Response to "The Founding Liberal and the Founding Conservative”

In his essay to the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Gordon Wood provided an interesting intellectual lens to frame the political views of Thomas Jefferson. As a modern-day Democrat that draws inspiration from the ideals of Thomas Jefferson, Wood’s characterization of Jefferson was not only informative, but welcomed. In today’s political dialogue, liberals have largely abandoned Jefferson for Alexander Hamilton, and conservatives moved towards embracing Jefferson. The transformation by both ideologies completely ignores historical context. While it is true that Jefferson favored smaller government, as Woods notes, that “was the progressive position” of the era. Discounting the politics of the time period makes it easier to fit historical figures squarely into our political discourse, but it marginalizes and mischaracterizes what they represent.

The article draws distinctions between the “liberal” Thomas Jefferson and “conservative” John Adams that, in more cases than not, justifies the labels assigned. Jefferson was “optimistic and confident of the future," believing that the educated electorate would select “natural aristocrats, virtuous and talented men like himself." He believed in a world that was progressing towards freedom and democracy, with the United States leading the way as “the world’s best hope." Wood credits Jefferson with inventing the idea of American exceptionalism. He describes Jefferson as the elected radical, the liberated philosopher, and the virtuous patriot.

In a stark contrast with Jefferson, Wood defines Adams as the conservative realist that expressed pessimism about the future and cynicism about human nature. Although ultimately a friend of Jefferson, Adams was a “severe critic of the Jeffersonian conception of American exceptionalism." This depiction of Wood, although seemingly critical of Adams, is just an alternative philosophy that is still used in modern politics.

I found this article to be pleasant because it described a friendship between two ideological opposites that were former presidential rivals. The intent of the article was to foreshadow and promote the release of his book on the friendship of the two. More importantly than its pleasantry was the inspiration I drew from the article. The descriptors surrounding Jeffersonian ideals were accurate and articulate, and they come at a time when so much surrounding the Founding Fathers is misconstrued. At a time when some Democrats are isolating Thomas Jefferson for his sins, I am recommitting not only to the refined Jeffersonian principles of equality, freedom, and optimism for the nation, but also to his liberated philosophy and virtuous patriotism. The Democratic Party would be wise to join me.