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Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History

Hannah Spahn

Publication Year: 2011

Beginning with the famous opening to the Declaration of Independence ("When in the course of human events..."), almost all of Thomas Jefferson’s writings include creative, stylistically and philosophically complex references to time and history. Although best known for his "forward-looking" statements envisioning future progress, Jefferson was in fact deeply concerned with the problem of coming to terms with the impending loss or fragmentation of the past. As Hannah Spahn shows in Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History, his efforts to promote an exceptionalist interpretation of the United States as the first nation to escape from the "crimes and calamities" of European history were complicated both by his doubts about the outcome of the American experiment and by his skepticism about the methods and morals of eighteenth-century philosophical history.

Spahn approaches the conundrum of Jefferson’s Janus-faced, equally forward- and backward-oriented thought by discussing it less as a matter of personal contradiction and paradox than as the expression of a late Newtonian Enlightenment, in a period between ancient and modern modes of explaining change in time. She follows Jefferson in his creation of an influential narrative of American and global history over the course of half a century, opening avenues into a temporal and historical imagination that was different from ours, and offering new assessments of the solutions Jefferson and his generation found (or failed to find) to central moral and political problems like slavery.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. 1-20

“The documents of your childhood, your letters, correspondencies, notes, books, &c., &c., all gone! And your life cut in two, as it were, and a new one to begin, without any records of the former.” Thus Thomas Jefferson sympathized with his favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, when...

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Part I: Time

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pp. 21-28

Thomas Jefferson’s thinking was characterized by the remnants of an age-old dualism of time and eternity that had begun to disintegrate. In his eighteenth- century universe, secular time tended to expand, at the expense of eternity, both into the past and into the future: on the one hand, the world...

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Chapter 1: Rational Time

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pp. 29-45

When Jefferson’s preoccupation with time is mentioned in scholarly discussions, it is usually associated with a linear, quantifying concept of time, a time that steadily progresses into the future. It is identified with the Jefferson who loved to collect clocks and watches, who kept minute records of...

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Chapter 2: Paternal Punctuality

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pp. 46-72

Thomas Jefferson’s fictional namesake Sir Thomas, English absentee slave owner, member of Parliament, and paterfamilias, is the character in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) who is portrayed with the most “correctly punctual habits.”1 When the novel is read as a reflection on time, the inhabitants...

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Chapter 3: Sentimental Time

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pp. 73-100

American and European writings from the second half of the eighteenth century abound with expressions of skepticism about the practical and theoretical significance attributed to rational clock time. In particular, late Enlightenment writers questioned the connection men such as Jefferson...

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Part II: History

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pp. 101-106

Jefferson’s Newtonian temporalities provided the structure for a historical consciousness that is far from self-evident in today’s more radically secularized world. As I shall argue in the following chapters, the tensions within his gradualism between a rational and a sentimental mode of time perception...

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Chapter 4: Teaching by Examples

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pp. 107-138

The historical thinking of the young Jefferson was shaped by the philosophical history of the Enlightenment,1 a conception perhaps best summarized by an aphorism of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, defining history as “philosophy teaching by examples.” In a book that was part of Jefferson’s...

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Chapter 5: Seduction by Example

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pp. 139-184

The final two decades of the eighteenth century were a period of great personal and political turmoil for Jefferson, challenging his enlightened conception of a teleological history. The 1780s began with his troubled wartime governorship of Virginia and Tarleton’s raid on Monticello. They...

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Chapter 6: Beyond Example?

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pp. 185-214

On New Year’s Day, 1812, John Adams wrote to Jefferson and ended a silence that had subsisted between them since the beginning of the century. Their ensuing retirement correspondence offered the two former presidents the possibility not only to discuss a wide range of political, historical...

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Epilogue: “I leave it, therefore, to time”

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pp. 215-224

Ten days before his death, Jefferson wrote a letter declining an invitation to attend the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Fourth of July at Washington, DC, because he was too ill to make the journey to the capital. Feeble as he was, he did not let the occasion pass without composing an...


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pp. 225-266


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pp. 267-278


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pp. 279-290

Recent Books in the Jeffersonian America Series

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813932040
E-ISBN-10: 0813932041
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813931685
Print-ISBN-10: 0813931681

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 6 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2011