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The Jefferson Rule

How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible

In The Jefferson Rule, historian David Sehat describes how everyone from liberals to conservatives, secessionists to unionists have sought out the Founding Fathers to defend their policies.

Beginning with the debate between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over the future of the nation, and continuing throughout our history—the Civil War, the World Wars, the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution, and Obama and the Tea Party—many politicos have asked, “What would the Founders do?” instead of “What is the common good today?” Both the Right and the Left have used the Founders to sort through such issues as voting rights, campaign finance, free speech, war and peace, gun control, and taxes, though those Fathers were a querulous and divided group who rarely agreed.

In this “sobering, informative study” (Publisher’s Weekly), Sehat shows why coming to terms with the past would be the start of a productive debate. The result is, simply put, “required reading for those desperate for sane, intelligent political arguments” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review). The Jefferson Rule “takes the reader through an engaging and insightful survey course in American history” (The Christian Science Monitor).

David Sehat is Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University. His first book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians. Visit DavidSehat.net.

"[A] crisply written and incisive account of the uses and abuses of the Founders."

– The Wall Street Journal

"Sehat writes masterfully of American political history."

– The Daily Beast

“A careful, and fascinating, historical analysis of one aspect of American exceptionalism . . . well worth reading.”


– Sanford Levinson, History Book Club

"Sehat convincingly argues that the founders were fallible and not succinct in the ways they wanted the nation to be governed. . . . Highly recommended for political junkies, historians, and rhetoricians."

– Library Journal (starred review)

“The author makes a strong case that forefather worship has had a pernicious effect on our politics throughout American history. . . . [the book]could not be timelier. . . . Sehat takes the reader through an engaging and insightful survey course in American history, pointing out where he believes ‘founding fanaticism’ crops up as the last refuge of politicians who can’t make a more rational or contemporary case for their beliefs.”

– Christian Science Monitor

"Sehat ably shows how the exploitation of the founders debases political debate and neglects policy evaluation—required reading for those desperate for sane, intelligent political arguments."

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A sobering, informative study of concepts from America’s political origins too often viewed with rose-tinted glasses.”

– Publishers Weekly

"Please, dear politicians, read David Sehat’s The Jefferson Rule and stop pretending that everything you say, believe and propose is exactly what the Founders of our nation would say, believe and propose. The Founders themselves would be amazed and appalled by this. Sehat has written a splendid book—important, well-argued, and offered at the right moment. ‘Politicians create the Founders in their own image’, Sehat writes. They do, and they should stop."

– E. J. Dionne Jr., author of "Our Divided Political Heart" and "Why Americans Hate Politics"

"In this beautifully written and provocative book, David Sehat gives the rhetoric about the Founders a history, spanning from Jefferson to Calhoun to FDR to Reagan to the Tea Party. Sehat convincingly argues that the world of the Founders has long been dead, and that Founders rhetoric dumbs down our political discourse."

– Andrew Hartman, author of "A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars"

"The Founders’ framework is distorted and devalued, David Sehat shows, when we mistakenly treat Jefferson and his cohort as mirrors for whatever political outlooks we advance today. This book clarifies the difference between the use and the abuse of history."

– David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley; Past President, Organization of American Historians

"David Sehat has found a fresh, meaningful way to write a concise history of American politics. The Jefferson Rule instructs, enlightens, and entertains."

– Evan Thomas, author of "Ike’s Bluff" and "The War Lovers"

"A highly amusing and anecdotal narrative about the legacy—both real and invented—of our divided and factious Founding Fathers. David Sehat goes from the tea party to the Tea Party, and offers a coherent recounting of a largely incoherent yet bold and boisterous history. In limpid prose, he examines the ways in which, in every era of US history, the lofty ideals that the Founding Fathers promoted, and the tortuous conflicts they addressed, have been twisted and manipulated by politicians—from both sides of the political divide—for their own purposes. A fun yet profound ride from the colony to today."

– Amy Wilentz, author of "Farewell, Fred Voodoo"

The Jefferson Rule is a fun, challenging, and thoughtful book . . . a page-turner . . . Sehat provides readers an easy to understand, pleasure-to-read discussion of how misinterpreting the intentions, words, ideas and beliefs of the ‘founding fathers’ has created countless problems for the United States as it progressed over the past 239 years.”

– New York Journal of Books

“In recent times, the Tea Party and other groups have continued to invoke the Founders in debates over gun control, income inequality, religious liberty, and a myriad of other topics. David Sehat has shown why such attempts to channel the Founders are dangerous….This book is a needed corrective that should be read widely and taken to heart.”

– Journal of Southern History