McClanahan explores a number of interesting questions relating to Jefferson in this episode. Was Jefferson a conservative or a radical? What is American Conservatism? Does such a thing even exist or is it just some rehashed version of liberalism? What is Jefferson’s role in this debate?
No great American, not even Lincoln, has been put to so many contradictory uses by later generations of enemies and apologists, and therefore none has undergone so much distortion. In fact, most of what has been asserted about Jefferson in the last hundred years—and even more of what has been implied or assumed about him—is so lacking in context and proportion as to be essentially false. What we commonly see is not Jefferson. It is a strange amalgam or composite in which the misconceptions of each succeeding generation have been combined and recombined until the original is no longer discernible.
McClanahan based the podcast on an article he wrote.
If Jefferson bequeathed anything to America, it is not the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Equality under the law had been an accepted maxim long before Jefferson wrote that line in the Declaration of Independence. No, Jefferson’s gift to America is found in the last paragraph of the Declaration, the firm commitment to a federal republic of “Free and Independent States” comprised of the people who made each community unique. This is Jefferson as the conservative.
McClanahan makes the case that both the American left and right can embrace the Jeffersonian principle of localism and decentralized, organic communities. In fact, such a structure allows us all to live peacefully together.
That alone made Jefferson a conservative. He could wax philosophical about changing the culture of his own backyard, and many of his contemporaries viewed his political theories as radical departures from the status quo, but Jefferson never sought to apply those theories to Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. He was a cosmopolitan thinker knee deep in Virginia soil and eye level with his mountains. Modern Americans should learn from such a vision. He would sweep his own backdoor but leave it to someone else to sweep theirs.
McClanahan ends the show by stating Jefferson’s view that Americans shouldn’t be cultural imperialists. We shouldn’t care about what others do in their own political communities, but we should care about what goes on in our political communities: our cities, our towns and counties.
Dr. Brion McClanahan is the author of several books, including The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes and now his most recent book, 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America: And Four Who Tried to Save Her. He’s also a faculty member of Tom Wood’s Liberty Classroom and a Tenth Amendment Center contributor.