Appropriating Thomas Jefferson, 1929-1945

We Are All Jeffersonians Now

by Caroline Heller (Author)
©2019 Thesis 464 Pages


This study counters the view that Franklin D. Roosevelt hegemonically exalted Thomas Jefferson to iconic dominance during the Great Depression. It analyzes the diversity of those who appropriated Jefferson to find answers to the socio-economic crisis and modern industrial capitalism. This discourse analysis, spanning the ideological spectrum between 1929–1945, reveals that the creation of the Jefferson icon—in various forms of representation—generated counterhegemonic varieties of Jefferson because the appropriators grafted their values onto the historical figure which led to its transformation. These competing versions of Jefferson expressed a reformed sense of national values not only through commonalities but through the flexibility of interpretative and representational differences.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication Page
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction - “We Are All Jeffersonians Now”
  • 1 The First Blossoms of a New Bloom: The Southern Agrarians
  • 1.1 Davidson’s Jefferson: The Home-Grown “Aristocrat”
  • 1.2 Owsley’s Jefferson: The Adversary of Alexander Hamilton
  • 1.3 Fletcher’s Jefferson: The Natural Aristoi or “Intellectual Elite”
  • 1.4 Nixon’s and Wade’s Jefferson: The Father of Populism and Practical Philosopher
  • 1.5 Lytle’s Jefferson: Subsistence and Independence as “Pursuit of Happiness”
  • 1.6 Tate’s Jefferson: Caught in between Praise and Derision
  • 2 Memorializing Jefferson
  • 2.1 Construction of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.
  • 2.1.1 Moral Entrepreneurs of Thomas Jefferson
  • The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission (TJMC)
  • 2.1.2 The Site(s) – Picking Sites, Choosing Sides
  • 2.1.3 The Purpose and Design of the Jefferson Memorial
  • Utilitarian Memorial Proposals
  • Architectural Competition Proposal
  • 2.1.4 Cornerstone Laying of the Memorial, November 15, 1939
  • 2.1.5 Inscriptions in the Memorial Room: Frieze and Panels
  • The Committee of Three: Senator Thomas, Stuart Gibboney, and Brigadier General Jefferson Randolph Kean
  • 2.1.6 The Statue and the Pediment
  • The Pediment: Telling a Story
  • 2.1.7 Dedication of the Memorial, April 13, 1943
  • 2.2 (Jefferson) National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis (JNEM)
  • 2.3 Memorializing Jefferson’s Birthday: April 13, 1743
  • 2.3.1 Declaring Jefferson’s Birthday a Holiday
  • 2.3.2 Celebration of the Bicentennial of Jefferson’s Birth
  • 2.3.3 Library of Congress Symposium on the Dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial
  • 2.3.4 New Masses Special Jefferson Issue, 13 April 1943
  • Jefferson: 200 Years and Robert Minor’s “Titan of Freedom” and Avrom Landy’s “Marxism is Democracy”
  • Creative Portion: Poetry Contest Winner and Louis Lerman’s Allegory
  • 3 Appropriating Jefferson
  • 3.1 The Political and Rhetorical Tradition of the Jefferson Day Speeches
  • From 1830 to the 1930s
  • 3.2 Jefferson Attributions—Appropriating Jefferson
  • 3.2.1 Jefferson as Humanitarian
  • Humanitarianism in the Jefferson Day Address of Joseph B. Shannon (D-MO), 1934
  • James Beck’s Republican Version of Jefferson’s Humanitarianism, 1934
  • Jefferson Appropriation in 1935 – Humanitarianism Expanded
  • Humanitarianism in 1936: Rebuffing the American Liberty League
  • Humanitarianism and Antislavery Sentiments
  • Humanitarianism and Asylum
  • Humanitarianism – Pacifism, Neutrality, and Trade
  • 3.2.2 Jefferson as States’ Rights Advocate and Strict Constructionist
  • Elected vs. Appointed Officials and the Issues of Patronage and the Spoils System
  • Jefferson as Opponent of Bureaucracy – the Hatch Act
  • Jefferson and the Courts: Constitutional Checks and Balances
  • Third and Fourth Term Controversy and the Elective Office of the Presidency
  • Checks and Balances: The Supreme Court and the Democratic Party
  • Anti-Lynching Bill 1938 – States’ Rights and the Aftermath of Slavery
  • Debt – Centralization, Bureaucracy, and War
  • 3.2.3 Jefferson as Communist or Socialist?
  • 3.2.4 Jefferson as Practical Idealist
  • Wallace’s Speech – “Thomas Jefferson: Practical Idealist”
  • Practical Idealism in the Congressional Discourse
  • “A Century of Progress in Applying Jefferson’s Philosophy of Education”
  • Practical Idealism and Education as Bulwark against Intolerance
  • Education in American History Survey 1943 – Lessons of History
  • Republican Appropriation: James Davis and the American History Survey
  • Practical Idealism’s Relation to Agriculture and Conservation
  • Practical Idealism and the National Agricultural Jefferson Bicentenary Committee (NAJBC)
  • Practical Idealism of Scientific Advancement and the Patent System
  • Science and its Relation to Liberty and Freedom of the Press
  • 3.3 FDR’s Undelivered Jefferson Day Speech of 1945
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • List of Figures
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Introduction - “We Are All Jeffersonians Now”

In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson described the ferocious election campaign euphemistically as a “contest of opinion” and urged national unity through his proclamation, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”1 Spoken at the height of factional animosity, his invocation eventually became part of America’s collective memory; yet the acrimonious disagreements over Jefferson—his personality, his theories, and his policies—remained as contentious as they had been in 1800 well into the twentieth century. By the 1930s diverse public, political, and private figures, however, began to transform Jefferson’s “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” into a multitoned, ambiguously connotated chorus “We are all Jeffersonians now” in response to the anxiety of values in the modern, industrial-capitalist society and its collapse which ushered in the Great Depression.

Scholars have researched the transmutation of Jefferson’s reputation ever since Merrill D. Peterson’s expansive study Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960) spanning from Jefferson’s death in 1826 to 1943. More recent studies, by Francis D. Cogliano, Andrew Burstein, Joseph J. Ellis, and Brian Steele,2 provide valuable insights of the political and public debates on Thomas Jefferson. Burstein begins in 1943, where Peterson left off, and investigates how the presidents used Thomas Jefferson. Ellis writes about the Jefferson icon on his two-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday anniversary in 1993, but without discussing the term icon and only to introduce his analysis of the character of Jefferson. And Steele focuses on Jeffersonian legacies in the “age of Gatsby” with respect to political discourses of the founding of the nation.

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These scholars read the completed Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., proposed in 1934 and dedicated in 1943, as evidence of Jefferson’s transcendence into non-partisan collective memory. They attribute the memorial and the turn toward Jefferson to Franklin D. Roosevelt. By doing so they present a hegemonic theory of Thomas Jefferson’s apodosis which privileges a grand metanarrative over individual micronarratives. However, Jefferson’s rise in the public discourse and imaginary primarily rests upon the insecurity of values in modern society and people’s needs for role models that provide answers to their questions. The discourse analysis of Jefferson appropriations between 1929 and 1945 challenges the hegemonic reading by locating the creation of the Jefferson icon in the multitude of competing Jefferson versions in different forms of representation created by his moral entrepreneurs across the socio-political spectrum.

The term moral entrepreneur has been applied to the field of memory studies by Robin Wagner-Pacifici.3 It signifies the agents participating in the public discourse on societal values and codes, who have the ability or power to give their point of view validity and credibility against competing opinions. It derives its usefulness from the two compounded terms. The first reflects that these agents promoted their interpretation of Jefferson to establish guiding values and behavioral codes for their fellow citizens in the socio-economic crisis.4 As entrepreneurs, they invested in their self-created version of Jefferson and assumed the risk of ←14 | 15→failing to sell it as they competed with other entrepreneurs for public approval. Thus, they engaged in a struggle over the profit of their investment. To be successful, a moral entrepreneur had to find ways to either market an already established product or create interest and desirability for a new or updated one. This latter idea interlinks moral entrepreneurship with the terms icon and iconic augmentation as iconization requires the metamorphoses of the historical figure into something that can be made useful to the contemporary situation.

The contest among different moral entrepreneurs of Jefferson was thus tied to the cultural, social, and political realities and anxieties rather than Roosevelt who was one actor reacting to them. Hence, the rise of Jefferson in people’s appreciation already began for members of the Southern Agrarians in the mid-1920s as they perceived the tenuous nature of the prosperity after World War I and the social costs of industrialization, commercialization, and consumerism. Their search for values and meaning resulted in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (ITMS) which appeared a year after the Great Crash of 1929. It serves as the first publication in which and over which contests of opinion occurred. Chapter one thus analyzes the specific references to Jefferson’s name or works in seven of the twelve collected essays to evaluate how the unity and diversity within this relatively distinct group already offered differing readings and interpretations of Jefferson. In different ways their ideas offered tangential points to the American Communists’ and American Liberty League’s memorialization and appropriation attempts and reverberated in the Jefferson Agricultural Bicentenary Committee of 1943.

Chapter two of the study picks up after the immediate crisis of the Great Depression had been weathered through Roosevelt’s infusion of hope and through the relief and reform programs, including public building projects that were to give work to the unemployed. This created the opportunity for certain moral entrepreneurs, in the spring of 1934, to propose the erection of a Thomas Jefferson Memorial, in Washington, D.C. and a (Jefferson) National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis (JNEM). These projects were to be overseen by appointed congressional committees. Others sought to memorialize Jefferson by promoting a bill which would establish his birthday as a holiday in the American civil religious calendar. While these measures were proposed and debated in congress, the Congressional Record also contained numerous Jefferson Day panegyrics and appropriations of him for specific bills or topics.

For organizational purposes, my analysis separates the latter two as outright appropriations from the memorialization efforts. The latter took the form of the D.C. and St. Louis memorials, the declaration of Jefferson’s birthday as national holiday, and the bicentennial events—the dedication of the D.C. memorial, ←15 | 16→the New Masses special issue, and the Library of Congress Symposium. While memorialization efforts are never devoid of appropriations, they are couched in procedural and aesthetic considerations and thus take on a different quality. Furthermore, the panegyrics and other appropriating speeches follow their own logic of rhetorical conventions, which deserve a detailed analysis. In a few instances the neat separation will be opened up to fully analyze the intricacies of the creation of the Jefferson icon through the intersection of different discourses.

The term icon is used in two variations throughout this study: first, the Jefferson Memorial including its statue and pediment are regarded as modern variations of the paintings of saints on wood to which the term icon was originally employed;5 second, the term applies to moral entrepreneurs’ praise narratives of Jefferson with which they elevated him to semi-divine status. While these panegyrics shared rhetorical, structural, and thematic parallels, each moral entrepreneur had to select specific points of praise. By reviewing the life of the historical Jefferson, they focused on those aspects that correlated most strongly with their own situation. In the process, they grafted their own understanding onto the historical figure, and thereby somewhat changed and augmented the original—a process described as iconic augmentation.6 By sharing their augmented Jefferson icon with the public, they relied on abbreviated signs of communication. Reading or deciphering these signs, individuals created other instances of augmentation. While an icon’s strength and status in a society is predicated upon achieving a broad consensus, scholars have noted that an icon also grows by its varied applicability and interpretations. Both phenomena are observable in the creation of the Jefferson icon.

Francis Cogliano and Andrew Burstein both comment on the completed Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. Cogliano argues that its frieze inscription constituted a “unifying message” pertinent in times of a nation at war.7 In Democracy’s Muse (2015), Burstein agrees with Peterson’s favorable ←16 | 17→judgment of the appropriateness of the design.8 Comparing it to the “unimaginative” Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial which lacked his “log cabin simplicity,” Burstein felt that “[o];nly the Jefferson Memorial says something historically accurate about the man it honors.”9 While Cogliano’s statement is correct, it only focuses on one aspect of the memorial at a specific point in time. Burstein’s relates the memorials on the mall to each other, however without considering the historical context or how the same considerations influenced the moral entrepreneurs and their aims of bringing the three memorials into a conversation with each other.

The analysis of the official minutes of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission (TJMC), its correspondence, the debates about the memorial in congress, and the accompanying newspaper reports, are key sources for gaining a more differentiated insight into the Depression and early war period. They not only help uncover the discussions about the design, location, and purpose of the memorial, but also the various interpretations of what the memorial was attempting to communicate to the nation and how this meaning-making attempt was shaped by the moral entrepreneurs and their reactions to domestic and international events. This focus on the decision-making process of the TJMC and the opinions voiced in its meetings matter if one considers Émile Durkheim’s argument that those engaged in the discourse about someone or something are, in fact, telling a story about themselves rather than about the topic of discourse. This idea shifts the focus from Jefferson to his moral entrepreneurs.

Such a shift allows for a different reading than Peterson or Cogliano have proposed with respect to the many alternative Jefferson Memorial proposals. According to Peterson, they were made to kill the TJMC’s memorial. However, a consideration of their agents and arguments reveals that they primarily tried to defeat the memorial location in the Tidal Basin, as it would not increase ←17 | 18→tourism, and thus the economic situation in any of neighborhoods vied with each other for different memorials. Peterson and Cogliano noted that these tried to affirm the “livingness” of Jefferson, which Peterson defined as a continued faith in “the rights of man.”10 Yet this denominator obscures the many aspects that moral entrepreneurs regarded as still alive and worth commemorating. His division of them into “prospective,” that is, “living memorials” and “retrospective” memorials expressing the “spirit of Jefferson”11 underrepresents the debates about utilitarian and commemorative memorials, which took place against the backdrop of modernism in architecture. An analysis of Frank Lloyd Wright’s opinion letter to Roosevelt and of articles in the Magazine of Art, used in the political and public debates, corrects this oversight and buttresses my argument that cultural events and circumstances had a greater influence on the creation of the Jefferson icon than Roosevelt.

The influence of shifting circumstances becomes also evident when considering the international situation between 1934 and 1945. With respect to the D.C. memorial, Peterson discusses how people connected the possible felling of Japanese cherry trees with the issue of international relations. Yet he ignored the transatlantic connections created between the cherry tree rebellion and the Nazis’ rise to power and their increasingly repressive and brutal actions against German Jews. Cogliano and Burstein discuss the transatlantic significance of the memorial after America’s entry into the war by describing the frieze inscription as “unifying”12 or as an “obvious act of defiance to the nazi menace.”13 Roosevelt’s dedication speech delivered on the bicentennial of Jefferson’s birth additionally affirmed that the nation was fighting to safeguard Jeffersonian values at home and abroad. Burstein reads the speech within this international context and emphasizes that FDR used “historical analogies” which “collaps[ed] the distance” between 1943 and Jefferson’s time.14 Despite his insightful comments, he overlooks that the rhetorical structure of the speech, its arguments and main ideas, reflect the issues raised by the nation’s representatives and the TJMC from 1934 to 1943. Therefore, the speech has to be read as a record of the minds of the times, a democratic distillation of thoughts on Jefferson and the nation, ←18 | 19→rather than as an isolated effusion of FDR’s rhetorical skills as the analysis in Chapter 2.1.7 reveals.15

Around the same time that the D.C. Jefferson Memorial was proposed, another memorial was planned to carry Jefferson’s illustrious name and significance—the (Jefferson) National Expansion Memorial to be built in St. Louis, the gateway to the West. The project, which became plagued with a political real-estate scandal and cronyism, nevertheless attempted to celebrate the exploration and settling of the West made possible through Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. The measure, which is investigated in Chapter 2.2, was pushed by John Cochran, the Democratic senator from Missouri. Cochran initially claimed that the proposal merely sought national recognition, not an appropriation from Congress—a fact which quickly changed. The St. Louis memorial opens yet another facet of Thomas Jefferson’s iconicity, which competed and merged with other Jeffersonian versions, and it introduces different moral entrepreneurs. Besides giving insights on Cochran, the most vocal advocate through the preamble and his arguments before Congress, the study reveals how William Lambertson, a Kansas Republican senator, became Jefferson’s moral entrepreneur by fighting against the real-estate scheme and by contrasting the machinations of the St. Louis politicians with Jefferson’s record. Lambertson’s points of criticism regarding the memorial tied in with Republican’s appropriations of Jefferson against specific bills and the New Deal in general, which converged at the bicentennial of Jefferson’s birth with respect to the D.C. memorial.

Regarding the bicentennial Cogliano addresses other measures proposed to increase Jefferson’s fame.16 His extensive list includes the newly commissioned edition of Jefferson’s writings that the Thomas Jefferson Bicentennial Commission proposed as a tribute, but it overlooks the subsidiary of this commission, the National Agricultural Jefferson Bicentenary Committee (NAJBC).17 The Committee and its proposed founding preamble evoke the Southern Agrarians’ arguments and serve as the last remnants of Jefferson’s agrarian vision, while also paying honor to Jefferson, the promoter of agricultural sciences. Chapter 2.3.2 discusses the extensive revisions made before the preamble was attached to the bill which created the committee. The revisions can be read as a commentary on ←19 | 20→the nation’s development from an agricultural to an industrial society—a change that the first draft ignores. Which purposes the revisions served will be analyzed with respect to the bill’s agents and supporters.

Chapters 2.3.3 and 2.3.4 close gaps in Jeffersonian scholarship by analyzing two ideologically diverse memorializations of the bicentennial year, both archived in the Library of Congress. The first is the “Verbatim Transcript of the Library of Congress Symposium on the Occasion of the Dedication of the Jefferson Memorial” organized by Archibald MacLeish its head Librarian.18 The second is one of the more unorthodox testimonies—the New Masses Thomas Jefferson Special Issue.19 A study of the symposium expands our understanding of and connects the Agrarians’ and Communists’ appropriation of Jefferson through the commentaries of the intellectual historian Howard Mumford Jones, the former Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, the journalist Walter Lippmann, the Jefferson scholar Gilbert Chinard, and the historian Allan Nevins.20 They had been invited discuss the meaning of Thomas Jefferson for their own moment in history and would publish a collective newspaper statement on the results of their discussion. The analysis discloses how these intellectuals arrived at a collective statement about Jefferson and it represented their understanding of Jefferson through the lens of the contemporary situation.

The New Masses: Thomas Jefferson 200 Years marks the culmination of the Communists’ Jefferson discourse which began at sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1926.21 While scholars have commented on the Popular Front appropriation of “Jeffersonian rhetoric” which Irving Howe described as sometimes “skillful,” and more often “absurd,”22 without defining his terms, Peterson quoted from Heywood Brown’s 1938 article in which he could ←20 | 21→find no reason “why Communists should not claim Thomas Jefferson,” as he was a “free-thinker, a pacifist, a revolutionist, and an equalitarian,” and therefore a “good inspiration”23 for them. While the contributors to the special issue drew on these earlier appropriations, the changed cultural circumstances required them to create another iconic augmentation which altered the pacifist attribution praised in the 1930s in support of the Soviet-American war effort. Accounting for the changed cultural circumstances from the Popular Front 1930s to the Democratic Front also advances the scholarship on this little studied period of the New Masses history and significance.

About the Depression period Peterson rightfully claims, “Jefferson shaded the entire political spectrum from the American Liberty League on the far right to the Communist party on the far left.”24 Peterson’s, at times detailed, but broad analysis leads to generalizations such as reading the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. as the death of the Jefferson’s political tradition, establishing Jefferson as “American hero,” “full-born at last.”25 Yet, I argue that the hero becomes all the more epitomized in many controversial issues on both sides of the argument, as each individual is in need of a different hero. The Republican April 13, 1943 speeches bear witness to this fact and might lead us to a broader understanding of the term “political tradition.” Peterson himself might have suggested this considering his claim, seconded by Burstein and Cogliano, that “[p];oliticians were the main carriers of Jefferson’s reputation,” which he explained through the influence of a strong “sense of tradition in American politics.”26

To explain the allure of this “sense of tradition,” Peterson depicted Jefferson as the “most eloquent exponent of political ideals which were to be called democratic and which were to become synonymous with the American ideal.”27 Though his statement carries weight, it obscures the personal reasons behind Jefferson’s moral entrepreneurs’ wish to identify with and seek answers from him.28 By analyzing their background, I will explore those personal reasons, which sheds light on the diversity of Jefferson’s appropriators. Peterson regarded the eulogies given ←21 | 22→after Jefferson’s death in 1826 and the first Jefferson Day Dinner (JDD) of 183029 as part of this “sense of tradition.” At the first JDD, speeches were given to promote the political tradition of Thomas Jefferson and to negotiate the direction of the Democratic Party. Yet, Peterson privileged the discussion of issues over an analysis of the rhetorical traditions and conventions within those speeches, which continued into the twentieth century. Chapter three thus analyzes the Jefferson Day speeches contained in the Congressional Record between 1934 and 1943 by remarking upon the rhetorical strategies and suggesting the relation between rhetoric and politics in the creation of iconicity.

The moral entrepreneur giving a Jefferson Day speech sought to appropriate Jefferson for specific purposes by ascribing attributions to Jefferson. These attributions served the moral entrepreneurs as means of self-understanding by creating iconic augmentations of Thomas Jefferson.30 While the purposes of appropriation were manifold and varied from congressman to congressman, the study crystalizes four overarching attributions that played out in variety of ways. They serve as a structuring device in this study and constitute common denominators: “Jefferson as Humanitarian;” “Jefferson as States’ Rights Advocate and Strict Constructionist;” “Jefferson as Communist, or Socialist;” and “Jefferson as Practical Idealist.”31 Yet, the study also reveals that these attributions were not separate from each other but overlapped and intertwined.

Some of these attributions intertwine with or reflect Peterson’s assertion that men quoted Jefferson because he “was implicated in the successive crises of the democratic experiment.”32 Peterson divided these into two different periods with varying core problematics: from the founding of the republic to Civil War witnessed the tug of war between republicanism and democracy and thereafter the opposing ideals were individualistic and anti-statist clauses versus humanitarian and progressive clauses. However, the JD speeches disclose that this periodization is only an academic helpmate, as politicians from both sides passionately debated republicanism versus democracy even during the Depression and beyond. A detailed rhetorical analysis of the JD speeches and debates in Congress together with an analysis of the Corpus of Historical American English will bring clarity to the application of the nebulous terms republican, democratic, ←22 | 23→humanitarian, and progressive, and their various connotations. Considering the etymology of the terms provides insights on how Jefferson’s “political image was reshaped in such a way as to complement the New Deal project of humane reform,”33 but what is more, we learn how the speakers comprehended their attitudes toward the New Deal project of humane reform for themselves and their constituents through language.

Burstein stresses the importance of a rhetorical analysis with respect to presidents’ appropriations of Jefferson by remarking on the “subtle language” they employed, calling FDR’s efforts a “loose construction,” contrasting it with Ronald Reagan’s “strict construction[…].”34 The latter, I argue, finds its origin in republican congressmen’s rhetoric in the 1930s, which the Chapter 3.2.2 “Jefferson as States’ Rights Advocate and Strict Constructionist” will explicate. Burstein explains the presidents’ differing appropriations by noting that “As democracy’s muse Thomas Jefferson wavers for one simple reason: democracy is itself volatile. It does not dispense with domination and control, and it does not distribute liberty in equal shares.”35 If applied to congressmen’s appropriations of Jefferson, Burstein’s statement can be applied to the changing coalitions and collaborations between congressmen—sometimes bipartisan—as they interpreted and fulfilled their legislative role within the system of checks and balances.

While Peterson’s study engages with a number of congressmen like Samuel Pettengill, or the Republican James M. Beck, his analysis of Maury Maverick, the eccentric representative from Texas, for example, reveals the shortcomings of a work of such breadth. Peterson only addresses Maverick’s denunciation of the Liberty League and never discusses his dig at the “liberals.” A full analysis of Maverick’s comments, however, lets us draw parallels to his founding of the group, known as the Young Turks. This group of mostly freshman congressmen was more left-leaning than was FDR. I analyze how Maverick used Jefferson’s radical humanitarianism to communicate his weariness of the self-proclaimed ‘liberals’ and how he thus responded to James Truslow Adams’s The Living Jefferson.

While Andrew Burstein and Merrill D. Peterson exaggerated Roosevelt’s role in the revival of Thomas Jefferson, it is certainly true that he promoted others’ attempts at imbuing the New Deal with Jefferson’s sanction. Peterson, for example, quotes Thurman Arnold, who claimed that the “Jefferson symbol” was ←23 | 24→used to ‘define […] the crucial need of intelligent statesmanship.’36 Omitting any further discussion of the idea of “intelligent statesmanship,” Peterson continues to comment on FDR’s Independence Day speech given at Monticello in 1936 in which FDR portrayed Jefferson, and thus himself, as the best combination of a “great gentleman” and a “great commoner.”37 FDR suggested that this combination was fortunate for the nation and was closely tied to his own leadership role. Yet most congressmen did not focus on Jefferson’s aristocratic character; rather, his moral entrepreneurs chose to downplay it and to promote the idea of Jefferson as a common man who felt connected with and was shaped by the people. Jefferson’s quality of empathy could then be neatly tied to the attribute of humanitarianism. The discourse analysis of the representatives’ speeches illustrates the correlations between statesmanship and the attribute of Jefferson’s humanitarianism, as discussed in Chapter 3.2.1, and the attribute of practical idealism explored in Chapter 3.2.4. While Peterson and Burstein mention the term “practical idealism” or speak of Jefferson as “practical-minded idealist,”38 they leave the concept unexplained. A critical discourse analysis reveals the historical evolution and use of the phrase in the 1930s in the fields of religion, science, and education. It will disclose the religious component of humanitarianism that certain moral entrepreneurs sought to promote in correlation with Thomas Jefferson.

A critical discourse analysis of the congressional speeches and debates supplies the necessary information to read FDR’s last undelivered speech as a unifying collection and distillation of the representatives’ thoughts on Jefferson. The speech was supposed to be given in honor of Jefferson’s birthday on April 13, 1945, and to be broadcast to the nation and to over two hundred individual Jefferson Day Dinner celebrations throughout the states. Burstein identifies as the central point of the speech that FDR attempted to link Jefferson’s advocacy of science to the issue of “world peace.”39 FDR’s recourse to science, however, also draws heavily on the congressmen’s attribution of Jefferson’s practical idealism, to name only one example of FDR’s borrowing of attributions. As Chapter 3.3 ←24 | 25→will reveal, FDR’s undelivered Jefferson Day speech reverberated the sonorous “We are all Jeffersonians now.”

Chapter 1 investigates the first “Jeffersonians” identified in this study, the Southern Agrarians. Their at times implicit, at times explicit, appropriations of Thomas Jefferson evolved out of discussions during the mid-1920s on industrialism and Southern culture. Despite the group’s unity expressed in the “Statement of Principles” of I’ll Take My Stand (1930), it is revealed how their Jefferson references reflected their respective personal backgrounds and ideologies. After this analysis of the first bloom of Jeffersonianism before the Great Depression, the study turns toward the theoretical frameworks of memory studies, civil religion, and iconicity to consider the physical memorialization attempts.

These theories advance the arguments that the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. (2.1) became a modern-variation of the traditional icons and that it communicated more about those engaged in the debates than about the essence of Jefferson as represented in the memorial building and its statue. Besides the discourse of the TJMC, Chapter 2.1 analyzes the discourses of several citizen groups and architectural associations, the Fine Arts Commission (FAC), and the National Park Service (NPS) about the various aspects of the Jefferson Memorial in D.C. reflecting the diversity of opinions and appropriations. Aspect of their discourse infused other discussions of Jefferson during his bicentennial celebrations.

The groundwork on memory studies and iconicity, which was laid by analyzing the D.C. Jefferson Memorial discussion, is also relevant for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis (2.2). Turning away from the nation’s political center, the focus on the westward expansion highlighted Jefferson’s role in the nation’s continuous development. The focus shifts to a different aspect of Jefferson’s and America’s character. The project that was first promoted by the Democratic Congressman John Cochran and eventually became engulfed in a real estate scandal brought another moral entrepreneur of Jefferson to the public stage, William Lambertson, the Republican senator from Kansas. The chapter investigates the shift from Cochran’s initial appropriation of Jefferson to Lambertson’s combination of defending Jefferson’s honor and principles and agitating against the real estate scheme.

The various attempts to celebrate Jefferson’s lasting value for society culminated in the activities on the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth on April 13, 1943. From the mid-1930s onward, different congressmen promoted various bills to make Jefferson’s birthday a national holiday and to enshrine him in the civil religious calendar. These attempts eventually came to fruition in the Presidential Proclamation 2267 on March 21, 1938. The time it took to bring ←25 | 26→about the proclamation implies the still-contested role of Jefferson, which will become apparent in Chapter 2.3.1. In 1943 the celebration of his birthday was expanded by the Thomas Jefferson Bicentennial Commission and its subsidiary, the National Agricultural Jefferson Bicentenary Committee (NAJBC), discussed in Chapter 3.2.4. Each of these governmental bodies decided which aspects of Jefferson were worthy of the public’s attention and how to best celebrate and display them. Besides these “governmental” versions of Jefferson, as evoked by the various political and public commission members, my analysis in Chapters 2.3.2 and 2.3.3 focuses on two different but no less controversial interpretations and celebrations of Jefferson—the Thomas Jefferson Symposium organized by the Librarian of Congress and the New Masses Jefferson special issue. These suggest to a certain degree how iconicity could be created not only through a material form such as the memorial building and its statue, but also by means of invoking a version of Jefferson through language and writing.

This second idea is taken up in Chapter 3 with a specific focus on understanding the rhetorical traditions of the Jefferson Day Dinner speeches and their adaptation in the Depression and early-war period illustrated in Chapter 3.1. Some of these speeches were delivered before Congress but most were first delivered at a Jefferson Day Dinner and then inserted into the Congressional Record (Cong. Rec.) by a congressional colleague. Given these networks, we pay particular attention to congressmen’s double-appropriations of Jefferson in Chapter 3.2, and therefore comprehend the commonalities of diverse members of the Democratic and the Republican Party. The commonalities, however, also transcended party lines and are captured in the Jefferson attributions, “humanitarian,” “states’ right advocate and strict constructionist,” “Socialist or Communist,” and “practical idealist,” analyzed in Chapters 3.2.1 to 3.2.4. At the same time, the discourse analysis illuminates the plethora of differing interpretations that found room under these larger denominators and highlights Paul Ricœur’s borrowed concept of iconic augmentation. It takes into account the national and international developments in addition to the personal background of Jefferson’s promoters and the networks they created in order to orient themselves in the volatile Depression period.

The final chapter of this study, by analyzing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last undelivered Jefferson Day speech, summarizes the findings of the critical discourse analysis of the congressional speeches and debates. The study is organized chronologically, moving from the 1930 to 1945, and within that structure specific categories or attributes used in relation to Thomas Jefferson are explored. Due to the separation of the memorial discourse (covered in Chapter 2) from the ←26 | 27→Jefferson Day Speeches and bills debated in Congress (analyzed in Chapter 3), the chronology is interrupted. Chapter 3, like Chapter 2, investigates the period between 1934 and 1943, with each subchapter roughly following the same chronology.

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1 Thomas Jefferson, “First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801.” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. <http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19thcentury/jefinau1.asp>. Web. 23 February 2017. N.p.

2 Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. 1960. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print; Francis D. Cogliano, Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006. Print; Andrew Burstein, Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the while Being Dead. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2015. Print; Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. 1996. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print; Brian Steele, “Thinking with Jefferson in the Age of Gatsby: Narratives of the Founding in American Political Discourse.” Amerikastudien-American Studies 61.1 (2016): 69–94. Print.

3 The term moral entrepreneur is first used by Howard Becker in labeling theory. Although Howard Becker titles chapter eight, moral entrepreneurs, his definition of what they are is rather short: “Rules are the products of someone’s initiative and we can think of the people who exhibit such enterprise as moral entrepreneurs. Two related species—rule creators and rule enforcers—will occupy our attention” (147). After this definition, he fails to engage with the term and does not use it anymore in any operative sense, instead he analyzes “crusading reformers” and “law enforcers.” While his work focuses on deviance and societal rules in the context of drug abuse, Robin Wagner-Pacifici ignores these connotations and employs the term in her study on collective memory. (Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. 1969. New York: The Free Press, 1973. 147. Robin Wagner-Pacifici, “Memories in the Making: The Shapes of Things that Went.” Qualitative Sociology 19.3 (1996): 301–21. Print.) Wagner-Pacifici’s article appeared in an edited version in Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy (eds.), The Collective Memory Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 394–97. Print. In the updated version as in other articles, she employs the term moral entrepreneurs. For further discussion see Chapter 2.1.1 Moral Entrepreneurs of Thomas Jefferson.

4 Bernard Gert, and Joshua Gert, “The Definition of Morality.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition). Ed. Edward N. Zalta. <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/morality-definition/>.

5 Refer to Chapter 2, “Memorializing Jefferson,” for a more detailed discussion of the term icon.

6 The philosopher Paul Ricœur borrowed François Dagognet’s term iconic augmentation to argue against Plato’s negative reading of capturing and preserving reality or the original image in the form of writing or painting as a mere “shadow of reality.” For a detailed discussion of iconic augmentation, attributions, and appropriations consult Chapter 3 and Chapter 3.2.

7 Cogliano 2006, 5. In Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy, Cogliano explores Jefferson’s attempts to manage his own reputation to ensure the spread and survival of republican government. He only comments on the finished and dedicated memorial to introduce the fourth stage of the reputation development. Cogliano states that he followed Richard B. Bernstein’s four-part classification of the development of Jefferson’s reputation.

8 “Lustrously mirrored in the waters below, offering vistas from its portico of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, commanding reverence in its form, declaring the highest ideals in its inscriptions, presenting the hero in strong and clear lines—the Jefferson Memorial was a success. After all allowance is made for their critics, President Roosevelt and the commission better understood not only the requisite of a fitting monument to Jefferson in the national capital, but also and more significantly the meaning which it ought to carry two centuries after his death” (Peterson 1985, 431–2).

9 Burstein 2015, xiv.

10 Peterson 1985, 378.

11 Peterson 1985, 425.

12 Cogliano 2006, 5.

13 Burstein 2015, 3.

14 Burstein 2015, 21.

15 By Jefferson’s own account, the words [of the Declaration of Independence] he had drawn from a seventh-century Englishman were never meant to do more than express the collective mind and combined political will of American patriots” (Burstein 2015, 45).

16 Cf. Cogliano 2006, 6.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (November)
icon memory studies Great Depression discourse analysis political rhetoric US communism
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 464 pp., 10 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Caroline Heller (Author)

Caroline Heller received her MA in British Studies, Book Studies and American Studies from Johannes Gutenberg-University (JGU) Mainz and completed a year abroad at Middlebury College, Vermont. She was a stipend recipient of Cusanuswerk and earned her doctorate degree in American Studies from JGU in 2018. Since 2015, she has held various teaching positions at the University of Mississippi.


Title: Appropriating Thomas Jefferson, 1929-1945
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466 pages