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Thomas Jefferson, the Classical World, and Early America

Edited by Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole

Publication Year: 2011

Thomas Jefferson read Latin and Greek authors throughout his life and wrote movingly about his love of the ancient texts, which he thought should be at the core of America's curriculum. Yet at the same time, Jefferson warned his countrymen not to look to the ancient world for modern lessons and deplored many of the ways his peers used classical authors to address contemporary questions. As a result, the contribution of the ancient world to the thought of America's most classically educated Founding Father remains difficult to assess.

This volume brings together historians of political thought with classicists and historians of art and culture to find new approaches to the difficult questions raised by America's classical heritage. The essays explore the classical contribution to different aspects of Jefferson’s thought and taste, as well as examining the significance of the ancient world to America in a broader historical context. The diverse interests and methodologies of the contributors suggest new ways of approaching one of the most prominent and contested of the traditions that helped create America's revolutionary republicanism.

Contributors:Gordon S. Wood, Brown University * Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia * Michael P. Zuckert, University of Notre Dame * Caroline Winterer, Stanford University * Richard Guy Wilson, University of Virginia * Maurie D. McInnis, University of Virginia * Nicholas P. Cole, University of Oxford * Peter Thompson, University of Oxford * Eran Shalev, Haifa University * Paul A. Rahe, Hillsdale College * Jennifer T. Roberts, City University of New York, Graduate Center * Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, University of Virginia

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

This volume comprises a selection of essays presented at a conference held at the American Academy in Rome on October 13– 14, 2008, at the Villa Aurelia, with its sweeping views of the city. The conference aimed to be both interdisciplinary in approach and also to be international in the composition of the...

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pp. 1-10

It is no accident that that the first conference in many years to bring together a group of scholars working on American interest in the classical world at the beginning of American Independence should focus on Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s own views on the value of classical learning were complex...

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pp. 11-32

The late eighteenth century in the Atlantic world has been called “the age of the democratic revolution.” It might better be called “the age of the republican revolution.” For it was republicanism and republican principles, not democracy, that brought down the ancient monarchies...

Part I

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pp. 33-34

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Ancients, Moderns, and the Progress of Mankind: Thomas Jefferson’s Classical World

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pp. 35-55

Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong love of the ancient languages was extraordinary, even by the standards of a self- consciously neoclassical age that linked genteel social status to classical learning. Reading “the Latin & Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury,” Jefferson wrote...

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Thomas Jefferson and Natural Morality: Classical Moral Theory, Moral Sense, and Rights

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pp. 56-77

Thomas Jefferson’s ambivalence toward the classical world and its legacy is well known. He admired and imitated (Renaissance versions of) classical architecture. He frequently expressed admiration for classical moral theory. And in his invocation of the moral sense, he endorsed...

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Classical Taste at Monticello: The Case of Thomas Jefferson’s Daughter and Granddaughters

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pp. 78-98

A visitor to Monticello aft er 1805 could be forgiven for bypassing the mastodon bones and Indian artifacts in the entry hall and heading straight for the fireplace. For there lay a white marble statue of Ariadne, sleeping the way Venus bathes: that is, for the viewer’s pleasure. Stretched out as...

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Thomas Jefferson’s Classical Architecture: An American Agenda

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pp. 99-127

Thomas Jefferson’s employment of classical forms and details was part of his agenda to reform American architecture. He stated the problem in Notes on the State of Virginia: “The genius of architecture seems to have shed its maledictions over this land. . . . The first principles of...

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George Washington: Cincinnatus or Marcus Aurelius?

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pp. 128-168

In Richmond, Virginia, there are two monuments to George Washington: the marble sculpture by Jean- Antoine Houdon commissioned in the 1780s (fig. 1), and the bronze equestrian monument by Thomas Crawford commissioned in the 1850s (fig. 2). Both are intimately associated with Thomas...

Part II

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pp. 169-170

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America and Ancient and Modern Eu rope

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pp. 171-192

Both Thomas Jefferson and his political rival John Adams passed much of their political retirement reading and reflecting on the classics. In his first letter to Adams aft er many years, Jefferson wrote that he had taken his leave of politics. “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus...

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Aristotle and King Alfred in America

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pp. 193-218

In an age and in a country whose political thinkers were haunted by cyclical theories of history, Jefferson is remarkable for his belief in a stadial view of human development. Prompted in large part by their understanding of the classical tradition, most of Jefferson’s contemporaries believed that...

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Thomas Jefferson’s Classical Silence,1774– 1776: Historical Consciousness and Roman History in the Revolutionary South

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pp. 219-247

The ruling class of eighteenth- century Virginia was immersed in the culture and history of ancient Greece and Rome. Gentlemen planters, at ease in the world of classical erudition, gathered in their libraries impressive collections of the works of the ancient world, read— oft en in the...

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Cicero and the Classical Republican Legacy in America

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pp. 248-264

If, in part, our aim is to trace the influence of classical republicanism on the American founding,1 it might serve a useful purpose for us to examine in detail a single, telling case— that of Marcus Tullius Cicero. He was, after all, the most prolific of the ancient Roman writers. He was, moreover, the...

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Pericles in America: The Founding Era and Beyond

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pp. 265-300

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates, seeking a definition of justice, suggested that it might help in the search for justice in the individual to seek it in a larger organism, the state. An odd rhetorical conceit, perhaps, but my contribution to this volume actually involves an inverted version of the same...


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pp. 301-304


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pp. 305-314

Jeffersonian America

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813931821
E-ISBN-10: 0813931827
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813931319
Print-ISBN-10: 0813931312

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 27 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Political science -- United States -- History -- 18th century -- Congresses.
  • Classicism -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • United States -- Civilization -- Classical influences -- Congresses.
  • Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826 -- Knowledge and learning -- Congresses.
  • Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826 -- Congresses. -- Political and social views
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