The Spirit of Jefferson was founded in 1844 to serve as an antidote to another newspaper being published in Charles Town that leaned Federalist and Whig, the Virginia Free Press. From the beginning, the Spirit embraced the old ways and, as such, provided a reliable voice for pro-South, pro-states’ rights, pro-slavery positions as espoused by Old South Democrats. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1872, nine years after West Virginia was admitted to the Union, that the Spirit changed its masthead to read “West Virginia” instead of “Virginia.”
It’s my hunch that over the years (many of them) even as the Spirit retained its editorial conservatism, the Jefferson in Spirit of Jefferson came to be understood more as an essence about a place than about an idea, as I believe it was originally intended. By 1844, many of the on-the-surface uncertainties about Thomas Jefferson had given way to a glossy patina of veneration — much the same way modern Republicans idealize Ronald Reagan. The passage of time has a way of doing that.
When I was invited in 2011 to remake the editorial direction of the Spirit, I felt like I could only do it if I took the name seriously and took it back to its proper place — as a vehicle for ideas. The trouble for me was that I wasn’t sure I qualified as a tried-and-true Jeffersonian — too many of my own ideas reflected an inclination for the middle of the road. That’s right, I’m an accommodationist.
Lucky for me, Jefferson himself was not always a tried-and-true Jeffersonian. I would submit that neither was Reagan a tried-and-true Reaganite, but that’s probably a conversation for another time.
Where Jefferson was consistent, though, was in his willingness to engage in ideas, ideas he favored and ideas he didn’t.
What I enjoy about Jefferson is he recognized the experimental nature of governing; he believed that governing sometimes involved making corrections and that the perfecting of the process will wash out today’s bad ideas believed yesterday to be good ones. Jefferson was not afraid to make radical changes as he thought they might have been needed. He was an advocate of not shackling a current generation to the ideas of the past. In short, Jefferson seemed not to believe in the “once-and-for-all-time solution”; an error I think we see manifest in too many members of today’s political class.
It’s his courage not to run from ideas he disagrees with at I most respect in Jefferson, however. For me, that is the Spirit of Jefferson, moreso than an unyielding devotion to factionalism.
These days Jefferson County enjoys a much more diverse population than it did when James W. Beller first began publishing his newspaper in Jefferson County in 1844. And that diversity shows up best in the range of opinions we have among ourselves about what is best for Jefferson County and for West Virginia.
As influential as the Spirit was in its day as a repository of classical Jeffersonianism, its my aim to make it equally as influential as a vehicle for the members of this community to discuss those ideas among ourselves. Thanks for reading.
— Robert Snyder