David O. Stewart is a writer in Maryland. His most recent historical work is “Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America.”
Since Fawn Brodie’s tell-all (or tell-much) biography of Thomas Jefferson in 1974, the Master of Monticello has endured increasingly wintry seasons among the writers of history. The authors of this ambitious book, luminaries of the historians’ guild, acknowledge that “the distance between Jefferson’s words and his deeds . . . has led some critics to simply brand him a hypocrite and leave matters at that.” That judgment, they warn, is “ultimately shallow.” They pledge to look beyond what we might think Jefferson should have done through his fascinating life, focusing instead on what Jefferson himself thought he was doing.
Both Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf have written about Jefferson at considerable length before, so they bring deep learning and insight to the effort. Perhaps for that reason, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” cannot entirely avoid compiling the sort of despairing catalogue of the great man’s hypocrisies that the authors set out to transcend. They note that Jefferson championed those who till the soil as the most virtuous of people, yet he found farming deadly dull, and his fitful agricultural efforts were largely unsuccessful. He denounced political parties as instruments of the small-minded and self-interested, yet he was the most skilled political partisan of his era. He co-founded America’s first political party, which annihilated its opponents and swept to a rarely replicated dominance of the government. Jefferson’s party, considerably evolved, survives today as the Democratic Party.
Most fundamentally, the author of the ringing commitment to equality in the Declaration of Independence built his economic and social life on human slavery. Jefferson bought and sold people. Rebellious slaves at Monticello faced whipping or being sold off. The hypocrisy meter nearly melts at the spectacle of America’s apostle of liberty co-habiting for decades with a woman he owned, Sally Hemings, while owning their children. That the Hemingses received special treatment from the master makes the relationships no less disappointing, even incomprehensible, to modern sensibilities.
The overarching concept behind “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” is that Jefferson’s complexities may be understood as elements of his notion of “mastery”: that he aimed to be master of himself, master of his family, master of the slave community of Monticello and master of his political life, and that he hoped such mastery would serve as the model for the new nation. Rather than pursue this notion in a chronological narrative, the authors take up different subjects seriatim, moving forward and back through time.
Their approach yields a stimulating graduate seminar on topics in Jefferson studies, shedding welcome light on subjects such as Jefferson’s passionate attachment to music and his tenacious insistence that a person’s religious beliefs are nobody else’s business. For a reader coming to Jefferson for the first or even second time, however, the structure might be challenging.
Gordon-Reed and Onuf rightly highlight Jefferson’s ideas, words and charm, the strengths that brought him such success in his life and that have sustained his standing for centuries. Indeed, Jefferson’s thinking, words and charm can divert attention from the long list of pivotal events and issues on which he had little impact.
After writing the opening manifesto of independence, Jefferson was not a major force in winning it; he played no role in writing the Constitution or gaining its ratification; he did not secure enactment of cherished proposals to protect religious liberty (James Madison did) or create a legal structure for frontier lands (the Northwest Ordinance did) or for the new constitutional government (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Madison did); he neither drafted nor assisted in the adoption of the Bill of Rights; he did not chart America’s foreign policy while secretary of state (Washington did); as president, he failed to defend U.S. ships and sailors when Britain and France savaged them during the Napoleonic Wars (Madison did through the War of 1812); and he never performed a public act that limited or challenged slavery.
Jefferson’s ideas, however, were powerful, beginning with the audacious insistence that America could be a self-governing republic in a world of empires and kingdoms. He also imagined legislation to protect religious liberty and foresaw the continental expansion of the nation.
And his words were magnificent. When Americans struggled to explain why their refusal to pay British taxes was not simple stinginess, he wrote that they fought for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When he took office as president in 1801, he rang the curtain down on a decade of vicious partisan fighting by proclaiming, “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.”
Gordon-Reed and Onuf trace much of Jefferson’s success to his unfailing charm. A man who suffered the early deaths of his father, his wife and five of his six children, Jefferson nonetheless chose to be happy, or at least to appear happy. He was always gracious, often humming a tune to himself. In the authors’ words, “Smile and song projected a happy disposition, putting others at ease.” As Jefferson advised three of his grandchildren, “It is a charming thing to be loved by everybody; and the way to obtain it is never to quarrel or be angry with anybody.”
Jefferson practiced what he preached. He declined to engage in arguments. He so disliked disputation that during his presidency, he invited only members of one party to any social event at the White House, dining with only Federalists one evening and with only Republicans on another. At those events, he demonstrated his mastery by serving his guests himself, cheerfully guiding the conversation to display his broad knowledge and relentless good humor. All of it, as Gordon-Reed and Onuf show, was the empire of his imagination, one that has survived for centuries.
By Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf
370 pp. $27.95