Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time


November 29, 2016
by Kelly Mielke Also by this Author


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Book review: Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Robert M.S. McDonald (University of Virginia Press, August 2016).


Thomas Jefferson’s contemporaries often acknowledged his quiet, meek, and at times downright awkward disposition, and yet this mild-mannered man became one of the most controversial figures of his time.  In Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time, Robert M.S. McDonald tackles the question of how the quiet Jefferson became such a divisive figure over the span of his public career.  The book chronologically traces Jefferson’s public career from 1776—the year he penned the Declaration of Independence—until his death at Monticello in 1826.   McDonald presents the factors that shaped the public’s opinion of Jefferson and also examines Jefferson’s own role in shaping his image.

Jefferson embodied the Democratic Republican party to such an extent that both his supporters and detractors focused on him as an individual rather than party ideals at large.  The attacks of one of Jefferson’s most vociferous opponents, Alexander Hamilton, ironically helped push Jefferson into prominence because his attacks allowed Jefferson’s supporters to pen responses that shaped the image of a man of the people who favored liberty and opposed all monarchial tendencies.[1]  Throughout his rise into prominence and into his presidencies, Jefferson most often remained silent and allowed his supporters to shape his image and defend him from accusations involving his political philosophies, religious beliefs, and personal conduct.  As McDonald argues, however, Jefferson’s private correspondences still proactively shaped his image by supplying his supporters with information to help his cause.[2]  Jefferson’s deference to others to create and maintain his reputation reflected the ideal of public service; he demonstrated a desire to serve the public out of duty while he seemingly desired a private life.[3]

When considering Jefferson’s image among his contemporaries it is important to remember that they approached him with a much different viewpoint than do modern readers.  While Jefferson is today inextricably linked with the Declaration of Independence, McDonald reminds us that at the time not only was Jefferson not widely known as the document’s author, but most regarded it as a group action on the part of the Continental Congress.  This evolved during Jefferson’s lifetime and his public relationship with the Declaration is revisited throughout the book.   his revealed authorship, perhaps the greatest contribution of his failed presidential run of 1796, allowed his supporters to combat Federalist worries that his support of the French revolution implied favoritism of anarchy over the Constitution.[4]  With Jefferson’s authorship made known, the Declaration of Independence provided a continual base for his supporters to work from and simultaneously presented Federalists with a problem.  While Jeffersonians portrayed him as the manufacturer of the nation—something that conveniently dovetailed with the increased emphasis on American manufacturing, particularly with the passage of Jefferson’s controversial Embargo acts—the Federalists worked to minimize his individual role in the document and chose rather to focus on the importance of committee action.[5]

McDonald’s argument for the centrality of Jefferson’s identity to the Democratic Republicans is supported by the lengths to which the Federalists went in effort to turn his supporters against him. Often the Federalists took an “anti-Jefferson” approach rather than a solid stance on an issue.  Concerning race, for example, Federalists tried to tear down Jefferson as a slaveholder but at the same time attempted to weaken support in the South and played upon the fears of southern slaveholders that Jefferson wished to free slaves.[6]  Similarly to the way in which Federalist opposition brought Jefferson to prominence, it once again worked in his favor during the election of 1800.  As Federalists struggled to come up with a platform that was anything other than anti-Jefferson, Jefferson, still silent to the public, busied himself writing letters to his supporters to provide fuel for his ultimate successful election.

In addition to showing the importance of his supporters as well as Federalist contempt in shaping the public view of the man, McDonald demonstrates that Jefferson possessed great awareness of his image and pending legacy and carefully calculated his presentation.  As a “man of the people,” Jefferson dressed and acted in accordance with the ideals he wished to represent.  For example, when elected President in 1800 Jefferson contrasted himself with his two predecessors and walked to the capital dressed in common clothes and continued to seat himself away from the head of the dinner table in his boardinghouse.  By carefully presenting himself through his dress and mannerisms as a common man even after his election, he combatted Federalist claims that he was monarchical or a Jacobin.[7]  Jefferson’s careful construction of his presentation proved a lifelong endeavor, as evidenced by a Thomas Sully painting of Jefferson in his retirement.  Jefferson appeared in the painting in the common man’s clothing and next to a pillar reminiscent of those of the government branch closest to the will of the people, the House of Representatives.  McDonald notes that Sully was a guest at Monticello for a week prior to the painting and Jefferson likely engaged Sully in conversation that ultimately shaped the portrait.[8]  Jefferson clearly worked to make his connection to the common man “self-evident.”

Jefferson’s shaping of the popular opinion went beyond his appearance and mannerisms. He cultivated the public perception of his ties to the Declaration of Independence and portrayed the signing as taking place on the 4th of July, whereas in actuality the signing took place in August.  This both allowed him to bolster of the 4th of July as America’s most important day while at the same time deferring celebration of himself to celebration of America’s holiday.  This helped his image in two ways: Jefferson once again reflected the contemporary ideal of deferment of self in favor of public service and it simultaneously deeply intertwined his image with that of the Declaration of Independence.[9]  He would likely be pleased by modern Americans’ reverence for the document and his image’s tie to it.

While McDonald provides solid evidence for the importance of Jefferson’s identity to his supporters and how identity politics led his supporters and detractors to formulate wildly different conceptions of the man, it is sometimes unclear how the author interprets Jefferson’s apparent quest for privacy. Earlier this year, Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon Reed presented a convincing case in “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination that Jefferson truly desired privacy, which then provides context for his apparent contradictions.[10]   In Confounding Father, McDonald at times seems to agree with the premise that Jefferson really wanted a private life and did not use it merely to fit in with current expectations of public servants.  However, at other times it is suggested that Jefferson possessed a great deal of political savvy and knew how to—and wanted to—use it to further his public career.  Even after Jefferson retired completely to live out the rest of his days at Monticello and presumably enjoy his privacy, he still concerned himself with his public image and legacy.  For a man who spent his entire life yearning for the comforts of home and family, he interestingly enough finished his life with the great public contribution of founding the University of Virginia while he left his family debt-ridden.[11]

Confounding Father examines how the polarization of Thomas Jefferson reflected two fundamentally different visions for America’s future. While it is not surprising that political opponents used the same qualities to either laud or condemn Jefferson, McDonald demonstrates the importance of identity politics in the early national period and provides readers with the appropriate context for interpreting Jefferson’s political philosophies and image as well as the internal and external factors that shaped them.  Overall, the book highlights the importance of understanding contemporary views of Jefferson and the way it impacted politics during his public career and in turn developed his legacy, a matter of increasing importance as the nineteenth century progressed and sectional tensions increased.


[1] Robert M.S. McDonald, Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time (University of Virginia Press, 2016), 22.

[2] Ibid., 35.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Ibid., 53.

[5] Ibid., 184-185.

[6] Ibid., 57.

[7] Ibid., 110.

[8] Ibid., 208.

[9] Ibid.,  10-211.

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

[11] Ibid., 214.

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