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Where Have You Gone, Thomas Jefferson?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

V&V: Dr. Kengor, tell us about your talk, your motivation for the talk, and how it applies today.

Dr. Paul Kengor: Throughout American history our presidents have invoked our nation’s founding fathers. This is particularly true of recent presidents. Which founders have these presidents cited—and why? What did, say, President Reagan’s view of George Washington, or President Clinton’s view of Thomas Jefferson, tell us about their view of America and where they intended to lead the country?

In many cases, it told us a lot about the president. That being the case, the thought begged a question in my mind: Which founders are being cited by the two presidential nominees today, and what does that tell us about our next president?

V&V: How did you research these questions?

Kengor: With the superb research help of Jarrett Skorup, one of our talented student fellows at the Center for Vision & Values, and Mallory Sampson, another of my students, I looked at modern presidents, going back to JFK. We picked six of the most frequently cited founders: Adams, Franklin, Patrick Henry, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington. We tossed in Abraham Lincoln. Yes, Lincoln wasn’t there in 1776, but Lincoln really is, in so many ways, a founder, and certainly was motivated to preserve, extend, and ensure those founding principles more than any other president. If you need a quick lesson on how, go read the Gettysburg Address.

For each president, we searched the number of times that he mentioned these founders. Our source was the official Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, also known among presidential scholars as simply “The Presidential Papers,” which is the comprehensive collection, published by the GPO, of every presidential speech, statement, press conference, interview, you name it. This is not a perfect method, for reasons I won’t go into here, but it is generally accurate. For the current presidential candidates, we used sources like Google.

V&V: What did you find? Which modern presidents cited which founders?

Kengor: The presidents varied in the degree to which they cited the founders. Some, like JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and Clinton, cited them somewhat frequently, in the range of 100 to 200 times, though, regrettably, not in a thematic or notably profound or even interesting way. Others, like Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, cited them rarely.

Ford and Carter, in fact, were huge disappointments to me. Think about this: They were the presidents around the time of America’s historic bicentennial, and yet rarely quoted the founders. Frankly, neither president was an inspiring figure; so, maybe their lack of inspiration by the founders shouldn’t surprise us. And when Carter did quote them, he quoted them in what I believe were misapplications, such as arguing for the creation of a federal Department of Education. In one case, Carter quoted Jefferson’s and Washington’s appreciation of education and then, in a leap, implied that they would be delighted that he was creating a giant federal bureaucracy for education.

Then there’s the unique case of Ronald Reagan, who cited them some 850 times, and in a way that was absolutely fundamental to understanding Reagan’s vision for America.

V&V: How did Reagan cite the founders?

Kengor: He did on behalf of emphasizing the faith of our founders, of limited government, of the uniqueness and exceptionalism of America, of a nation with a people facing another historic challenge beyond the American Revolution, and in contrasting the system of the United States with the system of the USSR.

On the latter, here’s one of my favorite Reagan quotes, from July 1983, where he contrasted the Soviet system with its American counterpart:

Two visions of the world remain locked in dispute. The first believes all men are created equal by a loving God who has blessed us with freedom. Abraham Lincoln spoke for us…. The second vision believes that religion is opium for the masses. It believes that eternal principles like truth, liberty, and democracy have no meaning beyond the whim of the state. And Lenin spoke for them.

In Reagan’s view, the American Founders had anchored their experiment in Judeo-Christian beliefs; the Bolsheviks deliberately established an antithetical model. Those founders of communism divorced their “faith” from God.

Speaking of Reagan on the faith of the founders, he was particularly fond of George Washington, who he cited nearly 200 times, and almost twice as much as all the presidents since Kennedy combined. He called the image of Washington praying on his knees in Valley Forge “the most sublime image in American history.”

Maybe the most interesting find in my research is that it is clear that Ronald Reagan, among all modern presidents, plainly rediscovered the founders. I was a child or didn’t live through those presidents prior to Reagan, and thus didn’t realize how little attention they had paid to the founders.

V&V: Aside from Reagan, any other pleasant surprises, or disappointments?

Kengor: I was disappointed in how Clinton, like Carter, used the founders to argue for huge expansions in federal power, clearly beyond what the founders could have ever conceived. For example, in the middle of Hillary Clinton’s push for national healthcare in 1993, Bill Clinton cited Thomas Jefferson’s concern for health issues as, somehow, apparently indicative of a need for federal management of the nation’s healthcare system.

A surprise to others, but not to me, since I’ve watched this closely for eight years now, is how George W. Bush has internalized the founders’ belief that all human beings are endowed by their Creator with a certain inherent yearning for freedom. In turn, Bush has applied this to his vision for the Middle East, believing that a democratic transformation in that region is possible, given that inherent desire for liberty within all hearts, including the hearts of Arab Muslims. People disagree with that, which is fine, but that’s the Bush vision.

V&V: So, how does this apply to November 2008?

Kengor: That gets to the motivation for the lecture: I noticed some time ago that neither of the candidates are quoting the founders. If they are, they’re doing it so rarely that I haven’t noticed, or enough to be negligible. Certainly, neither is invoking the image of Washington at Valley Forge or the Shining City Upon a Hill. In addition to this being true for John McCain and Barack Obama, it was true for Hillary Clinton as well. McCain references favorite presidents like Teddy Roosevelt. Hillary cited Eleanor Roosevelt. Obama isn’t pointing to anyone, and certainly doesn’t like it when others note (correctly) that his influences were the likes of Saul Alinsky, the Chicagoan and modern founder of community organizing, or Frank Marshall Davis, the communist journalist and agitator from Chicago who mentored Obama in Hawaii in the latter 1970s, and who Obama warmly acknowledges in his memoirs.

V&V: Why is this lack of citing the founders a problem?

Kengor: Because the American founding is not just about a group of people, a group of men. It is about an ideal: Both a vision and understanding of the very essence of democracy, constitutional government, a representative republic, and the remarkably powerful concept of being endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. It is quite sad, to me, that that ideal, that vision and understanding, doesn’t seem to be a part of the current political season. Issues are important, yes, but issues come and go. America as an ideal is timeless. And if our presidents, or potential presidents, don’t know this or don’t articulate it, that’s a blown opportunity. The president can teach as well as lead.

V&V: What explains this apparent lack of at least open appreciation for the founders by the current candidates?

Kengor: I don’t know, for sure. In part, it’s almost surely a failure of modern education, whether K through 12 or higher education, or really both. Barack Obama went to Ivy League institutions like Columbia, which are reputed to be among America’s top colleges. And yet, this very recent product of those American institutions is not publicly articulating an appreciation of the American founding or the founders and their vision for America. Why not? You would hope that the supposed best of American educational institutions would teach its students about America as an institution.

So many of these failures can be laid at the feet of the awful state of American higher education, and especially the way in which our secular universities have divorced their instruction from timeless truths like faith and freedom. Many of the professors at these places plainly don’t respect the founders and, in particular, the religious foundation of the founders.

I will close with a lesson from Ronald Reagan speaking at Georgetown University in October 1988. He said that “freedom cannot exist alone,” and that colleges need “learning, faith, and freedom. Each reinforces the others, each makes the others possible. For what are they without each other?” President Reagan that day quoted Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the classic, Democracy in America: “Tocqueville said it in 1835, and it’s as true today as it was then: ‘Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is more needed in democratic societies than in any other.’” With a sly nod to his academic audience, Reagan warned, “Learning is a good thing, but unless it’s tempered by faith and a love of freedom, it can be very dangerous indeed.”

V&V: Where can people get a copy of your talk?

Kengor: We will be posting the PowerPoint slides on our website. We will also be posting video of the presentation. In addition, I’m in the process of focusing on and further developing the Reagan component of the lecture. I’m doing that in a paper for the excellent First Principles series done by the Heritage Foundation, which hopefully will be available at some point by the end of the year.

V&V: Are you giving this lecture elsewhere?

Kengor: I may be doing this talk at Wabash College in three weeks. I would like to give it as much as I can. Americans need to know what so many Americans no longer know. The ideals of the American founding are timeless; alas, let’s give it some of our time.

V&V: Dr. Kengor, thanks for talking with us.

Kengor: Of course.

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