David Sehat is Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University. This interview is based on his new book, The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible (Simon & Schuster, May 2015).
DS: I was dismayed at the way that the Founding Fathers were referenced in contemporary political debate. It wasn’t just the Tea Party conservatives but also liberal Democrats. Politicians of all stripes invoked the Founders in support of nearly everything under the sun—limited government, multicultural egalitarianism, abortion rights, restricting abortion, and so on. The only thing that all these references had in common, it seemed to me, was that the Founders always (supposedly) agreed with the person who was invoking them. I began to wonder how we got here. This book is the result.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Jefferson Rule?
DS: I argue that it is an unspoken rule of American politics that we must agree with the Founding Fathers in all things. And that that rule has long distorted American political debate in predictable and recurring ways.
JF: Why do we need to read The Jefferson Rule?
DS: If you want to know why our politics are so messed up, why they have been messed up for a long time, how people in the past invoked the Founders, and how Founders rhetoric has a long history of sending political debate off the deep end, then this is the book for you. I also try to show why the sentence “The Founding Fathers believed [fill in the blank with your preferred political position]” is almost always meaningless as best and dishonest at worst. And I’ve got some killer stories in the book that make it a fun read.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DS: I went to grad school first at Rice and then at UNC-Chapel Hill shortly after George W. Bush was elected president. I had studied various other things—philosophy, theology and biblical studies, some literature—but I realized that what I cared about tended to resolve itself into history of one kind or another. I also began dating a woman (who later became my wife) that knew a lot more about the past than I did. Having her around made me realize how many times I made completely spurious references to history in order to support my position in a discussion. So I decided to become an American historian.
JF: What is your next project?
DS: I’m kicking around various ideas. I’ve begun working on a book about the politics of climate change but I’ve put that research on pause to make sure that is the direction that I want to go. For me the issue is always, what do I want to think about for the next several years? Climate change might be too depressing.
JF: Thanks David!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner