A portrait of Thomas Jefferson’s passionate belief in Enlightenment values and how it determined his personal character and that of the young nation.
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Gordon-Reed (American Legal History/Harvard Law School; The Hemingses of Monticello, 2009, etc.) and Onuf (Emeritus, History/Univ. of Virginia; The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 2007, etc.) are fascinated by the many shifting “selves” of Jefferson: father, husband, slave owner, diplomat, politician, and cosmopolitan. His broad sense of himself as “the most blessed of patriarchs” is both a beautiful notion and mostly correct as well as a patronizing illusion considering that he was the master of numerous slaves at his Monticello plantation and, literally, their father. In this meticulously documented work exploring Jefferson’s many roles in life, the authors take the great man at his word rather than how they think he ought to be: “We instead seek to understand what Thomas Jefferson thought he was doing in the world.” Subsequently, the work proves to be a subtle, intriguing study of his Enlightenment ideals, beginning with his great hope in his fellow white Virginians as the ideal republicans who (with his help) abolished primogeniture, possessed a “fruitful attachment to land,” and “knitted together…tender attachments,” such as strategic arranged marriages among the upper class. However, his vision was problematic since he and his observant granddaughter Ellen, who lived for a spell in the North, documented well the differences between the slothful Southern temperament and the Northern industrious one, while the ills of slavery, which Jefferson himself wrote about in Notes on the State of Virginia, would not go away—and indeed, his own ties to the Hemingses could not be hidden. The authors make some trenchant observations regarding the effects of living in France on Jefferson’s tempering of the republican ideals, in showing him both the dangers of extremism and the hope of “ameliorating” his slaves’ conditions by incorporating them into his patriarchal family.
An elegant, astute study that is both readable and thematically rich.