Skip to main content

Just About Jefferson

ISSUE:  Winter 1994
Jeffersonian Legacies. Edited by Peter S. Onuf. Virginia. $18.95 paper.

Nowadays tenants of the Houseboat on the Styx must commiserate with their American colleagues when these unfortunates approach their birth centennials, sesquicentennials, bicentennials, or other traditionally significant anniversaries. Even Europeans so ill-starred as to have their principal achievements indissolubly linked with North America are likely to become the targets of vilification in the guise of scholarly revisionism. Thus in 1993 the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth took some of the heat from Columbus following his roasting the previous year. Eventually the commemoration of some other great American will rescue Jefferson from a generation of Americans intent upon proving their own superlative qualities by demonstrating that they are not only figs of commendable quality, but superb figs sprung from despicable thistles. Or to change the metaphor, that, however empty of valuable content, they are not only silk purses, but all the more remarkable for having been made from sows’ ears.

A case in point is Jeffersonian Legacies, published by the University Press of Virginia under the editorship of Peter S. Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Professor of History at the University of Virginia. As Daniel P.Jordan, director of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, explains in a fourpage foreword, “The fifteen essays in this volume are an outgrowth of a remarkable conference on “Jeffersonian Legacies,” held at the University of Virginia in October 1992 as the spring event in the University’s commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of its founder.”

One is gratified that the subject of this colloquy is by no means exempt from criticism, that participants have taken seriously his own admonition that those at the University should be “free to follow truth wherever it may lead.” At the same time, the heavily negative quality of many of the essays may lead some readers to fear the institution founded by Jefferson, and served so well by such Jefferson scholars as Dumas Malone, Bernard Mayo, and Merrill Peterson, and by the publications of its White Burkett Miller Center, now houses the Alpha Chapter of the Thomas Jefferson Defamation Society.

The foreword also says, “The conference was ingeniously structured to promote genuinely fresh thinking about Jefferson and his legacy. The list of participants did not include many leading scholars with established reputations as Jefferson specialists who had already had their say. . . .” It points out that in place of such experts, there were, among others, civil rights activists, a real-estate broker, and a television personality. One suspects that Dr. Jordan, himself the author of the useful book Political Leadership in Jefferson’s Virginia, is not as happy with the line-up as he would appear, that rather he is determinedly playing the role of a good soldier.

Many of the 15 essays in Jeffersonian Legacies are so self-consciously politically correct, whether of the clenched jaw or the strident school, that the book is likely to appear hopelessly dated when the prejudices of another generation have supplanted the biases of our own. Two of the essays, “The Blessings of Domestic Society: Thomas Jefferson’s Family and the Transformation of American Politics,” by Jan Lewis, and “Jefferson and Slavery: Treason Against the Hopes of the World,” by Paul Finkelman, are notable for prosecutorial zeal rather than scholarly perspectives. Ms. Lewis, an associate professor of history at Rutgers, indicts Jefferson for being a dead, white, European male. Mr. Finkelman, a visiting associate professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, seems to accept those counts of the indictment but at least has no problems with Jefferson’s masculinity.

Several of Professor Lewis’s assertions are almost incredible to a serious student of Jefferson’s life. Citing the three accomplishments (author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and father of the University of Virginia) which he included in his epitaph, she comments, “He measured his worth in ideas and institutions, not human relationships.” Probably no American statesman ever derived more comfort or self-esteem from relations with family and friends than did Jefferson. It is a point made in every major biography of the man. Ms. Lewis pictures Jefferson as believing that love had to be earned by women but was automatically men’s due. A strange comment, indeed, to make about the man who was celebrated among his friends for habitual thoughtfulness and, even when a busy diplomat in Paris, found time to shop for Abigail Adams and Lucy Paradise. Having faulted Jefferson for his very accurate perception that the desk on which the Declaration of Independence was written would some day be regarded as a sacred relic of the American Revolution, Professor Lewis concludes: “Near death, Jefferson imagined himself a saint in his own religion. It was a faith that his female kin, too, had helped him create, but from whose rituals they were excluded.” Surprising is the fact that she took 37 pages to say what could have been said in five or six. There was no need to lengthen the essay to accommodate the heavy burden of vitriol; her pages were free of the weight of scholarship.

Professor Finkelman accuses Jefferson of “doing virtually nothing to challenge the institution of slavery.” If he had charged that Jefferson had not done enough in this regard or had not labored as consistently for emancipation as could be wished, he might have made a good case. But his extreme assertion discounts Jefferson’s effort to deal with the issue in the Declaration of Independence (an effort as displeasing to the slave-trading constituencies of New England as to the slave-owning ones of South Carolina and Georgia), his support of abolition efforts in the Virginia Assembly, and his eloquent cataloguing of the evils of the institution. Finkelman’s statement that Jefferson could at least have freed all of his slaves upon his death ignores the fact that Jefferson’s indebtedness at his demise made it doubtful that he had the legal power to effect an across-the-board manumission.

Do not assume, though, that there is nothing worthwhile in Jeffersonian Legacies. A good essay by Gordon S.Wood, University professor of history at Brown University, contains an antidote to the “presentism” that afflicts the essays of Lewis and Finkelman and, to a lesser extent, other contributors. Professor Wood so effectively makes the point that an historical figure may be fairly judged only in the context of his times that one wishes that some of his colleagues not yet hopelessly far gone in temporal parochialism had read his essay before preparing their own.

It is easy to find fault with some of Professor Wood’s assertions. He misunderstands Jefferson’s attitude toward family heritage as suggested by his statement that his maternal ancestors, the Randolphs, “trace their pedigrees far back in England and Scotland, to which let every one ascribe the faith & merit he chooses.” Wood believes that Jefferson made the comment “with about as much derision as he ever allowed himself.” The longtime student of Jefferson and the Virginia society that produced him recognizes the kind of deprecatory comment that gentlemen proud of their ancestry frequently made. It is suggestive of Jefferson’s statement that he understood a coat of arms could be purchased as cheaply as any other coat—a comment that he wrote in the process of ordering from England a coat of arms for himself. Also, Professor Wood’s description of Jefferson as “downright doctrinaire” seems unwarranted in view of the fact that his flexibility on such issues as the doctrine of implied powers has caused some to charge him with inconsistency.

But Professor Wood can be forgiven a few slips when they are weighed against his strong assault on “presentism” and his ability to write such insightful sentences as “Although he was not a modern democrat, assuming as he did that a natural aristocracy should lead the country, he had a confidence in the capacity and the virtue of the people to elect that aristocracy that was unmatched by any of the other founding fathers.” And he speaks from an intensive knowledge of Revolutionary America that lends depth to his analysis of its leaders.

What is a passing observation in Professor Wood’s essay becomes a belabored point in “Jefferson’s Union and the Problem of Internal Improvements,” by John Lauritz Larson, associate professor of history at Purdue University. He says that “Jefferson’s vision [was] more radically—and rigidly— ideological than that of other Revolutionary leaders.” Without offering any significant evidence, he pictures Jefferson as “departing radically from the traditions of the Virginia country gentry.” Most serious biographers have noted the duality induced in Jefferson by the combination of his enthusiasm for the European Enlightenment and his loyalty to Virginia planter society. Contrary to abundant historical evidence, Larson says that Jefferson’s idea of the supremacy of natural rights was “novel” in his time. Actually, the doctrine of natural law with a component of natural rights was not new when Sophocles penned Antigone, was discussed by Cicero, was a favorite tenet of certain philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, and had many adherents in the neo-classical age that produced America’s Founding Fathers. Professor Larson does make a provocative observation when he says, “Jefferson’s legacy set the stage for a style of politics that (ironically) required candidates to represent themselves as enemies of the government, and once in office, to rule by deceptions and creative constructions—the very evil Jefferson despised.”

Cornell University Professor Walter LaFeber says in his chapter that Jefferson “ended his life embittered and frustrated, ” a strange comment on the man who, stricken with fatal illness, labored past the age of 80 to build a university for which he had high hope and who released to the world for publication on July 4, 1826, which proved to be the date of his death, an optimistic message containing the famous line, “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.” LaFeber is, however, knowledgeable and shrewdly insightful in explaining aspects of Jefferson’s foreign policy that are too often mislabeled inconsistent.

The various interpretations, some expressive of differing insights and some rooted in error, emphasize the appropriateness of the title “Jefferson and His Complex Legacy” given the introductory essay. Its author, Professor Joyce Appleby of the University of California at Los Angeles, is on target when she says, “Jefferson’s great gift was as a synthesizer.” She is far from the mark, however, when she says, “The true Jeffersonian legacy is to be hostile to legacies.” Detailed study of his correspondence reveals a fascination with experiment combined with loyalty to heritage. This attitude was symbolized when he insisted that the new government of the republic be housed in buildings based on the monuments of antiquity. She presents Jefferson as thinking that women “were formed by nature for men’s need and pleasure.” There is here no glimpse of the Jefferson who said that his beloved older sister, had she enjoyed the same opportunities, could have matched his achievements. Also she blasts Jefferson for not being more enlightened about blacks, citing opinions of his virtually identical with those later expressed by Abraham Lincoln.

Editorial comment or placement should have linked Professor Appleby’s chapter with the essay by Professor Michael Lienesch, of the University of North Carolina, as he comments on her views. The essay promises somewhat more than it delivers but is more tightly organized than Appleby’s diffuse presentation.

A few prominent names shine on the roster of writers. Rhys Isaac has contributed an essay of literary quality. Unfortunately, however, the imagination that keeps it afloat is controlled by little factual ballast.

Too much is read into the name choices for Monticello to sustain Isaac’s theories about its master’s mythologizing. Issues of identity are extrapolated on the basis of slender evidence. Isaac says that, in going to France, “Jefferson seems to have been led by his most treasured stocks of stories” from Europe. As all standard biographies of the statesman record, Jefferson strenuously resisted the idea of traveling to Europe until convinced that it was his duty to do so. His proneness to seasickness made travel painful. Professor Isaac closes with bows to political correctness and cliometric history after saying of some of Jefferson’s attitudes, “We can only watch appalled. . . .”

Good essays are contributed by such noted historians as Jack P.Greene and Merrill D.Peterson. Professor Greene explores provocatively the influence on each other of Jefferson and his native Virginia. He skillfully shows how the author of Notes on the State of Virginia in that book did much to mold the image of the Commonwealth for future generations. Professor Peterson says nothing about the statesman that he has not said before (which is not surprising in view of his voluminous writings on this subject), but he adds depth and a measure of coherency to Jeffersonian Legacies by a concise repetition of some of the original insights that he has long since made a familiar part of the lore of the Jefferson image.

In a chapter titled “Putting Rights Talk in Its Place,” Stephen A.Conrad, professor of law at Indiana University, writes informatively, if a little pedantically, about Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America. In the process, he also effectively calls attention to the character and quality of the Virginian’s influence on political thought in our own time. He makes a significant observation when he says, “What can look to modern readers like ambivalence and ambiguity in Jefferson’s varied and shifting rights talk in the Summary View is better understood when we recall that in Revolutionary America, thinking about “rights” was undergoing a profound transformation.” He clearly explains the shift from interpretation of rights as “restraints on arbitrary government” to the conception of them as “instruments for liberating individuals.”

It is unfortunate, however, that Conrad seems to impugn Jefferson’s integrity and courage when, in reference to the author’s failure to present the Summary View in person, he refers to him as “the (ostensibly) indisposed Jefferson.” There is no reason to doubt the evidence that the Virginian set out on the road to Williamsburg, but—whether because of the heat, infection from something he had eaten, emotional turmoil, or some combination of these factors—became a victim of the diarrhea which plagued him off and on most of his life and eventually hastened his death.

Vanderbilt University Professor Paul K. Conkin performs the valuable service of emphasizing that, despite all rumors to the contrary, Jefferson was a truly religious man. But he seems to set up straw men when he attacks biographers for failing to recognize this fact. Who can recall a single distinguished biographer of Jefferson so blinded? He also says, without offering evidence, that Jefferson had “a troubling and at times tense relationship with his mother.” Where does he find support for this statement outside the assumption of the late Fawn Brodie? Conkin, however, has produced a useful chronology of Jefferson’s pilgrimage of faith.

Perhaps the most valuable single contribution to Jeffersonian Legacies is made by Ms. Lucia Stanton, director of research for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and one of the most promising members of a new generation of Jefferson scholars. Her “Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves” is a model of re search and exposition. She deals with ethnic diversity without too many genuflections to political correctness, paying a minority the tribute of serious scholarship and objective analysis. But her compassionate understanding and regard for human dignity are everywhere evident.

She pictures Jefferson as a kindly master who wrote his overseer, “My first wish is that the laborers may be well treated,” who sometimes purchased slaves to avoid the separation of mates, who prevented whippings but would not have his overseer let the rescued slaves know that the master had intervened. She points out that working relationships between Jefferson and some of his prouder slaves were such that, in the master’s absence, a son-in-law looking after some Monticello enterprises would write the planter, “George, I am sure, could not stoop to my authority. . . .”

Ms. Stanton does not blink at the darker side of the relationship between master and slave. While emphasizing that Jefferson prohibited the separation of children from their parents, she reminds us that slaves customarily lost their status as children between the ages often and 12.She pictures Jefferson as a sincere opponent of slavery enmeshed in a problem that he found overwhelming. She concludes that “the constant tension between self-interest and humanity seems to have induced in him a gradual closing of the imagination that distanced” him from most of the black families at Monticello. Ms. Stanton’s chapter is as notable for felicity of expression as for sound scholarship and humanitarian insight.

It is hard to review Jeffersonian Legacies in any way that does not seem disjointed. The book itself is disjointed. An attempt has been made to impose a semblance of organization by dividing its chapters into three categories, “Jefferson and His World,” “Jeffersonian Visions,” and, like the overall title, “Jeffersonian Legacies.” But many of the essays would fit as easily into other categories as into the ones to which they were assigned.

The published papers of a conference at a great university should reflect some unity in diversity even if it be provided only by editorial commentary. And while such a work should reflect the concerns of its own generation, its perspectives should extend far beyond the trends of the moment. A few of the essays in Jeffersonian Legacies may be treasured for generations. But others are so reflective of the particular prejudices of a particular time that they will one day seem hopelessly dated. This is especially true of the few written by those aggressively proud of their tolerance—a tolerance extended to all except those, living and dead, who do not agree with them.”Judge not lest ye be judged.” It may be their fate, if remembered, to be measured by some future generation suffering from their own disability of temporal parochialism.

Why was Jefferson a particular target for vilification in his anniversary year? Perhaps he was a victim of what I call the Aristides syndrome. Remember how the great Athenian was told with some vehemence by a citizen who did not recognize him that he was voting against Aristides.”And what do you have against him?” the great man asked.”Nothing,” was the reply.”I am just tired of hearing him called “the Just.”“


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading