Clay Jenkinson argues that Jefferson was the most visionary of the Founding Fathers and that, despite his failings, his basic Enlightenment ideals hold useful lessons for modern life. I tend to agree. I’ve even read several of the papers cited throughout Becoming Jefferson’s People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century.
And it’s a good thing I have, because without prior knowledge of Jefferson’s writings, Jenkinson’s work is a rambling, context-free bit of fluff. Offered as a guide to improving individual life in modern America, the book provides such stunningly specific bits of advice as “Spend time outside” and “Be involved.” Quotes from the book’s title speaker are small and scattered and seem chosen for pith over philosophy. Jefferson could speak for himself, and speak well. The sheer volume of his written work was perhaps matched only by Benjamin Franklin, also briefly quoted here. But the clips included here give the impression that Jefferson’s people are sound-bite writers and ad campaign designers.
It’s a rather puzzling approach. Jenkinson admits from the start that he comes not to criticize Jefferson but to reintroduce him to a new generation not exposed to the depth of his political thought. Becoming Jefferson’s People offers no real critique of the framer’s work, only glossy paraphrases. With only the briefest references to the source material and no serious debate, Jenkinson could more honestly have presented it as just his own thoughts on modern America. More cynical readers might consider the Jefferson name added for mere market appeal. But it seems more likely that Jenkinson, in his reverence for the founder, assumes that everyone shares his deep knowledge of his writings and will only need a quick reminder of any given writing to understand the book’s commentary.
Becoming Jefferson’s People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century is in no way offensive. It’s just puzzling, a little instruction book that borrows Jefferson’s name without enlisting his ample assistance, a bit of hero worship that keeps the hero largely invisible. Those looking for conversational fodder could do worse. Those looking for strong political discussion should look elsewhere.