Thomas Jefferson — Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America


May 15, 2017
by Kelly Mielke Also by this Author


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Book review: Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America by Kevin R. C. Gutzman (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)


Few of the nation’s founding figures are as debated and controversial as Thomas Jefferson, the early American political figure chiefly remembered for penning the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase.  In Thomas Jefferson— Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America, Kevin Gutzman examines Jefferson’s career as a statesman and argues that Jefferson’s work has been misinterpreted, ignored, and underrated. Gutzman studies the legislative and constitutional efforts that spanned Jefferson’s career and presents a man committed to reforms designed to build an ideal American republic. The book is divided into five chapters, each of which is devoted to a theme that drove Jefferson’s career: federalism, freedom of conscience, colonization of blacks, Native American assimilation, and public education.  Gutzman offers a balanced assessment of both his positive influence in shaping America as well as the flaws in his political thought.

Throughout these chapters, the reader will find evidence of Jefferson’s commitment to a broad range of humanitarian causes and the inherent rights of mankind. Gutzman demonstrates that Jefferson’s views in many key areas, including decentralization of government and liberty of conscience, resurfaced throughout his career.   The same views of federalism that led colonial Jefferson to oppose British rule continued to lead the Jefferson of early national America to advocate for states’ rights, oppose Hamilton’s party, and fight vociferously against national banks.  Later in his life, Jefferson’s federalist views remained relevant in the Missouri crisis, during which he opposed Congress’s ability to declare Missouri a free state.

Jefferson’s advocacy of religious freedom, a reflection of his commitment to federalism and individual rights, similarly originated early and spanned decades.  Thomas Jefferson maintained his role in establishing religious freedom as one of his greatest lifetime achievements.  As Gutzman points out, however, while Jefferson’s played an important role, the eventual enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was not a one man show.  Jefferson publicly advocated religious toleration the same year he authored the Declaration of Independence and marked 1776 as the year in which his work for religious freedom began.  This idea was not entirely new and as the author observes, matters of religious toleration had already come up in Jefferson’s Albemarle County in colonial times.  Furthermore, James Madison ultimately pushed the religious freedom statute through during the early national period, although Jefferson exaggerated his own part in it.[1]  Considering that he felt liberty of conscience was the very foundation the free society to which he was so committed, Jefferson’s attachment to his role in this regard is perhaps understandable.

Just as Jefferson’s commitment to federalism and religious toleration spanned decades, Gutzman shows that Jefferson had a similar lifelong commitment in another area:  education.   Jefferson accomplished the founding of the University of Virginia during his retirement and it remains one of his greatest legacies. While the author presents great detail about the university’s founding, Jefferson’s lifelong commitment to public education comes to the forefront as well.  Gutzman illuminates Jefferson’ ideal system of public education that ultimately failed in large part due to Virginians’ hesitance to fund education with taxpayer money. Once again, Jefferson’s efforts in educational reform were clearly tied to his commitment to the ideal American republic in which citizens needed proper education to properly exercise their rights and responsibilities.

Many modern readers struggle with coming to terms with the founders’ commitment to the equality of all men while simultaneously owning slaves or allowing slavery to continue.  Jefferson is often portrayed as having passively accepted the institution with little real effort to change the situation.  Some of the more extreme views in this regard argue that Jefferson failed even in comparison to his fellow slaveholding peers.  This book counters these assumptions and demonstrates that Jefferson was in fact a strong and early proponent of ending slavery, but through colonization rather than emancipation.  Jefferson feared racial strife as an inevitable result if  slaves were to rise onto equal footing with their former masters and  argued that one-race societies allowed individuals of each race to enjoy their natural rights and equality in society.  While these views clearly made racial assumptions, they do show that the hypocrisy of which Jefferson is accused in the modern day was something that he weighed in his own mind. Oddly enough, as committed as Jefferson appeared to be to colonization, he never joined the American Colonization Society.[2]

Jefferson’s views on Native Americans provide an interesting juxtaposition to the racial views he held in relation to his colonization beliefs.  While in those arguments Jefferson based inherent difference between whites and blacks solely on skin color, Jefferson assumed equality between whites and Native Americans in terms of everything except culture.  Although these views seem contradictory, examining each in the proper context helps explain Jefferson’s thinking. Jefferson clearly had a stake in proving the equality of Native Americans as he made it a task to systematically disprove the European assumption that the New World was inherently inferior to the Old World. Jefferson felt that proving Native Americans’ equal potential justified his New World arguments.[3]  Although Jefferson argued for the equality of Native Americans, he assumed the superiority of white Anglo-American culture. He found studying Native cultures beneficial but believed that assimilation into white society was the ideal outcome.  Gutzman shows that Jefferson hoped for positive Indian relations but America’s expansion took precedence and he consequently directed his energies toward extending the nation to the Pacific Ocean and the acquisition of Indian lands.

Overall, Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary provides an innovative, detailed, and engaging look at Jefferson’s views and provides a more complete picture of the founding father’s political life.  Gutzman strips away modern judgements and uses Jefferson’s own writings and letters in conjunction with a close study of his political proceedings to give readers a more complete grasp of Jefferson’s agenda.  It becomes clear throughout the book that the seemingly broad range of chapter topics in fact formed a cohesive plan in Jefferson’s mind.  At the same time, seemingly contradictory views make more sense when placed within the larger context of Jefferson’s political philosophy and his vision for an ideal American republic.

While Jefferson is the biographical subject, this book provides great insight into early American political culture as well.  For Jefferson enthusiasts and students of early America alike, there is much to be gleaned from this work. In an era when prevailing opinions about the founding fathers frown upon apparent hypocrisies, often ignoring proper context and viewing sources through a modern lens, this book presents Jefferson as a man of causes who had a vision for the young nation to which he was unabashedly committed.  Gutzman carefully pieces together the puzzle of Jefferson’s mind, helps make sense of his contradictions, and reminds readers of the relevance of Thomas Jefferson.


[1] Kevin R. C. Gutzman, Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017), 102.

[2] Ibid., 169.  Jefferson never gave a reason for not joining the ACS, although as Gutzman points out that many of his peers did, including James Madison (the first president of the ACS) and James Monroe.

[3] Ibid.,185.

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