To Thomas Jefferson. The calendar on the...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

April 13, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Thomas Jefferson. The calendar on the wall said April 2 when he arrived in 1743, but the calendar Americans use was subsequently changed so that April 13 became the day we remember him.

If we remember him at all. Some of us do. But many of us remember a sort of idealized TJ and a sort of idealized America of his times. That is the way of Americans. Nostalgia is a national trait.

Jerry Brown refers to Thomas Jefferson often. He says present day Washington is awful, and he would like to return to the simpler, republican (with a small r) era of TJ. Why, Jefferson lived in a rooming house, Jerry likes to say. Why, even as president, Tom took meals in public places with the hoi polloi.

Brown can't really want to turn back the clock to those days. For one thing, he couldn't have Jesse Jackson as a vice president. Jackson couldn't even vote in that idealized time. Neither could Jerry Brown's sister. Only white men had the franchise in those days -- and not all of them. You had to own property.

Brown and others, including those journalists who favor term limits and other artificial anti-democratic (with a small d) devices to get rid of careerists, ought to re-acquaint themselves with the careerism of the Founding Fathers.

Look at TJ. He practically never made an honest living in his life. He spent as much time in the public sector as Bill Clinton has.

In 1769, at age 26, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and served five years. In 1775, he was elected to the Continental Congress, where in 1776 he wrote the Declaration of Independence. That year he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates and served three years. He was elected governor of his state in 1779 for a two-year term. In 1783 he went back to the Continental Congress for two years. In 1785 he was named minister to France. After four years there, he became secretary of state for three years. In 1797 he became vice president. And in 1801 he became president and served for eight years.

Many observers of today's politics despair of its negativism. They yearn for a more elevated debate. This suggests little awareness of the reality of the past, especially that golden Jeffersonian Age.

Jefferson's opponents consistently attacked him as a liar and a phony. "His ridiculous affectation of simplicity long ago excited the derision of the many who know that under that assumed cloak of humility lurks the most ambitious spirit, the most overweening pride and hauteur," said a South Carolina representative. A Massachusetts senator called him a "coward wretch" and accused him in office of "substitution of corruption and baseness for integrity and worth." Alexander Hamilton said TJ only pretended to be a democrat. He called him "a Caesar grasping for imperial domination."

The press treated TJ rough, too.

Thursday: "A government without newspapers or newspapers without government"?

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