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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 185-191



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Agonizing over Indians

Steven Conn
Ohio State University

Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. By Anthony F. C. Wallace. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. 394 pages $29.95 (cloth).

WHEN I WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF READING ANTHONY F. C. WALLACE'S BOOK Jefferson and the Indians, the New York Times reported yet another story about the "strong evidence" proving Thomas Jefferson had fathered at least one "if not all six of the children of Sally Hemings." 1 On almost exactly the same day, I discovered that the Jefferson-Sally Hemings business reached a wonderfully banal, if perfectly predictable, pop-culture apotheosis. With Sam Neill in the role of Thomas Jefferson, CBS aired its made-for-TV movie "Sally Hemings: American Scandal," and advertised it, in at least one commercial, as "the greatest love story never told." The Jefferson-Hemings affair sits, for the American public, at the irresistible intersection of history, medical science, presidential scandal, and racial taboo. One is tempted to think that a made-for-TV-movie is as low as it is possible to go with this particular bit of presidential salaciousness, but American culture has had a remarkable capacity to prove Edgar's admonition from King Lear: "the worst is not/ So long as we can say 'this is the worst.'"

The extent to which Jefferson actually agonized over slavery has been much discussed. What DNA testing has now proved, to the satisfaction of those who discounted the historical case many had been arguing for years, is just how personal that agony might have been. Historians, especially over the last generation or so, have explored in seemingly numberless pages the nature of that agony--whether, in fact, [End Page 185] the issue really did trouble Jefferson, and does it ultimately matter, since he acted neither as a public figure nor as a slaveowner to end the institution. Historians have asked whether we are best to understand Jefferson as the metaphorical architect of American liberty or as the quite literal architect of perhaps the most "scientifically" run slave plantation in the country. They have pondered the great American paradox: that the man who helped create the grand experiment in human freedom was simultaneously experimenting with how best to organize the labor of his human chattel. And, they have debated how Jefferson's view of slavery shaped his other ideas--a question which well might be asked about the Hemings "revelations": now that we know he did it, does it change in any fundamental way how we understand him? 2

The Hemings family appears just once in Wallace's book, underscoring that when Jefferson came of age, and when he came to power, slavery was only one of the racial dilemmas facing Euro-Americans. The other conundrum was what to make of and do with the people who already inhabited the continent? This much is obvious: Wallace's new book reminds us of the centrality of Native Americans on the stage of events in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As Wallace puts it, Jefferson "lived in a world in which Indians themselves were a constant presence" (50). Wallace's book demonstrates, in rich archival detail, that slaves were only one non-European race--perhaps not even the most significant one--over whom Jefferson agonized.

For Wallace, the central paradox of Jefferson's character was that "he, the apostle of liberty, had a deeply controlling temperament" (14). In exploring this paradox, Wallace has really given us a two-part study. In the early chapters, which constitute a kind of intellectual history of eighteenth-century attempts to understand Indians, Wallace examines how Jefferson came to his ideas about Native Americans. The latter chapters stand as a political history of Jefferson's Indian policies. Taken together, these chapters present us with Jefferson's agony over Indians, theory and practice.

Central to Jefferson's view of the Indian "question" was his belief--widely shared--that however noble they might be, these savages were doomed. Wallace begins by examining the speech...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
pp. 185-191
Launched on MUSE
2001-03-01
Open Access
No
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