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Southern Cultures 12.2 (2006) 92-93

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Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello. By Andrew Burstein. Basic Books, 2005. 351 pp. Cloth $25.00

There is certainly no shortage of books on Thomas Jefferson, but Andrew Burstein's latest effort attempts to view the man from an angle few others have tried. Rereading both familiar and less well-known sources, Burstein argues that our knowledge of Jefferson is incomplete without an extended study of his retirement years. He is particularly keen for the reader to grasp the conditions that shaped Jefferson's thinking, or, as Burstein puts it, to understand the unfamiliar that was familiar to Jefferson. This emphasis results in thought-provoking ruminations on death, sexuality, history, religion, and politics.

The key to comprehending Jefferson, Burstein argues, is the medical philosophy, literature, and terminology he so often read and invoked. True, only a minority of his library specifically dealt with medicine (less than 5 percent, in fact), but Burstein would tell us that this is not the point. Rather, a majority of what Jefferson read and thought about was infused with this terminology, meaning it influenced him far beyond the small shelf space occupied by medical books. From this foundation, Jefferson created a set of "guiding principles" that viewed the world through a "medicalized lens" and that was committed to the notion that sensations (of which the two most important were desire and passion) described the primary function of the brain. He then constructed a language of body, mind, and sensation that was critical to his political and social message.

The rest of the book uses this "medicalized lens" to examine more familiar ground: Jefferson's political, historical, cultural, religious, and racial imagination, as well as his views of gender roles. Oddly, the medicalized language he so carefully constructed seems to disappear for large stretches in these discussions. For those who know little of the man, there is a lot to ponder: Jefferson was a deist with a tendency towards Unitarian thought. He had a view of women's roles that [End Page 92] fit a general eighteenth-century pattern of male dominance and that makes twenty-first-century scholars cringe. Concerned that he and the Democratic-Republican party had defeated Federalism and secured the Revolution, but were in danger of losing an historiographical war with Federalist partisans, Jefferson committed himself to the creation of a more favorable historical narrative.

Perhaps Burstein's most provocative discussion concerns the alleged Jefferson-Sally Hemings affair. In the late 1990s DNA evidence indicated that at least one of Hemings's children was fathered by a Jefferson. This, along with exhaustive research into extant sources, has led the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the owners and operators of Monticello, and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies to designate Thomas the most likely candidate. Controversial as it might be, Burstein reminds us that Jefferson's behavior fits into a broader pattern that was familiar then but seems foreign today. Jefferson, like many Revolutionary intellectuals, was fascinated by Greek traditions and morality, part of which held that it was perfectly acceptable for widowers to take a concubine. His commitment to contemporary medical philosophy, moreover, meant that sexual intercourse was an essential part of keeping healthy (and Jefferson already had enough trouble on that front, what with rheumatism, chronic diarrhea, and an irritable bladder). Combine these two with his role as the paternal leader of a plantation, and Jefferson's sleeping with a slave (who was related to his dead wife) does not seem that surprising. Nor does it contradict his well-documented aversion to "blackness"—Hemings was, after all, nearly white. He certainly cared for Hemings, argues Burstein, much as an English nobleman cared for an employee mistress—in other words, their relationship was based on class rather than race—but they did not (and could not) share a long-term, loving partnership.

Burstein does not go so far out on a limb with any other argument, which makes for an entertaining if familiar overview of the third President's later life...


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