Lessons From Jefferson

Original Writings Are Inspiration For New Book

Posted September 3, 2004 at 1:52pm

About five years ago, progressive radio host and author Thom Hartmann had a “life-changing experience” upon the discovery of original writings by Thomas Jefferson in the carriage house attic of his Vermont home. Hartmann, intrigued, chose to use the works as inspiration for his latest book, “What Would Jefferson Do?”

“I got into reading and got hooked,” Hartmann said in a telephone interview about the 20-volume set found by him and his wife, Louise. “What struck me were the parallels between many of the issues of Jefferson’s day and his perspective on them and the issues of today.”

The 277-page book takes the reader through a well thought-out process, starting with the definition of democracy and how it is “eroding” in our country all the way to outlining what can be done to save it and, last but not least, what Jefferson would do.

“In many ways right now what we’re seeing in the conservative versus liberal battle is very much the same as the battle that led Jefferson from [John] Adams and [Alexander] Hamilton,” Hartmann said. Jefferson “founded the Democratic Party, contrary to what the White House Web site says — they call him a Republican.”

Hartmann claims the book is not a biography of the third president of the United States, but rather a work to showcase Jefferson’s “essential thoughts.”

The fifth chapter of the book — the largest, at 68 pages — is perhaps the most captivating. Hartmann lists myth after myth and counters them with a “reality” and an explanation that debunks the myth. One example that Hartmann describes as “perhaps the most unfortunate and destructive of the widespread American myths” is that “America was created by rich white men to protect their wealth.” In reality, he writes, the founders made enormous sacrifices.

Hartmann, who had to cut 25,000 words from the book upon its completion, said his plan for the book changed course in the writing process.

“I first started out writing the book as a history of American democracy told through the eyes of Jefferson in particular,” Hartmann said. “But the more I got into that, the more almost shockingly clear it became to me that the conflict, the cultural conflict, that we are experiencing at this moment is such a mirrored image of what they were facing back then.”

The research for the book took about five years and the actual writing took about two years, which Hartmann said is “pretty typical for most of the books I have written.” The release of “What Would Jefferson Do?” brings Hartmann to 14 books in all, with topics ranging from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to how the democracy in America has been replaced by corporate domination.

Each chapter starts out with a quote, either from Jefferson or another historical figure.

“In many cases it was reading Jefferson’s letters that stimulated me to write a chapter,” Hartmann said. “But there are a few quotes that I knew of and I thought, ‘Oh, this would be a cool way to start a chapter.’”

However, the quotes are not what Hartmann gushes about when talking about the work. Rather, he chooses to discuss what he calls a “huge aha,” something that, as far as he knows, is unique to his book.

“Jefferson believed in what he called ‘nature’s God.’ Democracy was the natural state not just of humans, but of all living things,” Hartmann said.

The seventh chapter, called “Democracy, Not Dominance, Is the Way of Nature,” references a study of democracy versus despotism in animals by biologists Tim Roper and L. Conradt of England. The study found “that democracy always supports the survival of the group over the long term, and, because the individual is a part of the group, it therefore benefits the individual as well.” So in acting on democratic decision-making, the knowledge, wisdom and needs of the entire group are considered and the probability of survival is increased.

“Essentially there must be a ruling class — that’s what Adams and Hamilton believed,” Hartmann said. “But it turns out science demonstrates that Jefferson was right. That’s amazing.”

Although Hartmann claims he could write an entire book on the biology of democracy alone, it is not one of the main elements he wants people to take away from “What Would Jefferson Do?”

“I want people to realize that a lot of these folks who created this country got a bad rap. They think the Constitution was created to protect the rich white property owners, but it turns out the majority of the people at the Constitutional Convention voted and acted against their own self interest and wealthy class,” Hartmann said. “And we’re still fighting the same battles. Modern science has demonstrated that Adams was wrong and Jefferson was right.”

Toward the end, as Hartmann devotes chapters to what can be done to revitalize democracy in the United States, he allots just three sentences to voting: “The Founders dedicated their lives to our ability to participate in democracy. Do it. And encourage others to do the same.”

Hartmann said he kept it short because “it’s self evident” and important all the time, not just in a presidential election year.

“Whether you want to consider it an obligation to the memory of the people who have fought and died for this country or if you want to consider it the price of admission to this society — I consider it both, really,” Hartmann said.

“There are people all over the world who would literally die for the opportunity to [vote] and here we are, we can do it.”

Being inspired by Jefferson’s words allowed Hartmann to make the connection between the conflicts of the past and the conflicts of the present, and he ends the book by sharing what he believes Jefferson would do to transform the democracy of today.

“All of us — no matter what our current political persuasion — can participate in returning democracy to our nation,” Hartmann writes at the beginning of the last chapter. “Let us not … wait until we’re near death to take action.”