Daniel Boorstin's
The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson

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 principle.

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, Chodorov lamented:

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. [1][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"[2] but identifies in the actions of the framers "a heritage of conflict and paradox for our own time."[3]

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 public domain.

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 republic:

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.[4]

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.[5]

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."[6] 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 wrote:

… 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. [8]

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 politician.

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. [9]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] Daniel J. Boorstin. The Lost World Of Thomas Jefferson [Boston: Beacon Press, 1948], p.xi.

[3] Ibid., p.3.

[4] Ibid., pp.111-112.

[5] 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. …Secondly, 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.

[6] Boorstin, p.124.

[7] Ibid., p.139.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.