Some Democrats are for jettisoning their party’s connection to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Many Democratic events are named after these two famous American presidents–“Jefferson and Jackson” dinners. But in some states they have renamed the events, and there is probably some movement to do so everywhere, because of these men’s connection with slavery and other forms of injustice.
At the Daily Signal, the Heritage Foundation’s Arthur Milikh offers a very thoughtful argument for why Democrats should reconsider this flight from their founding fathers. Along the way he reminds us of a number of important things to bear in mind in considering this question, among them the fact that probably nobody in modern times thought they were honoring these men because they were slaveholders. Rather, an earlier generation of Democrats admired these men despite their connection to slavery and other failings. They were admired by Democrats because of their important contributions to the Party and to America. Jefferson, among other things, wrote the Declaration of Independence and was a vociferous defender of the principle of equality–and an open critic of slavery as unjust–despite the fact that he owned slaves himself. Jackson build the first mass political party that presented itself as dedicated to the interests of the common man.
Milikh’s most interesting argument–to me, at least–is the one that points out it is good for political parties in a democracy to think of themselves as linked to some great men of the past. This argument is notable both for its insight and for the fact that, as far as I know, nobody else has made it. Edmund Burke observed that it is useful for a country to be ruled by old traditions, because in the absence of their restraining influence politics becomes nothing but a contest among factions to see which one is most powerful. Milikh applies this lesson to parties. Without a venerable tradition, anchored in the identity of some great political figures of the past, a party is in danger of becoming nothing but a vehicle for the ambitions and passions of various factions of self-interested citizens.
We often tend to think of parties as just such shabby institutions. But Milikh reminds us that they don’t have to be that, that they have sometimes been better than that. Parties at their best represent a settled understanding of how best to advance the public good, and that requires that they have respect for their own past, including their own great statesmen (even if it is a critical respect that acknowledges their flaws).
We can see this in the case of the Republican Party, too. When Republican statesmen call theirs the “party of Lincoln,” it is a healthy thing, overall. It is sometimes silly, because you can tell from listening to them that they don’t have any very detailed knowledge of Lincoln’s thought or statesmanship. Still, it is a lot better than their thinking that the Republican Party is nothing but, say, the “party of the Chamber of Commerce.”
And, in general, politicians are tempted to vanity. It is healthy for their party identity to impose a kind of discipline on their minds, one that makes them realize that there are statesmen superior to themselves.