When the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation took possession of Monticello in the 1920s, it didn’t just have a house to restore, it had a reputation to restore: Jefferson’s. In his own lifetime, Jefferson was a controversial partisan figure, beloved by many as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and reviled by others for his political actions. Following the Civil War, Jefferson's esteem in the public eye had plummeted because of his views on race and states' rights. By the turn of the 20th century, he was, as one admirer called him, the "forgotten man."
In this episode of Sharing History, we explore how the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and a coalition of civic groups, politicians, and ordinary citizens came together to restore and reinvent Jefferson's image and remind Americans of his essential contributions. The revival of Jefferson's reputation required a deliberate campaign in the media, history books, public schools and politics. We’ll look at key moments in the rehabilitation of Jefferson's reputation that stressed the timeless relevance of Jefferson's ideals and positive legacies.
Hosted by Frank Cogliano, Acting Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, Stephen Light, Interim Vice President for Guest Experiences at Monticello, and Monticello Digital Guide David Thorson.
David Thorson: Hello, my name is David Thorson. I'm a digital guide at Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. You're listening to a special podcast series called "Sharing History: 100 Years of Telling American Stories at Monticello." In this episode, we'll tell a story of how the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, during a time of rapid change and upheaval in American life, restored Jefferson's place in history.
I'm joined today by my colleagues, Frank Cogliano and Steve Light.
Frank Cogliano: I'm Frank Cogliano. I'm Acting Director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies.
Steve Light: And I am Steve Light. I'm the Interim Vice President for Guest Experiences here at Monticello.
Jefferson Was Almost Erased from the History Books
David Thorson: On April 13th, 1943, Jefferson's 200th birthday, the Chairman of the Jefferson Memorial Commission joined President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Washington DC's Tidal Basin to dedicate a neoclassical monument to the author of the Declaration of Independence. That man was Stuart Gibboney, President of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation that owned and operated Monticello. The ceremony was the culmination of a crusade to restore Jefferson's reputation and reinvent him for a new generation of Americans. Today, it's hard to imagine Jefferson off center stage in public memory, but there was a time when Jefferson was almost erased from the history books. Steve, I'm curious about how and when that happened.
Jefferson's Reputation in his Own Time
Steve Light: In Jefferson's time, he is a partisan figure. There are people in his time that love Thomas Jefferson and support everything that he does. There are people in his time that hated and despised everything he did.
Frank Cogliano: During his lifetime, Jefferson was a very controversial figure, because he was a political actor and he stood for a particular vision of the future of the United States and not everybody necessarily agreed with that.
Reputation Leading up to the Civil War
Steve Light: What I find fascinating about Jefferson's reputation is how it changes over the course of the 19th century. You see disparate groups really claiming him. You can start with some of the abolitionists in the 1840s and 1850s, men like Frederick Douglass, who are claiming the language of the Declaration of Independence, "All men are created equal." You have the new Republican Party, and Abraham Lincoln, co-opting Jefferson's vision, the idea of the natural rights that are the true founding ideals of the country.
But at the very same time, you have this other strain of American political thought, men like John C. Calhoun, who use other writings of Jefferson, like the Kentucky Resolves, promoting a pro-slavery, state's rights stance. So you can see in the lead up to the Civil War different sides of Jefferson being co-opted by different political groups.
Frank Cogliano: Steve is absolutely right to mention the Kentucky Resolutions, and so just a brief history lesson for listeners. In the aftermath of the Alien and Sedition Acts, adopted by the Federalist Administration of John Adams in 1798, there was a backlash on the part of the so-called Democratic Republicans, the party of Jefferson and Madison, and aspects of the acts were aimed at limiting their power.
Jefferson and Madison adopt a series of resolutions which were adopted by the state legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky, and Jefferson was the main author of the Kentucky Resolutions. And the Kentucky Resolutions stipulated that states could repudiate federal legislation that they disagreed with. Now, this is before the Supreme Court and so there was no constitutional remedy for unconstitutional legislation at this point. And so Jefferson is intending these resolutions as an answer when the government adopts legislation that's unconstitutional. These resolutions were sent to the other states, and the other states said, "Thank you very much. We're not going to do this. And so this didn't really go anywhere.
However, the doctrine that Jefferson articulated in the Kentucky Resolution was seen, in the run- up to the Civil War, as the kind of forerunner of nullification and ultimately secession, and so the advocates for Southern secession, eventually, look to Jefferson and claim him as their founding father, and it goes back to the Kentucky Resolution.
Steve Light: For me, that's what's so fascinating in the run up to the Civil War is you have the pro-slavery Southern Democrats claiming Jefferson's lineage in their argument over state's rights as it relates to slavery, at the same time that you have this new Republican party claiming Jefferson's lineage as it relates to the ideas espoused in the Declaration of Independence.
After the Civil War: A Low Point in Jefferson's Reputation
Steve Light: But I think what happens after the Civil War is that you see a real low point in his reputation. First, of course, Jefferson was a slaveholder. Second, the post-Civil War United states has rejected the state's rights mentality. And, really, you're talking about a period of time that is industrializing and expanding national power. You have railroads being built. You have robber barons. America is, at that point in time, an Alexander Hamilton world, and Jefferson is the forgotten man in that world.
David Thorson: Steve and I were talking earlier about the World Columbian Exposition in 1893. It's Jefferson's 150th birthday, but Virginia, their state exhibit, is a full- scale replica of Mount Vernon as the ideal plantation. Jefferson's nowhere to be found.
The other thing that it reminds me is that Jefferson writes so broadly and so deeply on so many subjects that you can harvest whatever you like. The abolitionist Moncure Conway says, "No man achieved more fame for what he did not do." So you can credit or blame Jefferson for virtually everything by turning to one or another of his writings over time.
Frank Cogliano: Yep, that's right. One of the things that makes studying Jefferson so fascinating is he's a protean figure. When it comes to the great question-- moral, political, economic-- of the 19th century: what to do about slavery in the United States? There's a credible Jefferson on both sides. Lincoln's real gift is recreating Jefferson and reinterpreting the Declaration of Independence as an emancipationist document.
Restoring Jefferson's Reputation
David Thorson: Just after the Columbian Exposition, you've got William Jennings Bryan, who I think really kicks off this restoration of Jefferson's reputation, when he runs for president and considers himself the heir to Thomas Jefferson, and then suggests to Jefferson Monroe Levy, who owns Monticello, that Levy donate Monticello as a monument to Jefferson, a public shrine. That kicks off this 25-year struggle regarding who owns Monticello and then the purchase of Monticello in 1923.
World War I
David Thorson: It comes at an opportune time. This is after World War I. There's this huge demand to reform the textbooks, inspiring patriotism, reverence for the founding fathers. It's this period of time when, I guess, we as a country realize we have a history too, and we should be proud of it. Jefferson seems to me sort of the ideal candidate for this campaign to really define ourselves in the post-World War I era.
Frank Cogliano: The United States sort of announces itself on the stage as a global player. It was the war to end all wars. It's making the world safe for democracy. This is the kind of rhetoric we get from another Virginian, Woodrow Wilson. Jefferson as the articulator of these values is really important. If I can go back to William Jennings Bryan, I'm really happy you mentioned him, because Bryan does herald the kind of Jeffersonian comeback, but Bryan is very much a man of the 19th century. His Jefferson is the Jefferson of the common white man and the common farmer.
Immigration and Religious Freedom
Frank Cogliano: But we also see in this period, massive changes underway in the United States. We get tens of millions of immigrants. Many of our listeners will be descended from those immigrants, I am, who came to the United States between 1890 and 1924. Many of them are Southern and Eastern Europeans who were either Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox, or Jewish, and so they're radically transforming the demography of the United States. The Jefferson who believed in religious freedom becomes attractive, so we see the kind of Jeffersonian comeback is energized by this new immigration.
David Thorson: Frank, you and I spoke the other day about the Levy family and their legacy really tracking right back to Jefferson's views on freedom of religion.
Frank Cogliano: The Levys were Jewish Americans and they faced considerable prejudice in the 19th century. They acquired Monticello after Jefferson's death. Jefferson's support for religious freedom is one of the truly revolutionary aspects of his legacy, and that attracted the Levys, but it also will become increasingly important at the turn of the 20th century.
This, of course, coincides with the progressive era, and one of the things the progressives wanted to do was instill American patriotism and American values. Jefferson, of course, is the articulator of those values, particularly the Jefferson who believes in religious freedom.
David Thorson: There's also a political aspect to this, because when the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation is created, the vast majority of the people who got together to acquire Monticello are also members of the Democratic Party. They're members of the New York Democratic Party. Stuart Gibboney, President of the Foundation, is a Democratic Party operative. Gibboney is a native Virginian, graduate of the University of Virginia, and a highly successful New York lawyer. He's among those approaching Jefferson Monroe Levy, who is a Democratic congressman from New York, to acquire Monticello, all this is coalescing.
It is important to remember that from the Civil War up until the early 1920s, the Republican Party really is dominant, and the Republican party has a hero: Abraham Lincoln. To the point where, in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is dedicated. And I think there is this case of the Democratic Party casting about. They're looking for a guy, and it can't be George Washington, because he's everybody's hero. Jefferson becomes the political hero of the Democratic Party. What an opportune time to have Monticello as this crown jewel that people can come to as a place of pilgrimage.
Frank Cogliano: The Democratic Party, in the early 20th century and once we get to the 1930s, remains this coalition of white Southerners and often urban Northerners who are either immigrants themselves or first and second-generation descendants of immigrants. It's a kind of uneasy coalition, but Jefferson appeals to both. Jefferson is the figure who can bind them together. We see this, for example, in the question of Prohibition. Prohibition divided the Democratic Party because many white Southerners, particularly of a religious bent, supported Prohibition. Many northern Democrats, particularly those who were Catholic, didn't. So we see divides like this, and Jefferson helps to bridge these divides for the Democratic Party.
Jefferson's Dual Legacy
Al Smith, July 4, 1926
David Thorson: Celebrating the 4th of July is certainly a tradition here at Monticello for the obvious reasons. It reminds me of what happened for the 4th of July celebration in 1926, the 150th year of American independence, and Stuart Gibboney, he wants to have a really powerful guest speaker. Who does he invite? The governor of New York, Al Smith, Irishman, Democrat, wet, foe of the KKK, and a Catholic. He's also a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson.
This gets coverage in the New York Times. It's New York Times- worthy news that Al Smith is going to speak at Monticello, but it didn't take long before somewhere in the range of a million letters arrive at Stuart Gibboney's desk opposing Al Smith, speaking at Monticello. Stuart Gibboney's getting death threats. From who? From the Klan, from Evangelical Christians from Bob Jones' organization. Why are they opposing Al Smith? Because he's a Catholic, because he is a wet, and because he's an opponent of the KKK. And Smith withdraws his acceptance to be the 4th of July speaker at Monticello.
Immigration Backlash and KKK
Steve Light: What this reminds me of, and we spoke about this earlier, this duality of Jefferson's legacy, how Jefferson can stand in for these seemingly oppositional ideas. Here you are in the 1920s. We talked about this effort to associate Jefferson with the idea of religious freedom and religious liberty and have him stand in for this idea of patriotism in this diversifying America, but this is also a period of rising xenophobia, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
Frank Cogliano: One thing to bear in mind is there was a quite powerful backlash against that new immigration between 1890 and, say, 1920. It results in an immigration restriction act in 1924, but also what we see is a revival of the KKK. It's often referred to as the "second Klan." The first Klan, of course, arose immediately after the Civil War and was basically a paramilitary political movement intended to disenfranchise African Americans in the south. In the 1920s, we see the emergence of the second Klan, and the second Klan is nationwide, it should be said. The highest Klan membership is in Indiana in the 1920s, so it's not just a southern phenomenon, and that's because it's still racist and anti-Black, but it's also anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. That second Klan is going to really lead the opposition to Al Smith coming to Monticello.
David Thorson: The Klan, at this point in time, is enormously powerful. In 1921, They actually burned a cross on the Monticello mountain. The Imperial Wizard, Hiram Wesley Evans, is one of the people who's spearheading this letter-writing campaign to Stuart Gibboney, and Bob Jones Sr. violently opposes Al Smith, not because he's a wet, but because he's a Catholic. He actually says, "I'd rather see a saloon on every street corner than a Catholic in the White House." Again, it goes back to this anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and certainly there's the racial component that permeates everything. This is we're back.
Steve Light: But you also look at who's owning Monticello in 1921.
David Thorson: A Jewish Northerner.
Steve Light: Jefferson Monroe Levy is still the owner of Monticello. Is this an act of proclaiming, the Klan is back claiming Monticello? Is it an act of intimidation towards the Jewish man that owns Monticello?
Frank Cogliano: You're absolutely right, Steve. We have the duality of Jefferson. There are aspects of his legacy that are not terribly attractive to us, not least the racism that he expresses in the Notes on the State of Virginia. So, to some extent, when the Klan tries to appropriate Jefferson, they're on solid ground. Now, that's not the only legacy of Jefferson, as we know. I think that five years later, the Foundation, which now owns Monticello, invites Al Smith to come, is the other legacy of Jefferson. It's the legacy of egalitarianism, it's the legacy of religious freedom, and so on. What we're seeing in this dispute in the 1920s over Jefferson's legacy is a kind of tug of war over what America means and what America is. One reason we still talk about Jefferson today is because he's right at the heart of that. He always has been.
David Thorson: This is the very same time, early 1920s, in the city of Charlottesville, what's being dedicated? The statue of Robert E. Lee, the statue of Stonewall Jackson in downtown Charlottesville. So there's monuments going up at this very same time to the lost cause, and this is the height of the Klan's ascendancy.
Frank Cogliano: You know, I'm struck by the resonances with today with what we saw a century ago in the 1920s. Today, of course, we have a period of intense political partisanship. We've seen controversies and real questioning of the role of immigrants and who's an appropriate immigrant to the United States. It's a period of intense racial conflict in certain aspects of American life. All of those things were also true in the 1920s. We tend to think about the "good old days" and we always assume the past was better. Maybe we should pause a little bit. We get into perfervid moments of intense political debate, and we sometimes think in apocalyptic terms. Our predecessors, a century ago, were confronting the very same issues then that we are now. It wasn't easy, but they got through them. We will too.
David Thorson: I think that's a great observation and it reminds me that on the sidelines of this whole disaster in inviting Al Smith to speak is another New Yorker, a rising star in the Democratic Party, and his name is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Al Smith runs for president in 1928 and is defeated by Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt is still there at his side. And then in 1932, Roosevelt is elected the President of the United States. Roosevelt admires one person in American history above all: Thomas Jefferson. So Stuart Gibboney, at long last, has a friend in the White House.
Steve Light: To that point, when you think about the contentiousness of Jefferson's legacy in the '20s, it's almost as if it takes an expert PR campaign to elevate the legacy of Jefferson to this national hero and that's precisely what Roosevelt accomplishes, right?
David Thorson: He starts these campaigns to elevate Jefferson. He dedicates the image of Jefferson at Mount Rushmore. He proposes an overhaul to the coinage of the United States to put Jefferson and Monticello on the nickel so that there's an image of Jefferson in everybody's pocket, right alongside Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
Frank Cogliano: What many listeners will know, of course, is Roosevelt's presidency coincided with some of the greatest challenges the country faced since the Civil War. And it's in moments of existential threat, I think, when Jefferson really comes to the fore.
There's a kind of incongruity to think of Jefferson, the advocate of small government, being championed by the architect of the New Deal. But what was the New Deal about, as far as Roosevelt was concerned? The real payoff, as it were, was to help the common man and woman in America, and that, Roosevelt would say, is Jeffersonian.
And then, of course, when the Jefferson Memorial is dedicated in 1943, that's the height of the Second World War, and the United States and its allies is in what is seen as an existential battle over its fundamental principles, fighting fascism. In that context, Jefferson's flaws don't seem as important as his virtues because Jefferson is the articulator of the American creed. And let's not forget, Jefferson didn't believe these were uniquely American values he was standing for, he believed they were human values. He said, liberty's going to over spread the world. He's the embodiment of what the United States and its allies were fighting for in 1943 as far as Roosevelt was concerned.
And so in those dual crises of the Depression followed by the Second World War, Jefferson emerges as the apostle of liberty. It's a transformation. When you think about where he was 50 years before, it's amazing.
Jefferson and Hamilton Seesaw
Steve Light: Frank, a question comes to my mind that I don't know the answer to, and I'm wondering if you do. When we think about the way in which Jefferson's legacy goes up and down through these years, it often seems to be in a seesaw with Alexander Hamilton. When Jefferson is up, Hamilton is down. You spoke of the dual crisis, the Great Depression and World War II. How much does the stock market crash in 1929 have to do with Jefferson's resurgence at that point in time?
Frank Cogliano: Oh, I think you're absolutely right, Steve. Hamilton was riding high when the Republicans and the economy was riding high in the late 19th and early 20th century. But once capitalism seems to be called into question and its limitations become apparent, after the stock market crash in 1929, suddenly Hamilton doesn't look so good. And let's not forget, the fact that Jefferson has been so closely associated with the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party, especially in the person of Franklin Roosevelt, is in charge in the 1930s and 1940s, and so, Jefferson's riding high also because of that, I think.
David Thorson: I think it's interesting, too, because these battles, if you will, they're not taking place just in the public, they're taking place among historians. 1928, Vernon Lewis Parrington's Pulitzer Prize winning, three volume Main Currents in American Thought, this history of the United States, he's really the modern guy who portrays the nation's past, present, and future as a battle between Hamilton and Jefferson that never ends.
Frank Cogliano: That's right. If we've reached a kind of armistice in that debate, we essentially live in a Hamiltonian world, but we don't like what Hamilton has to tell us about human nature. Jefferson speaks to the, if I can use a Lincoln phrase, the better angels of our nature because Jefferson speaks to our aspirations, I think.
David Thorson: It's interesting you mention that because we were having a conversation the other day that essentially boiled down to, we live in a Hamiltonian world, but we want to live in a Jeffersonian world. It's a difference between where we're at and what we aspire to be.
The Emergence of a Monumental Jefferson
July 4, 1936
David Thorson: This connection between the Democratic Party and Thomas Jefferson, I think, really has a huge payoff for Monticello, for the Foundation. So much so that the speaker on July 4th, 1936, is Franklin D. Roosevelt. He's making his pilgrimage to Monticello. When he's on the mountain on the 4th of July, Franklin Roosevelt says this: "It was symbolic that Jefferson should live on this mountaintop, Monticello. On a mountaintop, all paths unite, and Jefferson was the meeting point of all the vital forces of his day."
The Foundation now is on its feet, it almost went under in 1932. And guess what? People are driving up the mountain. By 1940, by the outbreak of World War II, Monticello has become a place of pilgrimage. It's self-sustaining. The dream of the founders in 1923 has come to fruition.
Frank Cogliano: What we see is the emergence of kind of a monumental Jefferson, Jefferson as Apostle of Liberty, and we see the physical manifestation of that in Mount Rushmore, in the Jefferson Memorial, and in Monticello. There's a memorialization that's also going on intellectually. We have the first volume of Dumas Malone's monumental biography of Jefferson, published in 1948. It's 3,000 pages in six volumes. The collective title for the entire thing is Jefferson and His Time. Also Julian Boyd begins the project of editing Jefferson's papers. The project is still ongoing, but the first volume of Jefferson's papers appears in 1950. So I think these too are monuments to Jefferson that sit alongside those three physical monuments.
Steve Light: It's interesting that you reference the intellectual work going on in Jefferson, because it seems that this movement to restore Jefferson begins in the political realm, but it results in the scholarly realm and these major projects that help us better understand Jefferson.
Interpreting Jefferson After WWII
Frank Cogliano: And what's really important, I think, for the history of this foundation is it becomes nonpartisan. It outgrows those political origins and becomes dedicated to the scholarship. It will go where the scholarship leads it, and sometimes, as you will see in this series, it takes it to some places that are pretty uncomfortable.
David Thorson: Here we are 100 years after the founding of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, and we're interpreting Jefferson today, but I would say in a more complex way or a more nuanced way.
Frank Cogliano: In the aftermath of the Second World War, 1948, when President Truman desegregates the US military, we see a real important step in what will become the Civil Rights movement, and that Civil Rights movement will transform America, and it will, again, transform Jefferson's reputation.
David Thorson: At some point in time we're going to have a podcast about the Civil Rights movement and the bicentennial, because Jefferson's being quoted yet again and reinvented yet again for the promise of the Declaration of Independence.
Steve Light: There's a great Merrill Peterson quote where he says, "Thomas Jefferson was a sensitive reflector of America's troubled search for the image of itself." I think you can see that reflected in all the conversations, stretching from the 1850s all the way through 1943 and World War II and the Cold War, how the image of Jefferson is reflected by America's attempts to understand who it is.
Frank Cogliano: Conversations about Jefferson are really conversations about ourselves.
David Thorson: 100 years after the Foundation's creation, Thomas Jefferson and Monticello remain in the public eye, but seen through a lens that reveals a more complete and more complicated picture of his legacy, and of the lives of all who lived in labored at Monticello, and of the complexity of the ongoing American story.