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In The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, one of the foremost historians of Jefferson and his time, Peter S. Onuf, offers a collection of essays that seeks to historicize one of our nation’s founding fathers. Challenging current attempts to appropriate Jefferson to serve all manner of contemporary political agendas, Onuf argues that historians must look at Jefferson’s language and life within the context of his own place and time. In this effort to restore Jefferson to his own world, Onuf reconnects that world to ours, providing a fresh look at the distinction between private and public aspects of his character that Jefferson himself took such pains to cultivate. Breaking through Jefferson’s alleged opacity as a person by collapsing the contemporary interpretive frameworks often used to diagnose his psychological and moral states, Onuf raises new questions about what was on Jefferson’s mind as he looked toward an uncertain future. Particularly striking is his argument that Jefferson’s character as a moralist is nowhere more evident, ironically, than in his engagement with the institution of slavery. At once reinvigorating the tension between past and present and offering a new way to view our connection to one of our nation’s founders, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson helps redefine both Jefferson and his time and American nationhood.
The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
The debate over the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings rarely rises above the question of "Did they or didn’t they?" But lost in the argument over the existence of such a relationship are equally urgent questions about a history that is more complex, both sexually and culturally, than most of us realize. Mongrel Nation seeks to uncover this complexity, as well as the reasons it is so often obscured.
Clarence Walker contends that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings must be seen not in isolation but in the broader context of interracial affairs within the plantation complex. Viewed from this perspective, the relationship was not unusual or aberrant but was fairly typical. For many, this is a disturbing realization, because it forces us to abandon the idea of American exceptionalism and re-examine slavery in America as part of a long, global history of slaveholders frequently crossing the color line.
More than many other societies--and despite our obvious mixed-race population--our nation has displayed particular reluctance to acknowledge this dynamic. In a country where, as early as 1662, interracial sex was already punishable by law, an understanding of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship has consistently met with resistance. From Jefferson’s time to our own, the general public denied--or remained oblivious to--the possibility of the affair. Historians, too, dismissed the idea, even when confronted with compelling arguments by fellow scholars. It took the DNA findings of 1998 to persuade many (although, to this day, doubters remain).
The refusal to admit the likelihood of this union between master and slave stems, of course, from Jefferson’s symbolic significance as a Founding Father. The president’s apologists, both before and after the DNA findings, have constructed an iconic Jefferson that tells us more about their own beliefs--and the often alarming demands of those beliefs--than it does about the interaction between slave owners and slaves. Much more than a search for the facts about two individuals, the debate over Jefferson and Hemings is emblematic of tensions in our society between competing conceptions of race and of our nation.
How Continental Presumptions Gave Rise to the United States of America
In one of Common Sense’s most ringing phrases, Thomas Paine declared it "absurd" for "a continent to be perpetually governed by an island." Such powerful words, coupled with powerful ideas, helped spur the United States to independence.
In The Nation's Nature, James D. Drake examines how a relatively small number of inhabitants of the Americas, huddled along North America’s east coast, came to mentally appropriate the entire continent and to think of their nation as America. Drake demonstrates how British North American colonists’ participation in scientific debates and imperial contests shaped their notions of global geography. These ideas, in turn, solidified American nationalism, spurred a revolution, and shaped the ratification of the Constitution.
Winner of the Walker Cowen Memorial Prize for an outstanding work of scholarship in eighteenth–century studies
Indian Performance, 1603-1832
Thomas Jefferson's Philosophical Anthropology
Although scholars have adequately covered Thomas Jefferson’s general ideas about human nature and race, this is the first book to examine what Maurizio Valsania terms Jefferson’s "philosophical anthropology"—philosophical in the sense that he concerned himself not with describing how humans are, culturally or otherwise, but with the kind of human being Jefferson thought he was, wanted to become, and wished for citizens to be for the future of the United States. Valsania’s exploration of this philosophical anthropology touches on Jefferson’s concepts of nationalism, slavery, gender roles, modernity, affiliation, and community. More than that, Nature's Man shows how Jefferson could advocate equality and yet control and own other human beings.
A humanist who asserted the right of all people to personal fulfillment, Jefferson nevertheless had a complex philosophy that also acknowledged the dynamism of nature and the limits of human imagination. Despite Jefferson's famous advocacy of apparently individualistic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Valsania argues that both Jefferson's yearning for the human individual to become something good and his fear that this hypothetical being would turn into something bad were rooted in a specific form of communitarianism. Absorbing and responding to certain moral-philosophical currents in Europe, Jefferson’s nature-infused vision underscored the connection between the individual and the community.
Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775-1787
Historians have emphasized the founding fathers' statesmanship and vision in the development of a more powerful union under the federal constitution. In The Origins of the Federal Republic, Peter S. Onuf clarifies the founders' achievement by demonstrating with case studies of New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Virginia that territorial confrontations among the former colonies played a crucial role in shaping early concepts of statehood and union and provided the true basis of the American federalist system.
The Narrative of K. White (1809) and the Memoirs of Elizabeth Fisher (1810)
Early in the nineteenth century, New York residents K. White and Elizabeth Fisher wrote and published two of the earliest autobiographies written by American women. Their lives ran along parallel courses: both were daughters of Loyalists who chose to remain in the United States; both found themselves entangled in unhappy marriages, abandoned for extend periods, and forced to take on the role of sole provider; and both became involved in property disputes with their male kin, which eventually landed them in prison, where they wrote their narratives. White’s tale is a highly crafted text, almost an embryonic novel, incorporating several subgenres and interweaving poetry and prose. Fisher’s story, while less sophisticated in terms of rhetoric and style, is nevertheless a compelling account of a woman’s life and struggles during the Revolution and the early years of the republic. Their narratives, read together, highlight many literary and historical issues. They present an unruly, disobedient, and assertive female subject and illuminate popular attitudes regarding women and marriage. By articulating a consistent and growing unease concerning the institution of marriage and the unlimited power husbands had over their wives, these narratives lay the groundwork for a political critique of marriage and the status of women within it.
The American Revolution beyond New York City, 1763-1787
The Other New York provides the first comprehensive look at New York State’s rural areas during the American Revolution. This county-by-county survey of the regions outside of New York City describes the social and cultural conditions on the eve of the Revolution and details the events leading up to the conflict, the battles and campaigns fought within the state, the hardships civilians experienced while creating new local governments and supplying the war effort, and postwar reconstruction efforts. It also chronicles the impact that the war had on the European Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans. These groups endured years of strife yet went on to create New York State.
The enormous popularity of his pamphlet Common Sense made Thomas Paine one of the best-known patriots during the early years of American independence. His subsequent service with the Continental Army, his publication of The American Crisis (1776–83), and his work with Pennsylvania’s revolutionary government consolidated his reputation as one of the foremost radicals of the Revolution. Thereafter, Paine spent almost fifteen years in Europe, where he was actively involved in the French Revolution, articulating his radical social, economic, and political vision in major publications such as The Rights of Man (1791), The Age of Reason (1793-1807), and Agrarian Justice (1797). Such radicalism was deemed a danger to the state in his native Britain, where Paine was found guilty of sedition, and even in the United States some of Paine’s later publications lost him a great deal of his early popularity.
Yet despite this legacy, historians have paid less attention to Paine than to other leading Patriots such as Thomas Jefferson. In Paine and Jefferson in the Age of Revolutions, editors Simon Newman and Peter Onuf present a collection of essays that examine how the reputations of two figures whose outlooks were so similar have had such different trajectories.