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What Would Jefferson Do? A historian makes the case for a national divorce

Journalist, historian and part-time Jefferson impersonator Clay Jenkinson
Clay Jenkinson
Journalist, historian and part-time Jefferson impersonator Clay Jenkinson

In his role as senior editor of Governing.com, Clay Jenkinson wrote about the state of American politics, arguing that the nation had irreconcilable differences.

“The divide is so great now between the red and the blue, the rural and the urban, the coasts and the heartland that it does seem like we’re now two nations,” he explains.

And frankly, he adds, breaking up wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen. In that view, he has a powerful ally from history – a man he sometimes portrays on stage --Thomas Jefferson.

“When he bought the Louisiana Territory he was concerned about what this meant. Would this be too large a nation? So he wrote a letter to John Breckenridge, Senator from Kentucky, and he said this: If it should become the interest of those nations -- the west -- Kentucky and Alabama, Louisiana – to separate from this, why should the Atlantic states dread it? We should say ‘Farewell! We hope you do well!” We’ll still be English-speaking. We’ll still have republican forms of government. We’ll probably have a common currency. Why does it all have to pivot on one national capitol?”

Jenkinson does worry about poor people finding themselves at odds with their new country – unable to pay for a move, and he fears environmental consequences.

“If Alaska were left to itself it would, of course, develop the national wildlife refuges there, probably dissolve some of the national parks and national wilderness. It only can’t do that because of the federal supervision that we get from having a big national government.”

He also argues that our big national government plays an important role in world affairs – clout that could be lost if the United States break up.

And Jenkinson concedes there would be problems for red communities in predominantly blue states and vice versa.

“If you take a state like Virginia where you have the northern Virginians living in the greater D.C. area, and the people around the Chesapeake, and Charlottesville, they’re kind of blue islands, but the vast majority of the counties of Virginia are red The logistics of this get to be pretty crazy as you start re-drawing the map. And what do you do with places like Boulder, Colorado or Madison, Wisconsin. These are like totally blue city states in the middle of totally red surroundings?”

Still, he thinks we could work out the details, be happier in a country that more fully aligns with our values and be able to finally fix our Constitution.

“This constitution was created in 1787 by men, all white, all privileged, who wore tights and buckled shoes and wigs, and nothing moved faster than three miles per hour. Now we live in this world, and we’re trying to governor ourselves in the 21st century in an age of cyber terror and cyber porn, with an instrument produced by James Madison. Wise though he was, he could not have anticipated even electricity.”

At the very least, he adds, we should try to avoid bloodshed, remembering the tragedy of our civil war.

“We killed almost 700,000 people, and here’s the sorrow of it. When we put the nation back together, it didn’t necessarily solve the problem. There was technical emancipation, but the Black Codes, the Jim Crow laws, the poll taxes, the intimidation of African-Americans was so complete that it wasn’t until the 1960’s when we addressed this in a more significant way.”

Clay Jenkinson will speak at the Roper Performing Arts Center in Norfolk May 10th. The title of his talk: Is Jefferson Canceled?

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief