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Reviewed by:
  • Light and Liberty: Thomas Jefferson and the Power of Knowledge ed. by Robert M. S. McDonald, and: Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History by Hannah Spahn
  • Sean P. Harvey (bio)

Thomas Jefferson, History, Education, Rational time, Intellectual history

Light and Liberty: Thomas Jefferson and the Power of Knowledge. Edited by Robert M. S. McDonald. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012. Pp. 256. Cloth, $40.00.)
Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History. By Hannah Spahn. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Pp. 304. Cloth, $45.00.)

Thomas Jefferson believed generations should be sovereign, but he intended to shape the instruction of younger Americans so they could preserve the revolutionary inheritance that his own generation had bequeathed. Robert McDonald's essay collection successfully illuminates the projects through which Jefferson optimistically hoped to educate the citizenry. Hannah Spahn's compelling intellectual history elaborates the views of time and history that led a more pessimistic Jefferson to suspect that history writing was unreliable, believe that historical precedent did not apply to the country, and ultimately distrust the succeeding generation. Jefferson's notions of nationhood and difference, and the actions that proceeded from them, are central to reconciling these contrasting interpretations.

Light and Liberty exposes the multifaceted shape of Jefferson's educational ambition. Formal institutions were central to this vision. Focusing on the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (1778), Johann Neem examines Jefferson's advocacy of an "active state" (47) that would have created the conditions for meritocratic equality of opportunity by obliging citizens to relinquish the fruits of their labor to support locally governed public schools. That effort failed, but Jefferson successfully garnered public support for two institutions of higher education. He pushed for a U.S. Military Academy, Christine Coalwell McDonald and Robert M. S. McDonald convincingly argue, as a means to advance the exploration and development of the West. The academy would train the engineers necessary to advance American agriculture and extractive industries, and teach French skills useful for communicating with Louisiana inhabitants and participants in the fur trade. Cameron Addis provides a provocative sketch of the early history of the University of Virginia, which Jefferson established in the hopes of creating a secular ethical education. His contextualization of this effort in the growing [End Page 359] strength of revivalism on college campuses and in the wider culture is especially useful, though he mistakenly asserts that New York University existed in 1822, whereas the Jeffersonian Albert Gallatin and other New Yorkers did not begin organizing the institution until 1830-1831.

Other efforts existed outside academic walls. Frank Shuffleton describes Jefferson's use of a bibliographic and epistolary network to import useful ideas from Europe and export accurate information about America. Craig A. Reynolds sketches Jefferson's hopes to use architecture to cultivate U.S. citizens' aesthetics. While this essay never explains how some of his preferred architectural models, which dated from imperial Rome, would have inculcated republican principles, Reynolds traces how craftsmen who had worked for Jefferson "most likely" transmitted Jeffersonian designs for public buildings that influenced several Virginia county courthouses (172, 175, 179). Gaye Wilson provides an insightful reading of Thomas Sully's portrait of the retired president, which West Point commissioned in 1821, as an effort to teach citizens republican simplicity and to shore up his own historical reputation amid a wave of pro-Federalist historiography. Cumulatively, according to Robert McDonald's introduction, these essays reveal Jefferson's "vision for a fairer, freer, more democratic America populated by citizens more capable of individual self-government" (15). Joyce Appleby's provocatively critical Afterword, however, expresses "surprise" at the authors' "unstinting admiration" of Jefferson's ideas and practices, especially in light of his commitment to slavery, and argues for greater attention to the interplay of culture and politics (215).

Two essays from Light and Liberty stand out for their relevance to Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History. Brian Steele argues that Jefferson's faith in democracy rested fundamentally on his intense nationalism. Particularly after Shays's Rebellion, which illustrated both that Americans would resist felt tyranny and that the mass of citizens would come to the defense of a worthy government, Jefferson had faith that the lack of political...


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