Just how revolutionary and radical was Thomas Jefferson?
Veritas Radio Network's Constitution Hour host Gutzman (History/Western Connecticut State Univ.; James Madison and the Making of America, 2012, etc.) begins his provocative book with a rather bold statement: “Jefferson’s influence on American political history outstrips that of any other figure.” He admits Franklin Roosevelt rivaled Jefferson, but Washington and Lincoln? Gutzman lays out his case in five footnote-laden chapters that sometimes drag. Federalism receives most of the author’s attention, taking up a third of the book. He admires Jefferson’s long-standing defense of states’ rights as they relate to their relationship with the central government. He features lots of back and forth arguing with Jefferson scholars over matters of interpretation, and he feels they’ve especially “distorted history” in arguing that federalism was really not that “important” to Jefferson. Jefferson “considered liberty of conscience to be the basis of all other freedom.” While establishing the University of Virginia—another subject Gutzman examines in detail—Jefferson was adamant that it should be secular and that all students should be able to explore their religious inquiries without restrictions—except blacks, who were not allowed to attend. Gutzman admits Jefferson “erred” in his views on race; Jefferson thought blacks “inferior,” even disliked them and, although unjust, refused to condemn slavery. He advocated colonization; they could be “created equal” as long as they lived somewhere else. He was all for shipping them overseas, perhaps Liberia. He was adverse to “racial mixture” but, sadly, not adverse to having children with Sally Hemings, one of his female slaves. As for Native Americans, Jefferson believed they were violent, the equals of whites, and needed educating. His policies encouraging taking their land for agricultural use—Gutzman notes that Lewis and Clark helped with that—set the stage for Andrew Jackson's removal policy.
Written in academic prose, this book, which shows Jefferson to be a man of his times, brilliant yet flawed, will appeal primarily to scholars.