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 2017-2018 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

More from the Project

• On the British Navy: I salute Madison with affectionate salutations & assurances of constant esteem for working to settle a limit with the British concerning naval forces within our waters. —Tweet by Will
• On U.S. gunboats: Our coasts have been infested and our harbors watched by privateers. I have relocated gunboats from the Mediterranean to cruise within our own seas for the purpose of bringing the offenders in for trial. — Tweet by Ryan
• On the Chesapeake Bay: The armed vessels on the part of the British in the waters of the Chesapeake are being pursued, though this may lead to nothing further if their government proceeds no further. — Tweet by Elizabeth
• On the Chesapeake-Leopard Incident: On the 22nd day of June last the aggression began on the frigate Chesapeake by British armed vessels off the coast, having several of her crew killed and taken away, disabled to proceed. — Tweet by Erin
• On Marquis de Lafayette: The presence at New Orleans of my dear friend M. de La Fayette would be in the interest of everyone involved. Our absence at New Orleans might excite an opposition agreeable neither to the feelings nor interests of our country. — Tweet by Nicole
• On the Louisiana Purchase: Citizens, we now have sole dominion of the Mississippi and the Louisiana province. This purchase excludes us from bickering with foreign nations and secures to us the course of a peaceable nation. — Tweet by Blaise
• On the Louisiana Purchase: The Federalists will attack any principle known to come from me, despite the acquisition of the Louisiana province being perfect in all points. I rely on the nation to sanction an act done for its great good, as we now possess the island of New Orleans. — Tweet by Blaise
• On religious freedom: We must look forward in education, religion, & government. I thus appeal to Congress to legislate non-denominational universities. The Gothic idea that we are to look backwards instead of forwards is one of bigotry in religion & government.Tweet by Em
• On Tripoli: Settlements with the Basha of Tripoli, for peace and the release of our men, are to be arranged. If Tripoli is in agreement with these terms, an operation by land to find our prisoners will be conducted. — Tweet by Justin
• On the Napoleonic Wars: It seems now certain there will be an extensive war on the continent of Europe. All we can do is encourage Bonaparte and England to declare & guarantee our neutral rights. — Tweet by Grace