A Populist Channels Jefferson

Unfortunately, the name Clay Jenkinson is not as well known to most Americans as the more prominent of our nation's so-called political pundits that appear ad nauseam on our talk shows, radio stations and other media outlets.

Yet Jenkinson, a genuine Northern Plains populist, is recognized by his radio audience and by dozens of audiences through the US as a highly respected scholar. Jenkinson has contributed to public humanities programs as an author, lecturer and consultant on a range of topics, with specific interests in Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, classical culture and terrorism.

In his personal appearances he assumes the role of several of the most fascinating personalities of American history, including Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, John Wesley Powell, Theodore Roosevelt and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

He tells an audience first about the life of the character in the first person. At the conclusion of his performance Jenkinson steps out of character and briefly evaluates the man in the light of historical perspective. He shares with the audience some of his own populist insights and humor. His audience never tires of hearing him relate, for example, how he learned from his grandmother the proper way to can and preserve dill pickles.

As one of his biographies notes, "... [T]hanks to a series of accidents, [Jenkinson became] a Jefferson scholar, a Lewis and Clark scholar, and a student of the future of rural America." As a public speaker, his performances are both humorous and enlightening, while maintaining a steady focus on ideas.

Jenkinson is also one of the nation's leading interpreters of Thomas Jefferson. He has lectured about and portrayed Jefferson in 49 states and has performed before Supreme Court justices, presidents, 18 state legislatures and countless public audiences, as well as appearing on The Today Show, Politically Incorrect and CNN.

In 1989, Jenkinson became one of the first winners of the nation's highest award in the humanities, the Charles Frankel Prize. He was described by the National Endowment for the Humanities as "a leader in the revival of chautauqua, a forum for public discussion about the ideas and lives of key figures in American history." Others who have received this award include Ken Burns, Bill Moyers and Charles Kuralt.

Jenkinson is also a senior fellow for the Center for Digital Government, based in California. He is a scholar-in-residence at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.; the creator and host of the nationally syndicated public radio program The Thomas Jefferson Hour; the creative producer of a 13-part National Public Radio documentary series on Lewis and Clark; and the author of six books, including his newest one, Becoming Jefferson's People [Marmarth Press, 2005].

It is clearly Thomas Jefferson that Jenkinson is most attracted to, and for good reason. He explained this devotion to Jefferson to reporter Douglas Horchuck in an Austin, Texas, interview as not wanting to get "bogged down trying to sort out the historically circumscribed Jefferson. So I decided to try to distill Jefferson's general cultural vision from the facts of his life and the ways in which he saw things in what we consider an unenlightened way. I wanted to concentrate on the Enlightenment aspects of Jefferson -- the cultural and political idealism. In other words, the Jeffersonian is what I believe Jefferson would advocate today if he could descend among us.

"I've written about the biographical Jefferson before," Jenkinson continues, "and I will again, many times. In this book I wanted to concentrate on what George Bush, Sr., called 'the vision thing.' I did not want to lose time wrestling with Jefferson's demons. I wanted to try to articulate, in short compass, the world Jefferson truly wanted to live in."

Jefferson, Jenkinson explains, "envisioned a rational world, a world in which citizens want to be learned, thoughtful, healthy, committed to the public good, well-informed, civil, highly cultured and surrounded by aesthetically pleasing things."

Horchuck asked Jenkinson if he was saying we do not live in such a world, and if not, what happened ?

Candidly, Jenkinson replied, "Some do, most don't. When I look around at the United States today, I do not see Jefferson's America. I used to call it Hamilton's America, but in the last couple of years I have come to think that might be unfair even to Hamilton. I cannot imagine any of the Founding Fathers, or any enlightened being, for that matter, assessing the America of 2004 as a republic -- with all that the word republic implies.

"We decided the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of stuff. We decided we like television more than culture. We decided we like comfort more than liberty. We decided to eat like longshoremen but to live in BarcaLoungers. We decided we wanted to maintain our level of consumer comfort even if that meant becoming a militaristic bully. We decided that it is easier to build gated communities than to strive for economic justice and equal opportunity."

Jenkinson added, "We decided that education is about skill-building and job-preparation rather than the life of the mind. And if Tom Wolfe is right, we decided that college is a place to play with drugs, sex, music and alcohol rather than even build those skills. We decided that good manners, self-restraint, respect for elders and civility are boring. We decided that sex is an economic lubricant rather than a sacrament. We decided that health care belongs to those who can afford it. We decided that it is not impossible to maintain a permanent underclass as long as we keep the beer, meth, professional wrestling and tractor pulls flowing through the culture."

Clearly in his interview with reporter Horchuck, the 51-year old Jenkinson, born in Minot, N.D, exhibits his populist roots in answer to the following questions:

Q: What would Jefferson do if he actually appeared among us today?

"He'd buy an Apple computer and a photocopying machine. He'd buy a computerized combine and a Honda hybrid car. He'd observe a heart transplant. He'd send an email to Lafayette. He'd visit Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley. He'd buy electronic gadgets. On credit, of course."

Q: Do you think he'd be disappointed?

"Of course. He'd tell us to read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He'd be appalled by what we have done to the American experiment, particularly in his native Virginia. But he'd be intensely curious about our technologies, gadgets, comforts and innovations, until he learned about the infrastructure and the social hierarchies necessary to produce them. He'd hate the taste of our fresh fruits, which are rendered insipid by the Hamiltonian food production system."

Q: What are the most Jeffersonian things in America?

"The Smithsonian Institution. National Public Radio. The National Endowment for the Humanities. Your local public library. A family farm in east central North Dakota. Book groups which begin the evening with pot luck dinners. 4-H clubs. Farmers' markets. The Library of Congress."

Q: What are the least Jeffersonian things in America?

"Cyberpornography. Costco and Wal-Mart. The CIA. Commercial television. Professional athletics. Prisons. Monsanto and Cargill and Exxon Oil."

(The complete text of the Horchuck interview can be found at

Given Jenkinson's learned insights, his curiosity, his intelligence and the attraction he feels toward some of the great explorers and politicians in American history, plus his ability to make these giants come alive again, it is not difficult for us to see that we currently live in an age of social and political pigmies.

A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter The Agribusiness Examiner. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2006

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