R. B. Bernstein, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School, is the author of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, 2003, paperback 2005) and The Founding Fathers Reconsidered, which Oxford University Press will publish in April, 2009. In the article below he responds to Rush Limbaugh’s use of his book, Thomas Jefferson.
On March 18, 2009, Rush Limbaugh used my biography of Thomas Jefferson (which Oxford University Press published in 2003) as a tire-iron to belabor President Barack Obama. Limbaugh wrested from context my discussion of Jefferson’s opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s constitutional views. His aim was to make an analogy between Jefferson’s belief that Hamilton was violating the Constitution and distorting its meaning and his own claim that President Obama is violating the Constitution and distorting its meaning.
Needless to say, that is not what I had in mind when I wrote that passage (and not just because I voted for Obama in 2008). I was trying my best to explain why Jefferson and Hamilton regarded each other with suspicion and mistrust, without seeking to take sides in that dispute. I never dreamed of trying to refight their battle with a changed cast of characters and two totally different sets of fiscal policies in two widely differing historical settings.
Hamilton’s and Obama’s policies are as different as ham and microchips. Further, Hamilton was trying to establish a state-of-the-art financial system for the nineteenth century United States, while Obama is trying to save an established American financial system from imploding due to wild spasms of fraud, incompetent regulation, and bad fiscal judgment. But those differences did not matter to Limbaugh; what did matter to him was a quick and easy debating point having nothing in common with writing history.
When a friend emailed me to alert me to what Limbaugh had done, at first I felt as if I’d been hit by a truck. Then I remembered Abraham Lincoln’s legendary comment about losing an election. “I feel,” Lincoln allegedly said, “like the man who was being ridden out of town on a rail. He said that he was sensible of the honor, but he’d just as soon walk.”
What do you do when your work is distorted to make or support political claims you don’t accept in the service of an agenda that you don’t share? There is nothing you can do, for you can’t exert the kind of control over uses of your work that would prevent people from misrepresenting your scholarship or showing flagrant disregard for the difference between a nuanced historical argument and a political mudfest.
I first learned that lesson at the 1985 convention of the American Society for Legal History. Professor Suzanne Lebsock of Rutgers University, whose first book, The Free Women of Petersburg, won a Bancroft Prize, had discovered to her dismay that her careful and insightful analysis of what she called “women’s legal culture” in antebellum Petersburg, Virginia, was mutating, in the hands of litigators and polemicists, into an allegedly historical argument against “equal pay for equal work.” At the ASLH, Lebsock ruefully pointed out that, no matter how carefully you write and how responsibly and thoroughly you document your work, you run the risk of your work being misused.
Now I know how she felt and what she was going through. Again, there is no remedy for funhouse-mirror distortions of scholarly work. Limbaugh will not enter a scholarly arena, with agreed-upon rules governing the cut-and-thrust of academic debate. And I won’t jump into the pigsty of political mud-throwing, where the rules change from moment to moment at the election of the stymaster.
This is not the first time that my book has been dragged into the political arena. In late 2004, after the presidential election that gave George W. Bush a second term, Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of the defeated Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, announced that she was battling cancer. She was deluged with good wishes and condolences from Democrats, as to both her health and the results of the election. In response, she reported that she was reading my biography of Jefferson and quoted Jefferson’s famous 1798 letter about “the reign of witches” that would attend the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts but eventually would pass away.
Now, what’s the difference between these two uses of the same book? In one case, Elizabeth Edwards drew a plausible historical analogy between two periods in which supporters of a presidential administration were stigmatizing that administration’s opponents as traitors and deserving of prosecution. In the other case, Rush Limbaugh provided only half the story, creating a vertigo-inducing analogy suggesting that Jefferson would oppose Obama’s policies for the same reason that he opposed Hamilton’s policies, and that the one set of policies was as wrong as the other
I tried to write a reply taking Limbaugh’s analogy apart. After all, as James Bryce once wrote, “the chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies.” After a brief struggle at the keyboard, I realized that my explanation inevitably would be far too complicated to fit into a sound-bite, the political currency in which such polemicists as Rush Limbaugh deal. When attempting to set the record straight will not achieve that goal and will only give a distortion-monger further opportunities to dance his dance, maybe it’s best to say nothing. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”
Besides, maybe Limbaugh’s citation of my book will plug it to his millions of “dittoheads” (as they call themselves), who will flock to bookstores to buy the book.
At least he got my name right.