What Would Jefferson Do?

In speeches and debates, contemporary politicians often relate their values back to the principles of America’s founding fathers. However, how well they actually represent those ideals is disputable. In her Emerson Foundation project, “What Would Jefferson Do? The Jeffersonian Ideal and Modern Day Environmental Policy,” Claire Zurlo ’14 is examining how Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophy relates to today’s environmentalism.

Zurlo began exploring Thomas Jefferson’s ideas in Associate Professor of Government Peter Cannavo’s class, Interpreting the American Environment. She learned about Jefferson’s idealization of the yeoman farmer and his concept of intergenerational land wealth. Jefferson believed that each generation should be held responsible for protecting the land for future generations. She also read about Jefferson’s role in supporting the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Louisiana Purchase.

As she watched the 2012 election, Zurlo noticed that Jefferson’s environmental ideas did not have a prominent place in the candidates’ discussion, although his other policies were mentioned frequently. She explained, “As the election heated up in the fall I noticed how much Jefferson's ideas of a small federal government were discussed among the candidates. However, I didn’t hear much about his philosophy pertaining to the way we should treat our lands and his beliefs about the downfalls of industrialization and corporations.” She decided to compare Jefferson’s environmental philosophy to current policies and discussions about the environment.

Zurlo is conducting research with Professor Cannavo, who is her advisor for the project. She’s reading modern interpretations of Jefferson’s philosophy in addition to his historical works. She stated, “My knowledge of Thomas Jefferson was limited prior to the start of my research, having done little previous work in the History or Government departments, and so this work has been interesting and enlightening.” Zurlo is combining her research on Jefferson with analysis of the current state of American environmental policy. In particular, she’s examining projects such as hydraulic fracturing, the Keystone XL pipeline and initiatives to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

She believes that some of these modern policies, such as hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, violate Jefferson’s ideals and that they could have grave consequences for future generations. Zurlo pointed out that some of the politicians who most fervently espouse Jefferson’s political views are the ones who depart the most from his environmental philosophy. She argued, “While some Conservatives believe that Jefferson is the symbol of their political philosophy, their negligence in regards to preserving the environment and favoring the small, self-sufficient farmer is in direct contrast to Jefferson's beliefs.” Zurlo hopes that by presenting her research she can draw attention to those dichotomies between modern political rhetoric and environmental policy.

Zurlo is a graduate of Hershey High School in Hershey, Pa.

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