Monday, November 19, 2007

The Big Man was in Paris

"Thomas Jefferson, one of the authors of the 1787 Constitution, declared: 'America is new in its forms and principles.'"
--Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations. New York: Penguin Books, 1987, p.458.

"Literate America heaved a collective groan last week: huge ads in several national newspapers promoted the upcoming film Jefferson in Paris by displaying part of the American Constitution. But Thomas Jefferson had as much to do with drafting the Constitution as he did with writing the recipe for American cheese. Says a spokeswoman for Walt Disney Co., which releases the film March 31: 'We all walked in Monday morning and said, 'Oh (expletive)! It should have been the Declaration of Independence.' This from the company that wanted to build a theme park celebrating American history."
--A 1995 Newsweek article quoted in "Forty Years of Overstatement: Criticism and the Disney Theme Park" by Greil Marcus, a chapter in the book Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance edited by Karal Ann Marling, Paris: Flammarion, 1997, p. 202.

"Mandark says Thomas Jefferson wrote the Bill of Rights, but James Madison did that."
--Comment posted at;title;9, site visited 19 Nov 2007; the poster was remarking on an episode of the cartoon "Dexter's Laboratory."

Last week at the petting zoo I work at, I watched an elementary school teacher walk up to one of our sheep with her students. She carefully explained to them how these fuzzy animals are sheared periodically for their wool. And then, she asserted, the wool is used to make cotton.

This happens a lot, and I admit I was very surprised to discover how many adults have no clue that cotton comes from a plant and not from the backs of livestock. And after a parent or teacher has told a child that cotton comes from sheep, I suppose the next step in misinforming them is to declare that Thomas Jefferson wrote the U.S. Constitution.

The assortment of quotes above, taken from sources serious and frivolous, is a reminder how prevalent is the misconception that Thomas Jefferson was involved in the writing of the original Constitution or it's first ten amendments. It would be easy to dismiss the writers of a cartoon on Nickelodeon for getting it wrong, but Braudel's book is a respected treatise that has gone through several editions. (For the record: Braudel wrote in French, in which I am not fluent; I read the English translation by Richard Mayne. I sent an e-mail to Penguin Books noting the error and inquiring whether Braudel goofed or it was a mistranslation. I've not yet received a reply.)

During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Jefferson was serving as minister to France; thus he was in Paris and not available for Constitution drafting. After the Convention, Jefferson corresponded with his friend James Madison on his likes and dislikes of the great document, and these letters enable us to understand what TJ thought about the whole deal. (A nice sampling of their letters is reprinted in Founding America: Documents from the Revolution to the Bill of Rights, Jack N. Rakove, ed., New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2006, pp. 545-587.) But Jefferson manifestly did not write the Constitution! Got that? And we don't get cotton from sheep!

So why do some people think Jefferson DID write the Constitution? I think it's obvious: such people are getting the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson wrote, with the Constitution, which he didn't write. Either that or people just figure that since the Constitution was a big deal and it happened while Jefferson walked the earth, then by gosh, he must have had something to do with it.

As Jefferson spent a good deal of time in Paris, it is somewhat ironic that a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, may have put his finger on why it's easy to suppose Jefferson had a hand in the Constitution. Writing in 1835, de Tocqueville asserted: "I am glad to cite the opinion of Jefferson... rather than that of any other, because I consider him the most powerful advocate democracy has ever had." (Democracy in America, Volume 1, Chapter XV.) That's it in a nutshell: the Constitution was an influential document promoting democracy; Jefferson was its contemporary and an influential voice touting democracy. People think they just have to be connected somehow.

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