- Seeing Jefferson Anew: In His Time and Ours
Thomas Jefferson, Democracy, Sally Hemings, Slavery, Religion
A perennial subject of popular and academic interest, Thomas Jefferson embodies the best and worst of the American Dream. This recent series of scholarly essays about Jefferson, from a 2007 conference, attempts to meld the personal and political in Jefferson’s life and his message for us today. Seeing Jefferson Anew comprises seven essays, including several by leading Jefferson experts, summarizing and synthesizing their recent work for nonspecialists and offering a provocative forecast of future work.
Unlike the 1993 collection Jeffersonian Legacies, which featured lengthier essays with more abundant factual information, the essays in Seeing Jefferson Anew are more in the original, Montaigne-like sense: brief, opinionated, asserting their viewpoints with wit and without assembling a plethora of evidence. These essays, despite the shattering discovery in 1998 that Jefferson probably fathered Sally Hemings’s children, are more moderate than the 1993 tome. Their objective, carefully reasoned approach is helpful in understanding Jefferson.
Peter Onuf, in “Thomas Jefferson and American Democracy,” admonishes readers to overcome their veneration for the Founders and fulfill their responsibility to think independently in a democracy. His challenging new perspectives on Jefferson seem at variance with the facts. He views Jefferson as increasingly depressed and desperate about the survival of the Union as he grew older, a sad situation that Jefferson allegedly hoped to resolve on the national level by solidifying “cultural homogeneity” through emancipating and deporting all African Americans, and on the personal level by embracing religious revivalism. In some sense, Onuf may be right: Jefferson often said he was glad he would be dead before the civil war he sometimes anticipated, but at other times he was more optimistic. Jefferson had advocated black emancipation and deportation at least since Notes in the 1780s; this idea was not a result of old-age depression. Moreover, in his final years, he felt happy to get his University of Virginia running, although at the outset the students were busier fighting and beating up the professors than learning, which disappointed him. As for Jefferson’s alleged religious revivalism, most students know that he was a lifetime deist who distrusted the Second Great Awakening and remained a bitter enemy of the “Presbyterian” clergy until his death. He found good only in Quaker and Unitarian beliefs, although he did not entirely trust their political ambitions. He said he followed his own [End Page 145] lonely religion.1 Assuring his readers that Jefferson believed in “national self-determination” as a concomitant of democracy, Onuf satisfyingly assures us that we can still revere the author of the Declaration of Independence while disapproving of his moral shortcomings. To err is Jefferson!
Other historians’ contributions are equally challenging and original. Eva Sheppard Wolf ’s essay on Jefferson’s “natural politics” reveals Jefferson’s growth, as a result of his devotion to the American Revolution, from a youthful, snobbish aristocrat who distrusted the people to a democratic philosopher who lauded democracy, political parties, and majority rule as a divine form of government, in accordance with the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” as he said in the Declaration of Independence. Likewise, Thomas E. Buckley, expert on Jefferson and religion in Virginia in the 1770s–1780s, emphasizes Jefferson’s unfamiliar devout side, reiterating theses, previously elaborated at length by James H. Hutson and Daniel Dreisbach, that Jefferson was a conscientious church-goer during his presidency who favored government support of religion if no particular denomination was favored, not a “wall of separation.” Buckley hypothesizes that Jefferson’s boyhood mentor, Reverend James Maury of “Parson’s Cause” fame, unconsciously influenced his religious views.
Essays by Andrew Burstein and Peter J. Kastor summarily restate theses from the authors’ recent books. Burstein’s provocative “Jefferson in the Flesh” argues that the famous Swiss physician Tissot’s best-selling volume on the health of intellectuals, which advised aging male scholars to copulate with young attractive females to...