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Pauline Maier

May 2024
1min read


Professor and director of the history faculty, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Most overrated:

Thomas Jefferson. The limits of his human sympathies and the ways in which his fiery temperament and rigidity interfered with greatness are insufficiently acknowledged by a historical profession awash in Jeffersonian nostalgia. Madison—a far greater political and constitutional intellect—understood that his friend Thomas Jefferson was something of a loaded pistol, and Madison’s sense is confirmed by close readings of the Kentucky Resolutions (Jefferson’s work) and Madison’s Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and Report of 1799. Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence took on its much-admired spare elegance only after Congress had edited it heavily. He was a disastrous revolutionary governor of Virginia, and, as he had the grace to acknowledge, his Presidency was just as bad. He expressed our highest ideals as a people but incarnated as eloquently the difficulties of achieving them.

Most underrated:

Samuel Adams. He was from early on misinterpreted as a mob leader and an advocate of violent revolution rather than as the patient, democratic politician he really was. Without the grass-roots organizing skill of a Samuel Adams, without his belief in the people and his efforts to make popular rule (not popular violence) real, the American Revolution would not have worked (as the French Revolution did not work) and we would not be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the United States Constitution.

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