This book resulted from a February 2007 symposium at Rice University. The goal of the conference, according to organizers John Boles and Randal Hall, was "to recapture both the eighteenth-century world from which [Thomas Jefferson] came and the present-day world he helped to produce" (p. 6). Seven eminent Jefferson scholars address issues of democracy, politics, the west, race and slavery, religion, gender, and science. Although fully cognizant of modern controversies surrounding the man, throughout the book the authors attempt to ground their investigations in the context—or, in many cases, the contexts—of Jefferson's world. Overall, continuity—the perspective that Jefferson's behavior was essentially the same throughout his long life—narrowly wins over change, four authors to three.
Adam Rothman argues that Jefferson's early personal experiences with slavery conditioned his racial attitudes, which remained remarkably consistent "from the publication of Notes on the State of Virginia until his death" (p. 118). For Jefferson, race explained why African Americans could never fully participate in American democracy and "became the vocabulary of legitimate exclusion" (p. 114). Similarly, Jan Ellen Lewis views Jefferson's attitudes toward women as conforming to "a kind of conventional misogyny" early in his life and "a kind of conventional valorization of domesticity" at the time of his marriage (p. 158). Both of these sets of attitudes, Lewis emphasizes, were part and parcel of the republican thought of males in the eighteenth century "that assigned politics to men and domestic life to women" (pp. 161-62).
Thomas E. Buckley and Andrew Burstein likewise contend that Jefferson's views of religion and science—once formed—provided him with essential guides for his life. Buckley credits Jefferson's earliest teacher, the Reverend James Maury, with inculcating into his [End Page 389] eager pupil the idea that all people were equal before God, that reason should inform religious beliefs, and that religious dissent was a healthy aspect of public life. Burstein turns to Jefferson's library (especially Swiss medical theorist Samuel A. D. Tissot's writings condemning masturbation) to find an explanation for the master of Monticello's interest in "practical science," including why he likely fathered Sally Hemings's children (p. 172). Whereas today we understand sex as culturally constructed, Burstein contends that for Jefferson sex was universal, determined by scientific health issues.
The minority view in this volume emphasizes how Jefferson (in the words of the editors) "had to adjust, tack against adversity, compromise; he changed his mind" (p. 4). Peter S. Onuf, in contrast to Buckley, argues that Jefferson's interest in religion came late rather than early in his life. Similarly, Jefferson's initial views of popular control of government changed with the French Revolution to emphasize "national self-determination rather than … 'democracy'" (p. 33). Eva Sheppard Wolf, for her part, labels the American Revolution as the watershed event in Jefferson's life that fundamentally altered the way that he and his countrymen looked at "their place in the world" (p. 47). Likewise, the partisan warfare of the late 1790s between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans marked "a turning point in Jefferson's ideas about and behavior in elections" (p. 57). Peter J. Kastor sees the most change of all, emphasizing five specific chronological periods in Jefferson's life that corresponded with "a Near West of the eighteenth-century" between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River and "a Far West of the nineteenth-century" beyond the Mississippi (p. 67).
Importantly, neither the editors of the book nor Andrew J. O'Shaughnessy in his concluding summary attempt to reconcile these competing views of Jefferson. Perhaps the lack of consensus is an acknowledgment that scholars are still searching for Jefferson's proper place in his world(s) and in ours. [End Page 390]
Ronald L. Hatzenbuehler, professor of history at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho, is the author of 'I Tremble for My Country': Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Gentry (2006). He is currently working on a comparison of...