The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson
by Daniel Boorstin
Edward J. Dodson
[A paper written for the course
Knowledge In America, Temple University, Fall 1989]
An Honest man can feel no pleasure in the
exercise of power over his fellow citizens.[Thomas Jefferson*]
A more descriptive title to Daniel Boorstin's work, I suggest, might
have been The Many Faces of Jeffersonian Thought, for what he
gives us is an insight into the complexity of those who dominated
intellectual life during the United States' period of emerging
nationhood. The Jeffersonians in some ways held firm to the
conservative values of the Enlightenment yet were freer than
any European people to experiment with self-government and to interact
with their natural environment. As a consequence, they suffered by
inconsistency in principle and action. Boorstin is, however, equally
concerned that his contemporaries have traveled the same road and have
selectively taken from the Jeffersonians to forge a philosophy
out of context, an opportunistic agenda built without a foundation of
To fully appreciate what Daniel Boorstin sought to accomplish by his
examination of "the Jeffersonian view of the world," one
must have a sense not only of Jefferson's era but of Boorstin's as
well. In 1948, when this work appeared, the principles of
individualism were more than just under seige. Nineteenth- century
liberalism, resting on the doctrines of free trade, hard money
and minimal government, had been supplanted in the twentieth century
by widespread acceptance of the positive political agenda
arising out of Fabian socialism in Europe and Progressivism in the
United States. Boorstin was, therefore, writing for a public already
nurtured by decades of life under a highly interventionst State. Most
recently,[n1] this agenda had become
both economically and politically expansionist in outlook and
vehemently anti-communist in foreign policy rhetoric.
Remnants of the old-style individualist faction could muster few rank
and file to fight the battle on behalf of intellectual freedom and
pluralistic tolerance. As had Jefferson in his time, so did Peter
Drucker in 1942, in The Future Of Industrial Man, warn of the
need to recapture the democracy before war ended, by returning
power to the citizens under "decentralized self-government."
More radical individualists, such as Albert Jay Nock and Frank
Chodorov, went so far as to conclude the "light of liberty"
was flickering in the statist winds. In a January 1945 edition of analysis,
Thirty years ago Americans argued that the proposed
income tax would be an infringement of their liberty. Now that we
have become accustomed to the levy ... do we think of it in that
way? Hardly; it is, in fact, an "instrument of democracy."
Conscription is being puffed up into a form of freedom by the
offspring of the very folks who came to America to avoid it. In its
potentiality, if not yet in its methods, is the FBI any different
from the Gestapo? Yet we don't see the similarity simply because we
have incorporated this inquisitorial system into the American way of
life. The Russians boast of their freedom, just as we will boast of
our freedom when we habitualize our thinking to the world's
greatest, most stupendous and supercolossal planned economy. [n2]
By 1948, the transformation to a centrist state seemed nearly
complete, opposition largely silenced by fear that criticism of
militaristic and expansionist policies would put one on the list of
Reds to be ferreted out of academia, public office, the press,
or wherever. The times demanded from those who valued intellectual
freedom a sort of refresher course in first principles and an opening
of Jeffersonian~sounding rhetoric to objective scrutiny.[n3]
The Jeffersonians about whom Boorstin wrote, so immersed in the
nation's early framing, were among the best educated in the New World.
They were no strangers to Locke and called forth Lockeian principles
of just government to sanction their actions on behalf of
independence. Jefferson, Paine and Franklin were well schooled by the
French in Physiocracy, adherence to which threatened the likes of du
Pont de Nemeurs, Quesnay and Turgot after the hopes of moderate
reformers were dashed in France. As Boorstin explains, the quest for
reform required that the Jeffersonians abandon or set aside their
principles of self-government in order to govern. They understood from
history and their contemporary experience that proactive government is
inevitably self-corrupted, always becomes despotic and tyrannizes the
citizenry. Yet they themselves sought and utilized the power acquired.
Though not adherents to the religious orthodoxies, the Jeffersonians
also rejected humanism in favor of a created universe. Thus, at the
center of their belief structure was a conviction that socio-political
institutions would always be inherently flawed because they were
manmade, and man suffered not only from imperfect knowledge -- from an
imperfect appreciation of what the Creator had brought -- but
by the baggage of prejudice against the belief systems of others.
Despite these obvious problems, in the end Boorstin looks to "the
Jeffersonian tradition" as "provid[ing] our principal check
on the demands of irresponsible power" but identifies in the
actions of the framers "a heritage of conflict and paradox for
our own time."
No sooner had ink been set to paper to create the founding documents
than were the principles of self-government under attack. Jefferson,
Paine and the others may have written extensively on the injustice of
allowing the dead to govern the living, but the constitution failed to
prevent - and the system of positive law derived therefrom encouraged
-- two centuries of monopoly privilege associated with disposal of the
Boorstin takes us a long way toward understanding why it was that
even the best and the brightest eighteenth-century minds held deeply
entrenched and conservative beliefs about the origin and nature of man
and how this affected the fundamental relations of man with nature,
man with man, and of man and the state. Thinking people, reading this
in 1948, could not help but make the leap to their own time and
grapple with having to reconcile beliefs acquired from cultural
institutions, through formal education and with everyday experiences.
Great Britain's North American colonies had by the time of
Jefferson's adult years thrived as a result of nearly 150 years of
relative self-government. Beyond the few coastal centers, the people
lived the common law . Democracy, Boorstin reminds the
reader, was not a heralded political concept and was certainly not a
cause championed by the conservative planters and merchants who railed
against "taxation without representation" and demanded the
English crown's protection of their rights as Englishmen. What
they wanted, in fact, was a return to the state of privilege that had
existed during the era of salutary neglect so rudely
interrupted by the demands of conservatives in Parliament that
Britain's colonial subjects ought to share some of the cost of their
defense. Paine, most influenced by physiocracy, pulled in the small
farmers, the mechanics and the landless, with the promise of an
expanded franchise and access to free land. What Boorstin tells us is
that this nation was founded as much on greed and the quest for wealth
as on an appreciation for the inherent value in creating a democratic
In equalitarian and democratic societies, and especially
in the United States ..., there has been a dangerous readiness to
transform the principle of majority rule, which is a political
necessity, into a philosophical credo; and to confuse the dictates
of public opinion with the voice of the individual conscience. The
consequence has commonly been a tyranny of public opinion over
personal faith and thought. This tyranny has been all the harder for
us to perceive simply because it has been so willingly preferred to
the travail of individual mind and conscience. Conformity and naive
faith in matters of morals and behavior -- together with a distrust
of all metaphysics -- have seemed to save that much more effort for
inquiry and progress in scientific matters. While this tyranny of
public opinion is of course preferable to more institutionalized or
better enforced tyrannies, it must nevertheless be combated if the
spirit of free inquiry, which alone can reveal the perils of all
tyrannies, is to be nourished.
He might have also said that the U.S. had become a nation of true
believers (or, as William Lederer suggested in 1961, A Nation
Of Sheep) who no longer desired to think for themselves, had
abandoned first principles, and were losing the right of
self-government to a privileged minority and their lower bureaucracy.[n4]
A state of liberty was, as Locke would have put it, replaced
by a state of license in which the major undertaking of
government was the division of the spoils. No doubt Boorstin's message
gave some satisfaction to the more radical individualists and aroused
the sensibilities of statist elements within the conservative and
liberal intellectual communities as they battled for control of the
Liberalist agenda. Reviews of The Lost World in the New
Republic and New York Times acknowledged as much.
Resurrecting the Jeffersonian call for toleration in the realm of
ideas, Boorstin uses Jefferson's words against those who would put
forth theirs as the only true religion (or political doctrine). "It
does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no
God," quotes Boorstin. "It neither picks my pocket nor
breaks my leg." Here is Jefferson giving voice to Lockeian
principles, a defense of the tenets of liberty and a
declaration against the wanton exercise of acts of licence.
Here is a recognition that the Jeffersonians, though plagued by
prejudice, bias and an inherited baggage, also know that absolute
truth is elusive in direct proportion to our inability to reveal the "final
hierarchy or systematic relation among ideas."[7) In the place of
absolute knowledge, mankind had acquired (from The Creator) an
imperfect moral sense by which our actions would hopefully
parallel our "real interest." This moral sense
clashed with our free will and the tendency of man to follow
the path of licence at the expense of a state of liberty.
The conflict could be seen in the mad grab for monopolistic control
over the natural bounty and in the destruction of the indigenous
tribal civilizations that lived in North America. This incredible
binge of self-destruction had hardly abated in Boorstin's lifetime,
and he warned against that aspect of Jeffersonian thinking devoted to
the here and now as all that matters. Boorstin could have used his
reference to Frederick Jackson Turner more effectively in responding
to the Jeffersonian optimism directed at the frontier. As Turner
the democracy born of free land, strong in
selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative
experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its
proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits.
Individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to
governmental affairs which has rendered possible the spoils system
and all the manifest evils that follows from the lack of a highly
developed civic spirit. 
Turner's attack on individualism gone wrong gave voice to
rising Progressive sentiments; however, instead of rallying the
citizenry to rid the nation of the trusts or solve the growing problem
of land monopoly, the Progressives did little more than promote the
state as the only power able to subdue the robber barons.
Jefferson's warnings went unheeded; Liberalism soon arrived to
administer the state's growing claim on producers, rewarding with
privilege those whose interests most paralleled those of the state.
Jefferson, schooled in Locke, had predicted all too clearly the growth
of corruption as citizen participation diminished and power became
centralized in the hands of city, state and federal appointees whose
allegiance had nothing to do with principles. The Jeffersonian fear,
realized in Boorstin's lifetime, was that the "human institutions"
of government, inherently flawed as they must be, would jeopardize the
higher scheme designed by the Creator. In Boorstin's eyes as
well, the state had assumed itself equal to the Creator assumed itself
to be beyond the realm of natural law, and was well along the road
toward a tyranny of the professional bureaucrat and terminal
The Lost World reminds us of our imperfect heritage and
directs us to an appreciation of our experience. The democracy was
certainly at risk in 1948, and if the premise of free will is accepted
one must also accept responsibility for the socio-political
institutions that mankind has adopted -- which then demands
recognition of responsibility to change those institutions experience
shows are corrupt, are despotic, and are not working to advance the
just interests of the individual. More recently, his message -- not so
much that of a voice in the wilderness as in 1948 -- restates what he
sees as the essential value in the Jeffersonian ideal:
Aristocracies are governed by people born to govern;
totalitarian societies by people who make ruling their profession.
But our representative government must be led by people never born
to govern, temporarily drawn from the community and sooner or later
sent back home. Democracy is government by amateurs. The progress --
perhaps even the survival -- of our society depends on the vitality
of the amateur spirit in the U.S.A. today and tomorrow. 
Boorstin was trying to tell us, I think, that despite the
inconsistencies in application of action to principle that
characterized the Jeffersonian era, the principles themselves do
provide a framework for testing the wisdom and efficacy of our actions
and laws. At times this demands tremendous individual courage in the
face of state power or a tyranny of the majority. As we know today,
liberty is seldom secured and never secure.[n5]
* From a January 13, 1813 letter to
one John Melish. Jefferson's Letters, arranged by Willson
Whitman [Eau Claire, Wisconsin: E.M. Hale and Company], p.281.
 Frank Chodorov. "On Saving the Country." analysis,
January 1945. Reprinted in Fugitive Essays, edited by Charles
H. Hamilton [Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Press, 1978], p.195.
 Daniel J. Boorstin. The Lost World Of Thomas Jefferson
[Boston: Beacon Press, 1948], p.xi.
 Ibid., p.3.
 Ibid., pp.111-112.
 George Dangerfield of the New Republic would write (Nov.
15, 1948): "It seems to me to be a pity that Boorstin should
desert his exegesis, which I think a creative, original and lucid
piece of work, in order to extend Jeffersonian thought into realms
where its influence can only be inferred in a most tentative way."
A New York Times review by Adrienne Koch (Oct. 17, 1948)
declared: "Unfortunately, Mr. Boorstin's book does not realize
the promise inherent in his materials. The author spends his main
strength in creating a false unity, The Jeffersonian Circle.
the unity is created is false because the author ignores the real
differences among the members of the society
At the root of Mr.
Boorstin's failure is his impatience with naturalist philosophy."
Excerpted from Book Review Digest, 1948, p.85.
 Boorstin, p.124.
 Ibid., p.139.
 Frederick Jackson Turner. "The Significance of the Frontier
in American History," The Frontier In American History.
Reprinted in The Turner Thesis, edited by George Rogers Taylor
[Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1956], p.15.
 Daniel J. Boorstin. "Vitality and Virtues of Amateurs,"
U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 30, 1985/Jan. 6, 1986.
[n1] You mean, by the time Boorstin
wrote; but this sentence also suggests you are looking past Boorstin
and risking the loss of focus.
[n2] You're moving too far afield in establishing Boorstin's context.
Now, if he had written this,
[n3] And I think you're oversimplifying Boorstin, who soon after this
book emerges as a red biater. I'm not as sure as you are what he is
when he writes about Jefferson.
[n4] This is reducing Boorstin to a single dimension - and perhaps
one he didn't intend.
[n5] Jeffersonians understood that liberty was passive and static,
authority was active and expansive.
An intelligent (and plausible) reading of the book - and a well
written paper. You go further afield in your reading than I would have
preferred, using Boorstin to laurel a polemic. But since Boorstin in
later years often did much the same, there is a rough justice here.
Maybe you could read the books with more of an eye to our courage
theme -- knowledge -- just to humor me.