“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:” Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination

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Book review: “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:” Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination  by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016).

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Since the death of one of the Revolution’s foremost patriots and author of the Declaration of Independence, Americans have grappled with Thomas Jefferson’s legacy.  Undoubtedly one of the nation’s most studied founding fathers, understanding Jefferson is essential to understanding eighteenth and nineteenth century America.  Scholars often regard Jefferson’s own attempts to guard his privacy as a stumbling block to discovering the “real Jefferson,” but Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf demonstrate in “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:”  Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination, Jefferson’s thinking is accessible through an analysis of his own words and relationships.

Following his lifelong intellectual development, the authors use Jefferson’s correspondences and the records he kept to create a portrayal of Jefferson that challenges long-standing assumptions while exploring Jefferson in the two intertwined roles in which he viewed himself:  patriot and patriarch.  Once Jefferson is examined this way, an understanding of the man emerges that shows that rather than the oft-presented man riddled with hypocrisy, Jefferson’s contradictions made sense according to the foundational set of private ideals around which he carefully constructed his life.  Jefferson’s private life proves essential to understanding his public life because, as this book makes clear, his attachment to privacy created his political views and vision for America.

Well aware that posterity would remember him and the other founding fathers, Jefferson worked to carefully self-fashion the legacy that in turn deeply influenced the young United States government as it passed on to new generations.  The authors strive to remove the modern baggage readers tend to bring to studies of Jefferson and unpack his self-constructed image to understand how Jefferson viewed his own contributions to the world he inhabited.  Viewed this way, accusations of contradictory behavior dissolve into understanding of how Jefferson viewed his role both personally and politically and the way that apparent contradictions made sense to him. Organized in three sections and further into thematic chapters within each section, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs takes an in-depth look at Jefferson’s beginnings in Virginia, his role as Revolutionary patriot, his politics, the development of his views of American exceptionalism, and his personal views on matters of race and religion.  All facets of his life lead back to the theme of Jefferson’s attachment to his “country” of Virginia and his treasured ideal of “home.”

While Jefferson’s contemporaries often employed the facade of reluctance for public service, the authors argue that Jefferson actually desired a private life.  Even as Jefferson bemoaned his public roles, his desire to be at home became inextricably attached to his political achievements.  Views of “home” extended beyond Jefferson’s private home and his treasured privacy extended itself into his patriotism as the Revolution became a struggle to protect the national home from a despotic monarch.[1]  This viewpoint continued to influence his political views during the early national period as he sought to preserve the Revolution’s promises.  Jefferson’s republicanism secured individual rights by purging all traces of monarchical despotism and, by extension, advocated a peaceful existence in the world in which the United States could freely trade with other countries and remain  free from foreign entanglements.   Jefferson’s faith in humanity’s ability to live harmoniously with the proper framework may strike readers as quite remarkably optimistic.

According to the authors, Jefferson’s foundation of patriarchal republicanism and its roots in perfect harmony and commitment among family and friends explains how he simultaneously advocated politically advanced theories alongside regressive gender and race ideas.  While Jefferson has been routinely criticized for advocating American independence and liberty while holding slaves and later conducting an intimate relationship with Sally Hemmings, Jefferson’s contemporaries actually regarded his views as anti-slavery. [2]  According to the argument presented in this book, critics who point to this apparent hypocrisy fail to understand that these practices stem from Jefferson’s view of the perfect patriarchal role at home and the emphasis on privacy and individual relationships.  As long as conditions at Monticello remained harmonious, Jefferson felt that he exercised appropriate paternalism.[3] Harmony at home fulfilled perfectly the role of patriarch and Jefferson’s vision for the new American nation.  When achieved in homes across America, the country could achieve Jefferson’s vision for the new American nation.  As the larger national home, Jefferson wanted the United States to reflect perfect patriarchy as exercised through love of family and friends.[4]

It is interesting to consider how in addition to his private ideals, Jefferson shaped his views in contrast to fellow founding fathers as well as against the standards of other nations.  Jefferson’s compatriots in the Revolution became driving forces in shaping his attempts to carry the torch of the Revolution’s promises in the following decades.   As the leader of an opposition party to the Federalism of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson formed his own American identity against the values of the Federalist Party.[5]  Of course, the politics of the man who advocated peace for the United States did not mean undisrupted peace with his associates, illustrated by the contentious presidential election between Jefferson and John Adams that resulted in a deep rift to his relationship with the Adamses that went unrepaired until shortly before the two men died on the same Fourth of July in 1826.

In addition to defining himself against his contemporary opposition, Jefferson also formed ideas of American exceptionalism in contrast to the world’s other countries, particularly cemented by the time he spent in France.  Unlike Benjamin Franklin, who embraced French culture and immersed himself in it, Jefferson wanted the French to perceive him as a representative of America, alluding to his increasing attachment to the Union in this period following the Revolution.[6]   While Jefferson admired aspects of French culture and design, his time spent there also reinforced his notions of American virtue.   For example, the circulation of French women in traditionally male domains like politics disturbed Jefferson.  According to his ideals, women occupied a specific sphere at home that was essential in its own way to build the foundation of an ideal republican society.[7]

The book’s biggest strength lies in the authors’ use of Jefferson’s own writings to make sense of his worldview while at the same time recognizing that Jefferson engaged in deliberate self-fashioning to present a certain version of himself to both the world he inhabited as well as to posterity.  Many works struggle to maintain a balance between the presentation of rigorous academic research and enjoyable reading but ultimately fall short.  Not so in the case of this book; Gordon-Reed and Onuf present a seamless collaboration that relies heavily upon primary sources to unpack the complications of Thomas Jefferson’s character and present a wonderfully nuanced assessment. While the text reads smoothly, the non-linear organization may be difficult for readers to follow if not already fairly acquainted with Jefferson’s life.  For readers with an established interest in Jefferson, however, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs provides an innovative view of Jefferson’s life and deserves a place on the shelf of every Jefferson scholar and enthusiast.

 

[1] Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:” Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination (Liveright, 2016), 169.

[2] The authors point out that Jefferson believed humanity would continue to improve, perhaps explaining Jefferson’s idea that slavery would eventually die out in future generations.  See Gordon-Reed and Onuf, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs, xviii-xix and 10.

[3] The lasting imprint of Thomas Jefferson on America’s development, particularly in the South, exerted a great deal of influence in the decades leading up to the Civil War, particularly his emphasis on the individual and conduct and in much the same way that Jefferson’s conduct at home satisfied his ideal patriarchtic vision, southerners after Jefferson similarly concentrated on individual relationships.  This concentration fueled pro-slavery arguments as individual slaveholders concentrated on their own relationships and order in their households but failed to view the larger institution in an abstract sense.  See Robert Shalhope, “Thomas Jefferson’s Republicanism and Antebellum Southern Thought,” The Journal of Southern History, 82, no. 4 (1976).

[4] Gordon-Reed and Onuf, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs, 206.

[5] Ibid., 171-174.

[6] Ibid., 105.

[7] Ibid., 102.

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