Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood by Brian Steele (review)
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Thomas Jefferson, Role of government, Republicanism, American exceptionalism

Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood. By Brian Steele. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012, Pp. 321. Hardcover, $99.00.)

In Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood, Brian Steele argues that Jefferson's seeming contradictions can be resolved through a reconceptualization of the American nation in Jefferson's politics. Steele's book is ambitiously conceived and beautifully executed. It is nothing less than a stunning success.

He divides his study of Jefferson and nationhood into six chapters: American Story, American Woman, American Public, American Character, American State, and American Union. The first substantive chapter sets the tone for the book by attempting to solve the creed vs. culture debate by showing what was distinctive about Jefferson's contribution to the argument for independence. Culture wins: "there is no generally applicable claim in the Declaration" (41).

This argument will strike some (at least in my discipline) as going too far. Steele says that what made Jefferson's argument "distinctive" was not its rejection of Parliament's power over the colonies but rather "its historical argument about the experience that ultimately made Americans a distinct people" (24). The author argues that Jefferson perceived that it was not enough for one people to declare the causes that require them [End Page 560] to separate from another people—because "two peoples cannot become two overnight" (12). So Steele's Jefferson found his argument for expatriation in the "migration of original settlers to America" (25), an argument Jefferson derived by reversing (or extending) the application of tacit assent. This argument then enabled Jefferson to connect a historical people to a revolutionary principle. For Steele, it was both radical and "startlingly conservative" (49) at the same time.

But theorizing "the people" requires more than connecting historical migration to the right of revolution, and in the next chapter Steele continues by examining Jefferson's view of republican women. The author adeptly compares Jefferson's treatment of Indian women with his criticism of women in Europe, particularly France. In Jefferson's view, both cultures upset the natural equality that women would otherwise enjoy. Indians forced women to work the soil, and the French allowed their aristocratic women to wander too close to political life, squandering their days amid the buzz of society. Each, in Jefferson's view, disturbed the gender roles dictated by nature but achievable only in republican civilization. It turns out that America was the only civilization in history that had placed women in their proper role of republican domesticity. The problem for Jefferson, as Steele notes, is that this argument presumed that the American idea rested on a contingent American notion of gender: Nature dictated that men and women be free from "artificial barriers to happiness," yet the "natural results of such freedom were clearly different for women and men" (88).

Steele takes on more seeming contradictions in the following chapters. In Chapter 3, he argues that Jefferson's cosmopolitan belief that the world would one day become more republican rested on the premise that America was exceptional. This paradox rested in turn on Jefferson's assessment that Americans were uniquely able to resist tyranny whenever it would arise—meanwhile he expressed anxiety that things might get worse. This last point deserves special mention: Jefferson's sunny optimism derived from his confidence that Americans were unusually vigilant, but it was frequently clouded by his concern that such vigilance was unnatural to most people.

Chapter 4 contains several important claims about Jefferson's conception of the public. For Steele, scholars have been led astray by Jefferson's comments concerning the "natural aristocracy" and by his turn to partisan organization. The first was subordinated to an educated and capable citizenry. But "the real problem was finding the public" (157). With [End Page 561] respect to the second, wards were better than parties, because "Jefferson's public would be engaged in maximum participation in and would express its legitimate voice through government at all levels rather than through extragovernmental organizations so celebrated in American mythology" (165). It is in this context that Steele treats slavery. There are no new discoveries here, but Steele's discussion...