My little Twitter debate with William Hogeland over who the modern Jeffersonians are inspired me to check up a little bit on just who had been invoking Jefferson recently. (I look forward to his promised +140 character comment continuing our discussion.) My interlocutor seems to have been set off by some recent misuse of TJ on the left side of the spectrum.
Googling “Jefferson and Occupy Wall Street” does indeed produce some evidence that the protesters and their allies might not be the closest Jefferson scholars out there. But clearly they need him. Jefferson has always been the Left’s only possible source of Founder cred besides Tom Paine, whose sad lack of monuments or coinage renders him much less eligible for the job radicals need done: proving the American-ness of their critique of capitalist institutions to a public that has long associated economic radicalism with foreign cultures and subversive enemies. Whoever picked Jefferson and Trostky as intersecting “street names” in the recently destroyed OWS encampment was drawing on a somewhat grand tradition that stretches back further than World War II, when the New Masses did a Jefferson Bicentennial issue, or even the Popular Front period of the mid-1930s, when “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism” was a CPUSA slogan. Older and even more striking is the Socialist alliance of “Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus” that apparently guided Oklahoma farmers back before World War I. I need to read that book! Did I miss the part in the musical where Jud turned out be a Red?
As Merrill Peterson’s The Jefferson Image in the American Mind showed, Jefferson truly did and does have the ability to be projected as an avatar of almost any cause. Here are a few guises in which he appears to Occupy people on the Internet:
- Gold-Hoarding Libertarian Jefferson (Ron Swanson Jefferson?): The Deist Review offers a fake Jefferson quote against banking, to the effect that banks and corporations would “deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.” Snopes suggests this fake dates back to a congressional committee report from 1937, so we are lucky it did not end up on the Jefferson Memorial. The quote pops up all over the OWS sites. This makes one realize that only cultural attitudes and styles sometimes separate the far left and far right.
- The Jefferson Tree: an Occupy Wall Street affiliate that comes off like a left-wing Tea Party site, naming itself after Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote but also making some kind of strange anarchist use of Jefferson’s remarks against parties, the kind that all the Founders made. That would make John Adams an anarchist, too. Yea?
- The Awesome Jefferson, or “Tommy”: @Occupy US History (see below)
Other examples gratefully accepted.
As a side note, If Occupy is the Tea Party of the Left, then I wish it could develop the kind of gravitational pull on the political world that the Tea Party has, pulling things back left in other words. Are the Democrats smart enough to work with that? The crackdown while Obama is off planting new military bases in Asia would seem to say not.