Would TJ Be a Republican or Democrat Today?

Red or blue?

by Jim McCarthy

“Don’t know much about history,” admitted Art Garfunkel in the opening line of the 1978 Wonderful World hit song. History was but one of several subjects Mr. Garfunkel recognized as wanting in his store of knowledge. A few lines later, however, he was confident to assert that “one and one is two.” This elemental statement in the context of the first may characterize the general view of John Q. Public.

Wikipedia was created twenty-three years after Garfunkel’s lyrics, providing a ready antidote for the curious to “not knowing much” about a topic. The crowd-sourced online publication offers a baseline of information about scores of topics that can be further researched. It is with Wikipedia that we commence a threshold inquiry into the question of whether Thomas Jefferson today would be a Republican or Democrat.

The historical jury agrees that the Shadwell Virginia Plantation native, the nation’s third President, belonged to the Democratic-Republican party during his terms of national service. That political organization opposed the Federalists who were, at the time, characterized as advocates of central government control and aristocratic attitudes. Thus, in contemporary political party identity, Mr. Jefferson may be deemed moderately bipolar.

Notwithstanding the historical record, some collateral internet investigation revealed a heavily credentialled online journal, The Imaginative Conservative in 2012, confidently identifying Mr. Jefferson as one of their own:

From historian Dumas Malone, we can, if we wish, begin to discern the real Jefferson. And that Jefferson is, in the broad outline of American history, identifiable in no other way than as a conservative.

This “no other way than” designation and assertion prompt a subsequent question whether he might also be deemed woke or RINO in the eyes and lexicon of current conservatives. Might he possibly be a Democrat in Name Only (DINO)?

Before he passed, Jefferson described the design and inscription on his burial memorial to include that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence; of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom; father of the University of Virginia. Alone, these three lifetime accomplishments are testimony to the depth and vision of his philosophy, education, and hopes for the United States to become that “more perfect union” sought in the Declaration.

The Virginia religious freedom statute replaced one that enshrined a state religion supported by a tax levy. Moreover, historians note that, based upon his affinity for John Locke (often called the father of liberalism) who urged that religious freedom include Muslims, Jefferson’s legislative measure was non-discriminatory and formed the essential provision of the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is a fact that his library contained a Qu’ran and, as a slave owner, he may also have had some familiarity with Islamic heritage of slaves, estimated to constitute 20% of that population. Historians estimate he owned 600 slaves during his lifetime.

Jefferson’s alma mater, the College of William and Mary, was founded in 1693 as an Anglican institution. Upon completing his undergraduate studies in 1762, he read the law with some of its faculty to qualify as a lawyer. When Virginia authorized creation of a public university in 1818, Jefferson began his plans for an academic village to create the University of Virginia with a curriculum modeled on European universities. He eschewed the religious tone of William and Mary as antithetical to an atmosphere of free inquiry, especially in science and philosophy.

Together, Jefferson’s efforts with respect to religious freedom and establishment of a sectarian university can be regarded as evidence of enlightened social and cultural awareness promoted in the Age of Reason in Europe. In today’s political currency, both could draw fire as woke or RINO-tinted views. Surely, DINOs would not object.

Jefferson has often been cited erroneously as favoring an unrestricted right to bear arms. His own writings, including drafts for the Virginia Constitution in 1776, state that “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms within his own lands or tenements.” This notable restriction, if it had been added to the language of the Second Amendment, clearly represented a proscription upon present day assertions that the right to bear arms should include possession of weapons of war such as artillery and missiles. In Jefferson’s view, Second Amendment sanctuaries would not exist for an entire Commonwealth county.

The Virginia icon’s relationship with Sally Hemings with whom he may have sired six children during a four decade period beginning around 1789 spanned his service as Secretary of State and, later, as Vice President and President. Although as yet conclusive proof of the relationship remains a subject of research and debate, its existence has received persuasive argument. Miscegenation was taboo in Virginia beginning in the 1600s. Until 1967, such an interracial relationship in Virginia continued to be illegal and criminally punishable in the Commonwealth (Loving v Virginia).

Today, contemporary political dialogue is peppered with pejorative epithets toward liberals, usually Democrats or social activists, as “woke.” The term had been preceded by others such as PC (politically correct), snowflake, and now amplified in combination with “virtue signaling.” In pursuit of a purer political ideology, the conservative branch of Republicans turned to labeling colleagues RINOs. Not to be outdone, some progressive Democrats have countered with DINO as a criticism of their colleagues.

For contrast and context, the term “woke” has also been expanded to bash the celebrity world as Hollywoke. Disney, Donald, Mickey and others in that most American universe have been saddled as woke because the company has taken issue with recent legislation in Florida. A new, internet marketed men’s razor brand asserts that its competitor is woke. Advocates of mandatory masks and vaccinations are woke as are any who urge public schools to engage in diversity/equity/inclusion (DEI) policies. And, of course, the ultimate scourge of anti-wokists is critical race theory or CRT.

Jefferson’s humor is generally described by historians as subtle. His ability to speak Latin might lead one to imagine his amusement when opponents of DEI unleash venom about a word that translates as “gods” and “oh, god.” Where some imaginative conservatives conclude Jefferson to be a comrade, others may disagree.

Was Jefferson a Republican? Possibly. Democrat? Possibly. RINO? Nope. DINO? Nah. Conservative? Arguably. Progressive? Probably. Woke? Yes, in the dictionary definition. Were there an American Woke Hall of Fame, Thomas Jefferson would qualify for inclusion.

Jim McCarthy is a retired New York City attorney now living in Virginia.