Considered by many to be one of America’s more estimable cities, Charlottesville, Virginia, has through the years hitched its brand most tightly to the star power of one man: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s physical legacy—Monticello and the University of Virginia—is by any standard remarkable. But it is his intellectual, even moral, legacy—author of the Declaration of Independence, Founder, president—that rightfully holds prominence of place, and one that, until fairly recently, was boasted about without reservation.
Back in the dark ages when all the world came and went by train, the old Chesapeake & Ohio depot at the east end of Main Street featured a big sign to make sure you got the connection right away: “Welcome to Charlottesville: the Home of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.” Just west of the depot, you could catch a glimpse of the university Rotunda from the dining car window. Today, the Charlottesville/Albemarle Airport carries an equally proud and updated message: Jefferson quotations circle a replica rotunda just outside the TSA line, and the baggage claim area features snazzy digital likenesses of the great man’s house and the grounds of his university.
For a long time, it seemed a good and proud fit. Then came the summer of 2017 when riots broke out over the question of Charlottesville’s Civil War monuments and parks named for Southern generals. What to do about Confederate generals has created enough of a dilemma, but the tougher knot by far to untie will be Jefferson. Just as Duke University’s officials now find themselves scrambling for ways to soft-pedal the school founder’s problematic history of being a Civil War veteran who made a fortune in tobacco, so too may the University of Virginia’s earnest board members soon find themselves grappling with the problem of the Jefferson brand.
Today, with everyone from CEOs to fresh MBAs, from pastors to generals to new graduates busily crafting their own personal brands, the brand bar gets lower every day. But then brands and branding have long been built on mundane items like soap and cigarettes, virtually identical products that were differentiated and made aspirational through the magic of marketing. A merely good brand was one that associated a particular good or service with a trend or fashion, in which context the good or service became more desirable. A truly great brand was one that lasted through time and begot reputation.
When it comes to Founders, surely George Washington would have been the better bet than Jefferson. Of all the Founders, Washington’s brand has proven sturdiest, although he would have scorned the idea of branding as crass and grasping. To him, both private and public life were about reputation beginning to end, and no man cared more about it or left behind one quite so durable. Washington stood and stands for incorruptibility, solidity, steadfastness. What’s more—and very important this in these days—he freed his slaves and, as far as we know, didn’t sleep with any.
Jefferson’s brand was always more slippery. His was the primary pen behind the ur-text of the American republic, the Declaration of Independence, which spoke so movingly about all men having been created equal. But between the man’s profession of faith in the virtues of republican simplicity and the style of his own life the contradiction could hardly be greater.
These days, it is not Jefferson’s brand but Hamilton’s that rides high, driven by the wildly successful rap musical Hamilton. Granted he was white and, yes, a man, but Hamilton ticks the most critical box: He never owned any other man or woman and, having grown up in the sugar islands where he saw the worst of it, he certifiably hated slavery. Jefferson meantime looks ever more the hypocrite. Monticello remains magic to thousands of visitors from around the world, but the magician has slipped from his mountaintop.
During his presidency (1801–09), Jefferson the romantic radical idealist clashed repeatedly with Jefferson the shrewd political operator and opportunist. He played fast and loose with the Constitution to acquire from Napoleon the vast territory of Louisiana, which at a stroke extended America to the crest of the Rocky Mountains—transforming a small seaboard republic into a continental nation and an “empire for liberty,” as Jefferson fancifully imagined it. It was fanciful both because part of it would be based on slavery (which Jefferson so regretted publicly while profiting so handsomely from privately) and because he saw vast western lands as the guarantee that the United States would remain faithful to his agrarian vision of virtuous yeomen farming their own land, a bulwark against the growth of cities and industry and all the decadence and political corruption that he believed afflicted European society and politics.
Jefferson got the future spectacularly wrong. Even during his lifetime, the agrarian vision was fading fast. From the day he handed over the presidency to James Madison in 1809 until his death in 1826, Jefferson spent a long, doleful retirement largely disengaged from the unhappy way things in America seemed to him to be going. He went home to his beloved Monticello, to his gardens, library, dining room, yes, to his slaves, and he never left Virginia again.
What dismayed Jefferson most was what he saw as the insidious consolidation of federal power and the inevitable corruption of government; he had seen much of this first-hand during his time as minister to France. Of all the Founders, he had the loftiest hopes for the Revolution as a great divide in human history that would change the way people related to one another: henceforth as rational citizens exempt from old-world subjugation and corruption, free to live in accord with their common moral sense and native human virtue and so to build a new sort of society. The people, he believed, could never be at fault, although they could be, and often were, badly led by officials—by which he included elected representatives whom the people themselves had freely chosen. To Jefferson, society was always good because the free men who composed it were good, by definition. Government was always suspect, also by definition.
Between the party that Jefferson and his anti-Federalist allies formed in the 1790s and that came to be known as “Democratic Republicans” and the Democrats and Republicans of modern times, there is scant resemblance. So who rightly gets to claim Jefferson today? Democrats, the party of the heart, equality, and the little man? Or Republicans, the party of the spleen, liberty, and the cause of small government? Americans of both parties and every persuasion have long invoked Jefferson, but the more time elapses the harder it becomes to look to Jefferson for answers. America today—democratized, secularized, urbanized, suburbanized, industrialized, de-industrialized, digitized—would be unrecognizable to him. He was a man of his time as are we, and his time is equally unrecognizable to us. Or maybe not quite.
France on the eve of revolution made some things clear to him. In 1787, while still enjoying the pleasures of Paris, he wrote home to a friend in Virginia describing “a true picture of Europe,” divided as he saw it into two classes: wolves and sheep. Since men were men and the same everywhere, nothing guaranteed that America could escape Europe’s fate. Jefferson believed, however, that America had a second chance if it met two requirements. First was the engagement of the citizenry in civic affairs: “Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.” Whatever his hopes for America’s fresh start, Jefferson was no naïf when it came to the temptations of power, whether others’ or his own. Mastering these temptations led to his second requirement.
Over the long haul, process unmoored from purpose comes up empty. What sort of government should America’s then-young, or today’s not-so-young, democracy seek to foster and sustain? The process of democracy—the grubby how-it-worked day-to-day part—was (to borrow a word from Harry Truman, that rare, real yeoman in the White House) just so much “hooey,” unless the purpose of democracy was clear, widely understood, and widely shared. In a neglected little book written early in a vast career, historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin reminded mid-twentieth-century Americans how different was Jefferson’s world from their own, paraphrasing Jefferson on the purpose of democracy. Democracy should, Boorstin wrote in 1948 in The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson, produce “a government that is too weak to aid the wolves yet strong enough to protect the sheep.” Neither statist nor libertarian, it was a good reminder back in Truman’s day, and it still seems a good place to begin again now. Amid the current frenzy over symbols of the past for good or ill, it is the sort of thing that might even help conserve the Jefferson brand.