BOOK REVIEW: Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh by Thomas S. Kidd (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022)
There seems to be a reliable annual tradition of biographies about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson being published. What else can we learn about these American icons? Baylor University professor Thomas S. Kidd is the latest Jefferson biographer on the scene, with his Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh. Kidd sets out immediately to explain that Jefferson’s role in American history stands out. He was truly a sphinx, as Joseph J. Ellis called him. Kidd writes, “This is a biography of a brilliant but troubled person. Thomas Jefferson would seem to need no introduction, yet among the Founding Fathers he is the greatest enigma—and the greatest source of controversy” (page 1). What makes Kidd’s new book stand out is its focus on the religious beliefs and sentiments of the Sage of Monticello. Sometimes attacked as an atheist by his enemies, Jefferson’s religious convictions will surprise many readers, for he did in fact have some.
The book begins with Jefferson’s upbringing in Virginia, in a culture shaped by the Anglican Church. Jefferson’s political awakening began during the late 1760s, and he was actively resisting British oppression before the Revolutionary War broke out. He wrote his first work of political “agitation” with A Summary View of the Rights of British America. His literary talents were made use of in 1776 when he was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence, a familiar story retold in the third chapter, “A Virginian Ought to Appear at the Head of this Business.” Jefferson’s language in the Declaration and other works shows that he was a product of his time, recognizing a creationist view of humanity and world history. His outlook on human equality fell within a religious definition:
But Jefferson and most eighteenth-century Britons and Americans still lived in a world they saw as created, and they lived their lives they saw as created. Equality by creation, because it was so widely assumed, was the most powerful basis on which to argue for equal rights. For observers such as Jefferson, equality by creation did not mean equality of condition or talents. It did mean that all people had basic dignity before God, because all people were created “in God’s image,” as Genesis put it. (p. 54)
Jefferson’s problem with slavery became more of a consuming issue around this time. He wrestled with the idea of equality and liberty, but his ownership of human chattel negates whatever convictions he had. Kidd provides a simple explanation throughout his book regarding Jefferson’s reliance on slavery: he had to appear to be a successful Virginian farmer, and so he spent lavishly, constantly going into debt. This debt would plague Jefferson throughout his life, turning his beloved Monticello into an overgrown, neglected structure years after he died.
After his work on the Declaration, Jefferson left the Continental Congress and endured his dismal term as Virginia’s governor, abandoning his post when British General Benedict Arnold ravaged the Virginia countryside. Jefferson’s beloved wife Martha died, and so he accepted the position of minister to France to deal with his overwhelming grief. Thomas Kidd provides information about Jefferson’s feelings towards French Catholics, which are very negative indeed. France turned Jefferson into a wine connoisseur, and he began a never-ending habit of acquiring expensive wines. It was while he was in France that he had his youngest daughter join him. She made the journey across the ocean, to a father she hardly knew, accompanied by her mother’s half-sister, enslaved Sally Hemings. Kidd considers the affair between the older Jefferson and the much younger Sally Hemings to be the “central dilemma in Jefferson’s moral universe” (p. 89).
Was Jefferson a religious person? He was very interested in theological topics, and one of his strongest influences was Joseph Priestley. Was Jefferson a Christian? He sometimes considered himself one, but he never accepted the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson was much more interested in the moral teachings of Jesus. He frequently described these teachings as the most important and perfect of all moral philosophies. And although he believed in keeping government out of religious issues, as president he strongly supported using government money to educate Indians about Christianity. Always fascinated with Indian language and culture, he believed that their embracing the teachings of Jesus would “civilize” them to European-American standards.
Jefferson was attacked as a heretic and an atheist during the bitter elections of 1796 and 1800, and those were the few instances when he publicly considered himself to be a follower of Jesus. He saw himself as a “committed providentialist.” Over the years he selected what he believed were the actual sayings of Jesus and printed his own “Bible.” He wanted to stay away from the corruptions of Christianity that he witnessed in France. He was interested in ethics and the moral code of Christianity. After he reconciled with his former friend John Adams, they wrote to each other about such religious topics. One of his last literary efforts was the unpublished “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” Jefferson’s desire to avoid the superstitions and corruption associated with religion was a central theme of his efforts on behalf creating the University of Virginia.
The last years of Jefferson’s life were not happy ones. Whereas John Adams seemed to prosper emotionally in his old age, Jefferson was haunted by debt and physical ailments. He ended up selling his beloved library to Congress after the British burned the Library of Congress during the War of 1812. People sought more action on his part towards ending slavery, but he could not bring himself to do more than offer advice on colonization of free Blacks outside of the United States. Monticello was essentially abandoned when he died in 1826.
After reading Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh, this reviewer realized that Kidd wrote a description of the United States, using the life of Jefferson to point out uncomfortable truths. As a nation, we still struggle with the concept of “equality.” We have claimed to support freedom and civil rights. However, we failed to take advantage of Reconstruction, and we later became an empire and subjugated other peoples. Do we have a moral center that we can rely on? The nation is a paradox, an enigma like the multi-faceted and complicated Jefferson.