter does a fantastic job of portraying objectivity without being too boring, if that makes sense. It’s a fun read, and paints a very interesting picture of the public opinion of TJ. I was particularly interested in the sections on contemporary negative opinions of Thomas Jefferson. What I found was pretty cool:
“Doctor Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, “Pope” of Connecticut, and akin by blood or marriage to those Hillhouses and Wolcotts and Wadsworths who held the purse-strings of Southern New England, led the assault [on Jefferson]. In a typical Discourse preached on the Fourth of July he predicted in 1800 that under Jefferson all Bibles would be burnt, children ‘wheedled or terrified’ into singing Ça Ira, and ‘we may yet see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.'”
Prof. Wecter continues:
“…after Jefferson’s accession to highest office, the Reverend James Abercrombie of Philadelphia declared that on account of the incumbent’s atheism he was ‘very reluctant to read the prayers for the President of the United States, prescribed in the Episcopal ritual.'”
To sum up: Jefferson was, by his detractors, seen as an evil, amoral atheist who was going to steal their Bibles and burn them, send their wives and daughters into prostitution, and didn’t even deserve the grace of God.
It’s hilarious for a few reasons. I don’t like to get too political on this blog, but these quotes are so relevant to modern Tea Party or hyper-conservative (or even just plain old Republican) politics that it left my head spinning. I’m fairly sure I’ve heard people accuse President Obama of being ready to burn our Bibles. The accusation, by the way, of the children being “wheedled or terrified” into singing Ça Ira has its roots in a fear that Jefferson was going to Frenchify the Americas – after all, he was the minister to France for a few years there, and didn’t exactly disagree with the French Revolution. There’s a Jefferson quote people like to forget about “watering the tree of liberty with blood.”
But – this fear of “Frenchifying” or “contaminating” America is strangely similar to a lot of the bizarre, irrational fears around President Obama. He’s a “foreigner,” he’s not a good WASP, he’s black, and these features will “contaminate” our culture and government.
So that’s one parallel area. But there’s another one, and I find this really interesting: nobody talks about those accusations anymore. When someone in popular media cites the Founding Fathers, they never cite these contemporary loonies who thought Jefferson was going to destroy the American Christian way of life. Hell, I don’t remember learning about the loonies in school. And that’s for the worse, I think. In some sense, it doesn’t even matter that these people were loonies: it’s important to look at how people criticized public figures, and it’s important to see how stupid and fear-mongery those accusations look in hindsight. I think Joe Public would be far less likely to buy into really moronic inflammatory rhetoric if Joe Public spent more time looking at what loonies said years ago. Because it turns out it’s not too different from what loonies say now.
Wecter, Dixon. The Hero in America: A Chronicle of Hero-Worship. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941. Print.
Republished in 1971.