During the first phase of Jefferson's legacy, from his death until the civil war, the very word "Jefferson" acted as an inkblot test measuring the psyches of the nation's opposing factions. Northerners championed what he said, holding him as a defender of individual liberties and a strong national government--Southerners what he did, praising him as a slavery advocate and believer in states rights. What everyone agreed on was that Jefferson was the father of religious freedom- Americans at that time really started going for organized religion.
Jefferson's popularity was at its low point after the Civil War, which is surprising since Honest Abe claimed Jefferson as his intellectual hero. But he had not been nearly as enamored of TJ as were Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee, a Virginian. Like every revolutionary in the world since 1776, they saw their cause as being tied to that of the American Patriots. The industrial revolution made America feel alienated from the gentleman planter who dreamed of an agrarian America. Also, an increasingly progressive country started to see through his hypocrisy re: the slavery issue (only 100 years before I did). President Wilson even called him "not a great American."
But then everything collapsed in 1929, and Jefferson's poor man populism once again became trendy. FDR praised Jefferson's crusade against "malefactors of great wealth" (and more nefariously, admired Jefferson's pluck in trying to disregard everything the Supreme Court said) (in a history of the Supreme Court, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and FDR would be the villains).
Finally, Jefferson gained his status as an American hero during World War II. Jefferson's bicentennial was observed in 1943, and gave the country a reason to reflect on his thoughts about freedom. We were in the depths of the war against fascism, sowing the seeds of a long war against communism, and Jefferson was our best cheerleader. He was the best political writer in our history, and in battles of ideologies, words have meaning.
So the question is this: Why is Jefferson's legacy so malleable? I think it's no more complicated than that the man is really, really quotable. The best thing about having swine flu in Fort Wayne was all the C-Span I got to watch during the health care debate. And Jefferson's prints all over that thing, superficially. Some Dem blowhard quoted Jefferson as saying this: "Liberty is to the collective body what health is to every individual body. " Obviously, Jefferson was in favor of the public option. But then Sarah Palin, via her facebook page came back with this Jeffersonian zinger: "Tyranny will take hold if good conscious men do nothing." (Yes, I am facebook friends with Sarah Palin. She's like, the hottest girl in school. Either her or Korrinne Ward). Obviously Thomas Jefferson would detest this attack on our freedoms.
The point is that the guy just took some points (Freedom, Religion, Speech) that everyone agrees on, and wrote about them elegantly and kinda generically. He was a real douchebag (Janet's word) when he was alive, and people held it against him for awhile, but not anymore. Now we strip mine his presidency for quotes, and all agree that he (we) was right all along. I could see a similar thing happening to Barack Obama years from now- it's just the downside of being a quotable populist. For example, in 100 years, when America is deciding whether to allow Canada into the country as the 51st state, people will abuse the shit out of this quote: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America - there's the United States of America.
OK I'm done with Jefferson. My next post will be about Madison. He wrote the Constitution---the supreme law of the land.
*I am reminded of Rep. Michelle Bachmann's statement in the health care debate the other day: "Our forebearers are crying out for us to preserve their freedoms." God help us if we still need health care after we die.