This blog was written by Jake Hiserman, a graduate student processing the Marvin Leath Papers.
Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. Those two iconic American political figures were present in the political views of Marvin Leath, Democratic Congressman for Texas’s 11th District from 1979-1990. As I’ve been processing Marvin Leath’s papers, I came across a couple of framed drawings of Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello (see below). That find intrigued me. I wondered what Leath saw in Jefferson or his home that would incline him toward those drawings. Then, I carefully studied Leath’s newsletters, where he displayed his political ideology for his constituents. I thought I might find some Jefferson or Jeffersonian ideas in there. My exciting research uncovered not only Jeffersonian political tenets but also other quotes from Founding Father Ben Franklin.
Jefferson believed in a government that left individuals alone to order their own lives and reduced the size and scope of the federal government as president.(1) Such a philosophy ingrained itself in the Democratic Republican party that Jefferson led. Moreover, our two current parties originated in the Democratic Republican party. Leath’s view of small government corresponded with the ideology of Jefferson. In Leath’s newsletters, cutting government spending in non-vital areas and balancing the budget were two main consistent concerns. However, Jefferson’s approach reduced the size of the U.S. armed forces, while Leath fought to increase their size and effectiveness.(2) Yet, Leath core principle was reducing the number of government programs intruding into the everyday lives of American citizens. That was also Jefferson’s aim. Perhaps the Monticello sketches Leath owned reflected his admiration for Jeffersonian political ideas.
Moreover, Leath quoted Ben Franklin and early American politician Daniel Webster in three of his newsletters. Leath, in a March 16, 1979 newsletter entitled “Examining America’s Conscience in 1979—Where Do We Go From Here?” quoted Franklin’s line “We must seek guidance from the Father of Lights” to buttress his point about a return to sound morality as a nation. Furthermore, in a February 8, 1980 newsletter, Leath stated “Ben Franklin admonished those at the Constitutional Convention no to forget ‘Father of Lights,’ whose strength and guidance have given us our nation.” The congressman used that line again to underscore the importance of prayer for successful government in the 1980s. In those quotations, Leath imagined the Founding Fathers as a guiding force for 1970s-1980s America.
Therefore, Marvin Leath’s collection reveals the influence of Founding Fathers Jefferson and Franklin upon his political positions. He used Jefferson’s small government philosophy and Franklin’s insistence on religion’s significance in American life to link the 1780s and the 1980s in his constituents’ imaginations. Debates over the size and reach of the U.S. government and the role of religion and the nation still enthrall American citizens. Leath’s emphases on these two Founding Fathers demonstrates the large relevance of early American leaders for contemporary issues.
(1) Peter Onuf, “Thomas Jefferson: Domestic Affairs,” Miller Center at the University of Virginia. https://millercenter.org/president/jefferson/domestic-affairs (accessed April 17, 2018).
(2) See article in previous footnote.