No tame geniuses in waistcoats here

Posted in: A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

In the latest issue of Common-Place ("The Journal We Don't Pay For"), Alison L. LaCroix relates how she, another professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and some intrepid law students tried to get inside the legal minds of the Founding Fathers by reading the same fiction they read.  They selected their reading list from Thomas Jefferson's 1771 letter to Robert Skipwith, in which he was unable to restrain himself from loading his unsuspecting future brother-in-law down with 148 volumes of "required reading." This is all very interesting, of course, but what I fastened on to in this article is LaCroix's incisive characterization of what I find myself railing against ad nauseum in this blog - a phenomenon which I have just this second decided to call "quotationism":

It’s a favorite question for constitutional lawyers, legal scholars, and politicians, and it can be a crowd-pleasing parlor trick for legal historians: take a modern-day controversy, feed it into the chattering machine of late-eighteenth-century opinion, and see what comes out. Uncertain what to think about international agreements? See George Washington’s Farewell Address: "[S]teer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world." Frustrated by government inaction? Consider Thomas Jefferson’s injunction: "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." Feminism? Abigail Adams to John Adams: "Remember the Ladies." Whatever the topic, the generation of Americans responsible for the Revolution, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution seems to have an answer. The situation calls to mind Adam Gopnik’s description of the place of Alexis de Tocqueville in modern political commentary: "There is no bore like a Tocqueville bore, no game quite so easy to play as the game of saying that Tocqueville saw it all before it happened." No game quite so easy, that is, except for the game of attributing superhuman perception and wisdom to the founders.

Ultimately, LaCroix and her colleague felt that their exploration of the Founding Minds through their books painted a picture very much at odds with that pat perception of the Founders:

The novels contained no obvious answers to the question of what the founders thought. What they did offer, however, was a strong argument against domesticating the founders as tame geniuses in period dress or cozily all-knowing sages who saw it all before it happened. Reading the founders’ fiction allowed our group of twenty-first-century lawyers and proto-lawyers to encounter the essential strangeness of the eighteenth century.

(Emphasis on "tame geniuses in period dress" mine.  I thought that was funny.)  Read the full article here.

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