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JEFFERSON’S SECRETS by Andrew Burstein


Death and Desire at Monticello

by Andrew Burstein

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-465-00812-7
Publisher: Basic Books

Among the things that absorbed the Founding Father’s waking thoughts: death, sex, God, and diarrhea.

Burstein’s title is rather more breathless than the contents of this accessible, scholarly account. Like kindred recent other studies, such as Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor (2001), Burstein’s takes a confident step toward reviving the old mentalités school of history, examining not just what people did but what they thought and believed. In this regard alone, Burstein (History/Univ. of Tulsa; America’s Jubilee, 2001, etc.) adds a nuanced chapter to the ever-roiling debate over whether Jefferson believed in God, much less whether he was a Christian. The best evidence that Jefferson was a believer, Burstein writes, comes late in life in a letter to his old friend and sometime rival John Adams, taking God to be “the mind of the universe”; yet, Burstein adds, Jefferson also took Jesus to be a philosopher and the Bible to be a work of history, not religion, and in general “trusted only in the known world.” The known world of Monticello included the eternal verities of birth, life, and death, and Burstein explores each, providing particular insight into the ways in which Jefferson’s views of health colored his discourse and conception of other aspects of the world. Agrarianism, for instance, was to be preferred over urbanism because the “mobs of great cities” drain the strength of the body politic “as sores do to the strength of the human body”; the Federalists, his political enemies, were “nervous persons, whose languid fibres have more analogy with a passive than active state of things”; African-Americans were deficient “in physical, if not moral, constitution”; and so on. Burstein adds interesting footnotes to the discussion surrounding Jefferson’s relations with Sally Hemings and his views of slavery generally, but mostly he concentrates on what he started out to do: “to convey the imagination of an eighteenth-century man who read incessantly but safeguarded his innermost thoughts.”

He succeeds, and students of Jefferson will find his latest effort most illuminating.