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Interstate Comity: A New Monument to Jefferson

ISSUE:  Spring 1988
In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson. By Noble E. Cunningham, Jr. Louisiana. $24.95.

In 1883, Congress having voted money for a new stone to mark Jefferson’s grave at Monticello, descendants decided to send the original tombstone to the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia, the first place of higher learning in the vast territory Jefferson had acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Twenty-four years later the Jamestown tricentenary committee asked to borrow the marker, but Missouri politely refused, doubting that if it went east it would ever return. Since then Virginians more than once have considered ways of retrieving the monument. Now a respected University of Missouri historian closes the circle by giving all of us a handsome one-volume biography of Jefferson—published, rightly enough, by one of the old territory’s strongest university presses, that of Louisiana State.

Cunningham takes as his unifying theme Jefferson’s belief in “the sufficiency of reason for the care of human affairs”— his confidence in the power of reason to solve human problems and to persuade his fellow citizens of the wise course. Such faith, writes Cunningham, accounted for Jefferson’s bright view of progress, along with his political principles, love of science, and struggle for educational opportunity. Recounting the familiar story of Jefferson’s career in this, his first biography, Cunningham skillfully balances the subject and his world, showing how—in a certain political culture— personal strengths and rational spirit brought Jefferson a Founding Father’s fame and political triumph and then how, when he became a second-term president, good fortune changed to much frustration and no little disappointment.

Fresh and well informed, In Pursuit of Reason makes full use of the scholarship that has emerged since Merrill D, Peterson’s standard one-volume study of 1970. Cunningham quotes heavily from the scholarly editions of Founding Father’s papers that private money and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission have kept afloat despite rising expenses and federal budget cuts. Himself a student of the Democratic-Republican party, the administrative workings of Jefferson’s government, and the Jefiersonian image in contemporary iconography, Cunningham builds on books that include Drew R. McCoy’s study of Jefferson’s changing attitudes toward commerce and manufactures; he draws upon recent works exploring Jefferson and the federal courts, the president’s embargo experiment, and Jefferson as architect. Cunningham’s treatment of Jefiersonian views of the Indian and puzzlement over how best to incorporate him into American society benefits from Bernard W. Sheehan’s monograph. Where Cunningham writes of Jefferson’s domestic life—where he broaches the perennially favorite topic of Sally Hemings—he opts for Dumas Malone over Fawn Brodie. Cunningham’s Jefferson emerges as a typically romantic youth, loving husband and father, and widower who in Paris did indeed enjoy the company of the amiable Maria Cosway. He does not appear as a master who sated sexual appetite by means of a mulatto house slave.

As an award-winning classroom teacher, Cunningham will not be disappointed that his emphasis on reason raises several issues. One of them is biographical, for some readers may argue that so complex a figure as Jefferson calls for harder looks into the dark corners of his life., for further musing on the curiosities that Cunningham treats reasonably—-Jefferson’s mysterious relationship with his mother; the scientific method that apparently faltered only in examining the human capacities of blacks in bondage; his keen regard for strict construction of the Constitution yet willingness to push ahead with the Louisiana Purchase with or without express authority to double the country’s size. Perhaps the president’s deep aversion for Aaron Burr, for example, had roots in the similarities between them (which Jefferson would likely have found a sensitive subject). Both these men shared ardent devotion to daughters, chronic indebtedness, proto-professionalism as party leaders, and consuming attraction to the Western territories. Burr may have been the Machiavelli Jefferson did not wish to see in himself.

Too, Cunningham in this biographical survey of 18th-century reason might have said a bit more about its demise. He does report that Jefferson’s optimism failed him only late in life; students of American history, generally first acquainted with the political record, might well consider the implications of a shift that took place within Jefferson’s lifetime. The prevailing intellectual and temperamental mood in this country, as in Europe, moved from rationality to romanticism, so that winner and loser in Jefferson’s debate between head and heart reversed themselves. Cunningham’s book ultimately raises the question—recently reexplored in this quarterly—whether the American Revolution, grounded in reason and largely addressing political-constitutional issues, has much relevance where revolutions occur today. We Americans still see ourselves as standing like a city upon a hill, yet our own flirtation with radicalism had little to do with economic injustice, and we therefore err in measuring Third-World revolutionary impulses against our own. Here is one form of historical wisdom, now so little informing our highest councils: Jefferson’s reasoned change may belong uniquely to our tradition.

At a time when historians rightly wonder how to make the significance of their work public (or to find significance in their increasingly specialized work), Cunningham expressly attempts “to bridge the gap between public interest in Jefferson and the world of scholarship that has widened our knowledge of the man and his times.” In Pursuit of Reason brings a broad readership up to date. It does more; it turns to the important task of teaching history outside the academic grove—commending an appreciation for the past but also giving readers a sense of the historian’s discipline, of historical judgment. One hopes that this life of Jefferson, widely read, will help to inform us as citizens—an eminently Jeffersonian purpose.

Somewhat like the tombstone Virginians covet, which stands as a credit to Jefferson’s grace and simplicity, Cunningham’s book furnishes a monument to narrative grace and the value of thoughtful synthesis.


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