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Reviewed by:
  • The Jeffersons at Shadwell
  • Barbara J. Heath (bio)
Susan Kern The Jeffersons at Shadwell New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010. 384 pages. 56 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-0-300-15390-3, $30.00 (HB)

Historians have long been at odds over Thomas Jefferson’s childhood and youth at [End Page 108] Shadwell, his family home on the Rivanna River in Albemarle County, Virginia. They have agreed on the patrician lineage of Jefferson’s mother, Jane, but have downplayed her relationship with her eldest son, characterizing it as contentious or cold. Although his father Peter is credited with a warmer, and larger, role in Thomas’s life, the elder Jefferson’s lesser-known origins and accomplishments cast him alternately as a frontiersman, a man of moderate success, or a man lacking in education and ignorant of the conventions of polite society (4–5). Which of this seemingly mismatched pair held most sway in molding the character of their son, Thomas? Archaeological excavations undertaken in the 1940s and 1950s by Fiske Kimball and Roland Robbins attempted to address the question of Thomas Jefferson’s origins through an assessment of the material conditions of his upbringing. They uncovered the footprints of numerous outbuildings at Shadwell but claimed that there was no firm evidence of a house suitable for members of the mid-eighteenth-century Virginia elite. For some historians, the architectural remains of Shadwell placed the young Jefferson more comfortably among backwoodsmen than plantation patriarchs, while for others, his Randolph ancestry and native genius were enough to overcome the limitations of his paternity and the modest, or missing, remains of his home.

In The Jeffersons at Shadwell, awarded the Abbott Lowell Cummings prize by the Vernacular Architecture Forum in 2011, Susan Kern disentangles these contradictory historical and material threads and reweaves them into a powerful and convincing new narrative. Through the reexamination of a diversity of existing historical sources and the analysis of more recent archaeological findings, she situates the Jeffersons both materially and socially in the center of a close-knit family and a complex web of relationships with slaves, friends, neighbors, business associates, and visitors. These connections confirm the Jeffersons’ standing among the Virginia elite and illuminate key aspects of their son’s initiation into the plantocracy. Indeed, Kern’s careful reading of the evidence suggests that Peter and Jane were instrumental in introducing and spreading the ideas and behaviors central to eighteenth-century notions of gentility—and the materials necessary to enact them—to their children, their slaves, and more broadly to the citizens of Albemarle County. Thus, she has written not only an innovative biography of the Jefferson family but has outlined a model for understanding the creation, maintenance, and spread of polite society in colonial Virginia as well.

Kern’s work at Shadwell demonstrates the value of incorporating the material world into biographical studies and provides a methodological framework for how it can be done. Drawing inspiration from Dell Upton and Rhys Isaac, she adopts a somewhat phenomenological approach, helping us to imagine the feel of china teacups against our lips in the dining room or the weight of a folio resting on a table in the office, as she explains how the introduction of fashionable goods and ideas helped to define the Jeffersons and transform their neighborhood. The approach of social historians like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich can also be seen in her work, as she carefully mines diverse historical sources to meticulously reconstruct the social, political, and economic contexts of the Jeffersons’ world.

Kern sets out her approach in the Introduction, stating that “this is not a study of material culture; it is a history of people written from the things they used and the things they did.” She then notes that, while “artifacts enable the historian to animate the site and enliven the now past landscape,” the “documents ground the discussion to a particular time and place” (6, 8). This is a fair statement. Kern imaginatively interprets terse notations in account books, legal documents, slave rolls, and family Bible entries along with more standard sources like family letters and Jefferson biographies to carefully reconstruct the Shadwell community and connect it with...


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pp. 108-110
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