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Abstract

We explore the above discrepancy by posing the question: How does the Sally Hemings controversy work to deconstruct the popular conception of Tho-mas Jefferson as American Patriot through the use of converging and conflicting frames? Kenneth Burke’s concept of poetic framing may be used to help answer this question, as Burke asserts history may be socially constructed via poetic frames which reject or accept a given social order or expectations. Historical figures are constructed as heroes, such as Abraham Lincoln, or as buffoons, such as Benedict Arnold, representing the choice to accept or reject the status quo. Burke asserts frames typically exist in isolation; as explored by a number of scholars. While focused and insightful research, the scholars only address the reaction to conflict within the context of an isolated Burkean frame (e.g., Moore 1992, 1996 and Buerkle et. al. 2003). Others have addressed texts in which two frames operate simultaneously, often examining a shift from one perspective to another as a rhetor shifts between rejection and acceptance. In their analysis of public response to Arizona governor Evan Mecham, Buerkle, Mayer, and Olson (2003) address the relationship of Burke’s frames by exploring the simultaneous operation of contradictory frames in interpreting and responding to the same texts to establish how competing frames can synthesize to establish a new identity for a specific rhetor.

The rhetoric surrounding the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings controversy proffers a similar opportunity for scholars, as divergent public responses are indicative of social image construction in the acceptance frame of Burke’s epic, and the rejection frame of Burke’s burlesque. Both frames work together in establishing a more complete version of the truth, yet work in opposition to one another to effectively prevent a full truth from ever being firmly established. Through our analysis, the tensions between Burke’s frames may be more fully examined as well as the implications for the public perceptions of Thomas Jefferson as Americans are faced with rejecting or accepting a particular interpretation and construction of “social order.”

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License

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