No historical figure is more synonymous with establishing American democracy than Thomas Jefferson. Revolutionary, iconoclastic, yet pragmatic, the legacy of Jefferson as an intellectual and politician continues to reverberate across academic and public circles. However, Jefferson's writings on power, authority, and politics point to a different understanding of self-government than dominant liberal and republican interpretations suggest. Dean Caivano's interpretation of Jefferson's political, anthropological, and sociological meditations on power reveals an unknown Jefferson, who conceives the American nation-state as a network of dynamic autonomous communities enacted by a politics of all. Caivano pointedly argues that this unknown Jefferson fittingly aligns with historical and contemporary projects of radical democracy, stressing the need for constant resistance, inquiry, and dialogue. In a period, fraught with political division and hyper-partisanship, this timely, innovative reading of Jefferson invites a reappraisal of how we understand a vital founder of the American republic and what is at stake in the battle to save American democracy.
Dean Caivano teaches political science and history at Merced College.
Chapter 1: The Ancient Greek Polis: Civic Education, Questioning, and the Staging of the Political
Chapter 2: The Unwritten Law: Perpetual Reconstitution in Saxon Britain
Chapter 3: Politics Without Centralized Government: Political Power and Happiness in Indigenous Societies
Chapter 4: Eruptive Democracy: Challenging the Federal Republic
Chapter 5: Divide the Counties into Wards: A Politics of All
Caivano’s study of Thomas Jefferson reveals how Jefferson's ideas were shaped by the time he lived, yet he contends that exploring the contours of Jefferson’s thought offers important lessons to the present era of political unrest and discontent. Jefferson articulated that all men are created equal, but his concept had severe limitations, such as the exclusion of women and Black and Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, Jefferson wanted to engage people on the local level, which would permit the continuation of a society that resisted absolute degrees of obedience and conformity. [Caivano] insists that Jeffersonian thought continues to influence the social fabric of the United States, because Jefferson stressed the sanctity of natural rights, the ability of a people to self-govern, a holistic ecological perspective, and a sociological examination of the sources and origin of power and morality. Even so, Jefferson's vision of true democracy remains incomplete. Recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty.
At this critical moment when the West is suffering its gravest legitimation crisis since World War II, Caivano brilliantly discovers a Jefferson whose underappreciated revolutionary ideals place him beyond the stifling constraints of American political thought into the vastness of the cosmos of radical democratic theorists. Caivano shows how Jefferson’s ideas hold the potential of a powerful weapon against the present authoritarian zeitgeist by its open, promising, “politics of all” for this, and future, generations to come.
Deeply researched and beautifully written, Dean Caivano’s work articulates a novel interpretation of a towering figure of early American thought. A Politics for All makes a significant contribution to the history of political thought and to radical democratic theory.
Caivano’s unique approach to articulating a critical and alternative theory of democracy based on Thomas Jefferson’s historical works is thought-provoking and timely in this era of democratic upheaval and uncertainty, especially in the U.S.. His treatment of important strands of political thought, and the way he re-imagines the idea of politics for all, invites readers to re-think their notions of democracy in a historical, yet readable fashion.