Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America by Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole (review)
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Reviewed by
Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America. Edited by Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 314. $45.00 cloth)

This collection of essays commemorates papers given at a conference held at the American Academy at Rome in October 2008. Funded by the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, the unlikely location for the conference—a place Jefferson never visited—freed the contributors to loosely gauge their observances and scholarly work around the third president of [End Page 85] the United States, even though their topics, approaches, and sometimes time periods stray from the early republic. Onuf and Cole, as editors, divide the volume into two parts. The first, "Jefferson's Classical World," focuses on specific aspects of the early republic, loosely organized around Jefferson himself. The second, "Classical Influences," goes further afield in a constellation of essays on classical writing and thinking, from the eighteenth century to the present. Such a schematic for the book leads the reader to speculate, just as its editors and contributors did, about balancing competing views of a particular time period and the search for a consensus about "whether lessons and ideas from the classics were significant agents of change" or as prescriptive or illustrative metaphors and language in abundant use (p. ix). In the end, the collection of ten essays does not aid the reader by offering a single conclusive opinion about the influence of the classics on and within the fledgling nation. But that seems far from the purpose of the work: an opportunity to speculate on the rich subject of classical influence in America with scholars from around the globe.

The editors challenge the reader in the introduction to consider what "their distinctive readings of the classics reveal about the founders of the American republic" (p. 9). The book needs Jefferson (to sell books), but this linkage also gets in the way of some of the authors and their more tangential connections to the man. Looking past this shortcoming in the conceptualization of the volume, the editors and contributing authors provide as deeply complex a landscape as that in which the founders lived, not wholly explained by classical allegory and allusion but simultaneously helped along—and perhaps organized by—a reliance on reference to the ancients. In the prologue, Gordon S. Wood reminds us of the radical nature of the American Revolution as he did in his full-length book on the subject. Here he provides greater world context in placing the legacy of Rome in the unfolding of republican forms of government alongside monarchial ones. He characterizes the American colonies and the early republic as deeply influenced by Rome, yielding to a democratic transformation by the 1820s. Properly bookending Jefferson's world, Wood [End Page 86] provides a salient context for the essays that follow.

In Onuf 's own essay, "Ancients, Moderns, and the Progress of Mankind," he guides the reader through the nuanced world of Jefferson's correspondence, illuminating for the reader a nonmonolithic view of the leader's politics and influences in order for Jefferson to "experience the past in the present and to project himself into the distant future" (p. 51). In the second essay, Michael P. Zuckert helps the reader see Jefferson's ambivalence to a classical legacy, also using his correspondence, to tease out the natural morality of the man. In doing so, the essayist points out an "attenuation of the classical element and a corresponding thickening of modern thinking" that marked the age (p. 75). Through the consideration of a material object—the statue of Ariadne—Caroline Winterer sketches the peripheral but ever more common place of education for women in Jefferson's world and that of his daughter and granddaughters. This essay, and the previous one, seems further from Jefferson than the title portends.

Turning to classical architecture in the fourth essay, Richard Guy Wilson traces the sources of Jefferson's knowledge and training as a gentleman architect, including his fascination with architectural treatises, influences from travel, observation of the construction of several houses and public buildings, and interest in mechanical aspects of features...


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