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If Jefferson had Used Twitter, and if Jefferson were Trump

A Project Overview by the Teacher

Opinion polls show that most Americans have a negative view of President Trump’s use of Twitter, perhaps seeing @realDonaldTrump as sometimes crude, inflammatory, and unpresidential. But Trump’s tweets, which provide an unfiltered news stream directly from the White House, might be seen in the tradition of FDR's fireside chats. This year’s APUSH students considered Twitter as a presidential communication tool and asked themselves what presidential tweets might have looked like had Thomas Jefferson, arguably one of America’s most eloquent presidents, used the social media platform.

To gain insight into the content and style of possible Jeffersonian tweets, students conducted a word-frequency analysis of volumes 9 and 10 of The Works of Thomas Jefferson, covering the years 1799-1807. Word and phrase frequencies from Online-Utility.org revealed to students the events and individuals that dominated the 3rd president’s candidacy and time in office (see lists, left), along with his diction. Because the writings were not meant for public consumption, though, and because there’s no way of knowing what Jefferson would have chosen to share on social media, forming tweets from his language was just a fun exercise. Yet, the exercise had value. By text mining and then reading the primary sources, students saw a president’s mind in action, much like followers of @realDonaldTrump see on a daily basis.

After “tweeting” as Jefferson, students turned their attention to President Trump's language, using trumptwitterarchive.com/archive to download tweets for a Trump word- and phrase-frequency list. As with Jefferson, the analysis revealed phrasing tendencies which were used to compose more tweets, but this time as if Jefferson had tweeted as Trump. @notrealTomJeff is the result — a bot that draws from a library of programmed tweets. 

Jefferson Tweets as Jefferson

To help ensure realistic Jeffersonian language, before "tweeting" as Jefferson students ran an additional localized word-frequency analysis on excerpts involving their selected issues. Sample tweets appear below and, to the left, a word-cloud data visualization showing word frequencies associated with the issue of Aaron Burr's conspiracy. See more tweets from Jefferson as Jefferson, as well as word frequencies and project photos.

About Aaron Burr, who was replaced as vice president following his duel with Alexander Hamilton and who then allegedly attempted to create an independent country in the Southwest, Jefferson may have said ...

•  The insurrection of Burr is the most flagitious of which history will ever furnish an example. His conspiracy was an enterprise to sever the Union and subvert our freedom. — Tweet by Star
Aaron Burr has been apprehended on account of his conspiracy against our country. I extend my sincere affection and great respect to the western governors who assisted us in his arrest. — Tweet by Abby
  In the case of Burr’s treason, all citizens are satisfied by the depth of his guilt. Yet, the fact is, the Federalist Marshall shields him in court. — Tweet by Star

Jefferson Tweets as Trump

For tweets from the 3rd President of the United States in the words of the 45th, students not only composed original Trump-like tweets, but also simply replicated Trump tweets by substituting a few keywords. In these cases, some effort was made to find some historical parallel to issues or personalities during Jefferson's time. But, for many of these tweets, there are no connections. When a Trump tweet was copied, @notrealTomJeff provides a link to the original. @notrealTomJeff tweets twice per day and is currently drawing from a library of approximately 75 tweets. @zachwhalen's Twitter bot instructions were used to develop the library.

This year's APUSH class asks that followers of @notrealTomJeff think about how early American history might have changed had Thomas Jefferson’s style been more like President Trump’s. Although it’s unlikely that President Trump would have been elected, given the different politics and electoral procedures in place in 1800, it’s nonetheless interesting to compare Jefferson tweeting as Jefferson to Jefferson tweeting as Trump. Jefferson tweeting as Trump will likely offer readers more entertainment value than Jefferson as Jefferson. And, again, that’s what this digital history project was mostly about — having fun and being entertained. But, by immersing themselves in the communications of both presidents, students also saw that words are powerful and can define a person or a time period.

About the Students

"If Jefferson had Used Twitter, and if Jefferson were Trump"
was produced by the 2017-18 AP U.S. History class:

Elizabeth Bennett
Justin Claus
Grace Clay
Ryan Fleury
Will Keegan
Star Lucas
Nicole Malanga
Erin Moynihan
Blaise O'Mara
Em Platt
Abby Rowell

See more from this project.