March 21, 2018



Editor's note: Russ Stewart is taking the week off. To give our readers a break from the drumbeat of the election cycle, we are republishing a column from July 20, 2005, when a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson was dedicated at the Jefferson Park CTA Terminal that week.


Among historians in general, and political scientists in particular, ascertaining Thomas Jefferson's political lineage is almost as complex and convoluted as tracing his biological lineage.

Jefferson, America's third president (1801-08), is often celebrated as the founder of the Democratic Party. But today's Democrats do not subscribe to Jefferson's philosophy of state's rights, limited government, term limits, gun ownership and laissez-faire economics. Jefferson also rejected the establishment of a permanent military, believing that state militias could provide for domestic defense, and he roundly abhorred any foreign entanglements.

In recent years Jefferson gained attention after it was revealed that his family tree emanates both from his wife, Martha, who bore him six children, as well as from his mistress, a slave. Recent DNA testing revealed a bloodline containing both Caucasians and African Americans. In today's moral climate, Jefferson could be viewed as the progenitor of diversity.

Jefferson Park is named after the president, and his statue is being dedicated this week at the Milwaukee Avenue CTA terminal. But Jefferson's real claim to fame is that he was America's first authentic political genius, comprehending the importance of party building, ideological polarization, geographic sectionalism and negativism. Jefferson, a Virginian who lived from 1743 to 1826, was a political trailblazer.

First, Jefferson recognized that the fundamental division in politics, everywhere on the globe, is between those who want less government control and intrusion in their lives and those who want more; in more rudimentary terms, it's the perpetual struggle between the "haves" and the "have nots." Those who have wealth don't want it taxed and confiscated by government, while those who don't have wealth want income redistribution and welfare or subsidies. Jefferson was a wealthy landowner and aristocrat who believed that the federal government should be run by the natural ruling class, meaning those of wealth and education, but he also understood that in a democracy there are more poor voters than rich voters. The party that appealed to the less affluent would be the majority party.

By the late 1700s, after the success of the American Revolution, and after the presidency of George Washington (1789-1796), the lines of political demarcation had solidified: The New England-based "Federalists" backed a strong national government, a national banking system, federally subsidized internal improvements and a government-controlled military. The Southern Jeffersonian "Democratic-Republicans" opposed all those concepts. Party lines had been defined.

Second, Jefferson understood that politics involves choice, and that factors such as geography and ideology are critically important. In 1796 Jefferson, who had been Washington's secretary of state from 1789 to 1793, ran for president as a Democratic-Republican, getting 68 electoral votes to Federalist Vice President John Adams' 71. Back then, finishing second meant being the vice president. Thus, for the only time in U.S. history, the top two office holders were from different parties.

In 1800, when Jefferson ran for president against Adams, he understood that political organization and the power of the press were critical to his success. In 1796 male voters picked electors who had the option to vote for whom they chose. Against Adams in 1800, Jefferson made sure that southern state legislatures, in every state won by Jefferson, picked Electoral College voters who backed him.

Back when America still consisted of the 13 colonies, the South was rural and agrarian, raising cotton and related crops, while the North (meaning New England) was increasingly industrial, with an interest in exportation, and with Britain as the primary purchaser of American goods.

Jefferson beat Adams because he won all the southern states, as well as New York, which went for Jefferson largely because New Yorker Aaron Burr, a former state governor, was Jefferson's vice presidential running mate. In 1800 the South beat the North and the conservatives beat the liberals.

Third, Jefferson comprehended that the Era of Washington was over, and that being genteel was not the path to power. The new path lay in polarization, not heirship. Washington, a Federalist and Revolutionary War hero, was elected president with wide support in 1788 and 1792, but Adams, Washington's vice president for 8 years, was unable to assume his mantle.

During the Adams Administration, all hell was breaking loose in Europe. The French Revolution was in progress, the Jacobins were ascendant, and chaos and barbarity reigned. Britain was eager to go to war with France, believing that its emaciated military could not withstand an invasion. The Jeffersonians were pro-France, while New Englanders were eager to have America join Britain in a war on France. Adams refused to get involved, estranging his political base, but not mollifying the South.

And then Adams got the Federalist-controlled Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, which empowered the president to authorize the arrest and deportation of foreigners considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States," extended the residency period for to be eligible for citizenship from 5 years to 14 years, and prohibited the press from any "false, scandalous and malicious writing" aimed at the government. The press uproar and outrage was predictable, and it was fomented and perpetuated by Jefferson and his party. Clearly, he had an issue to ensure his victory in 1800. Adams, one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, suddenly found himself reviled as a "monarchist" and a "tyrant."

Jefferson astutely understood that two strategies are employed in any campaign: either make the contest a referendum on the incumbent or make it a clear choice between the contenders. Jefferson chose the former, and he put his pen and his press and political allies to work, with the intent of destroying John Adams. In America's first negative presidential campaign, the pro-Jefferson press heaped abuse on Adams, and anti-Adams pamphlets were widely circulated, while Jefferson himself did and said little. But Jefferson did present the first party "platform," pledging a "frugal and simple government" which would "preserve to the states the powers not yielded to them by the Constitution" while not getting involved in the "quarrels of Europe" and not having a "standing army . . . or navy."

In 1796 Adams won by 71-68; in 1800, due to Burr's efforts in New York, Jefferson won by an electoral vote of 73-65. As he took office, the country was polarized: North versus South, less government versus more government, agrarian versus urban, pro-British versus pro-French, governmental economic intervention versus laissez faire. As president, Jefferson was enormously popular, and he crushed the Federalists in 1804 by 162-14. He retired to his beloved Monticello in 1808, bequeathing the presidency to his protege, James Madison (1809-1816), who passed it to another Virginian, James Monroe (1817-1824).

But now, the Jeffersonian political trail gets a bit murky. After the British invasion during the War of 1812, the pro-British Federalists evaporated. By 1824 the Democratic-Republicans had split along conventional lines: those who favored federally funded internal improvements and a national bank backed "National Democrat" John Quincy Adams, while the agrarians and those favoring westward continental expansion backed "Democrat" Andrew Jackson. Adams won in 1824, he but lost to Jackson in 1928.

Adams' supporters soon became Whigs, the pro-government expansion party led by Henry Clay. The Jacksonians were the States' Rights Party, opposing internal improvements and the abolition of slavery. After Jackson retired in 1836, the Democrats controlled the presidency for 16 of the next 24 years.

But then slavery, and the federal government's role in its abolition, gave rise to the Republicans, who won the presidency with Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The Republicans were then a sectionalist party, the pro-government party of the North and of the industrialists of the Northeast, while the Democrats were the party of the rural South and West.

Up until 1932 the Democrats were the states' rights, anti-integration party, but then Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover and the Democrats became America's governmental expansionist party, with Roosevelt's "New Deal" creating a plethora of new government programs and bureaucracies. By the 1960s the Democrats' Solid South had begun to defect to the Republicans, who, after Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, were indisputably America's "less government" party.

So who are the lineal political descendants of Jefferson? It's often said that contemporary Democrats want to intrude into everybody's wallet, while contemporary Republicans want to intrude into everybody's bedroom. Democrats want more governmental economic regulation (such as tax hikes, more spending, affirmative action) and minimal governmental moral restrictions (on issues like abortion and gay rights, but not on gun ownership), while Republicans want the opposite. Neither stance is consistent, nor Jeffersonian.

So instead of a bronze statue, Jefferson should be a Disney-like automaton, with his hand on his brow, shaking his head and plaintively asking: "Why can't you guys be clear and consistent, like me?"