Thomas Jefferson, Philosophy, Intellectual history
In Nature’s Man, Maurizio Valsania offers a nuanced and theoretically sophisticated exploration of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about human nature, the qualities he idealized in individuals, and the importance of community to that worldview—his “philosophical anthropology.” In just over 150 pages of text, the work manages to link a stunning range of topics without ever feeling forced or fleeting. The three chapters read like an extended essay, weaving together what often can seem like disparate pieces to Jefferson’s long career and varied writings to give a fresh take on one of the most-studied people in American history.
Valsania clearly has a strong command of Jefferson’s writings and ideas, and this book is written with confidence and verve. The author is equally adept when contemplating Jefferson’s views on women and Native Americans as he is in discussions of Jefferson’s land policies while president and attitudes toward equality and equal rights. He offers novel insight on often-read Jefferson writings, including, most notably, his “head and heart” letter to Maria Cosway, “A Summary View on the Rights of British America,” and the long-delayed, much-celebrated campaign for disestablishment in Virginia, predicated on Jefferson’s 1779 proposal to the Virginia legislature. In the latter case, Valsania convinces the reader that, taken with Jefferson’s other legislative efforts that year, the “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” captures Jefferson’s distinctive perception of the individual in community, not an effort at privileging individuals over their community, and thus underscores the differences between our world and his. Valsania also presents a reinterpretation of Jefferson’s retirement years and what has often been seen as a narrowing of his worldview after leaving the presidency. Age and parochialism are over-argued, Valsania maintains; rather, Jefferson’s increasing localism derived from a judicious re-evaluation of political and economic circumstances, characteristic of his “enduring experimental temper” (70).
Embedded in that last interpretation is a thread running through the book: Valsania’s seeming admiration for Jefferson. Several times throughout these chapters, the reader is cautioned against dismissing Jefferson [End Page 288] as an inconsistent hypocrite. But how many serious scholars—the audience for the book—would contemplate making such a bald, ahistorical judgment? Moreover, Valsania insists that his intent is “not to perform a moral evaluation of Jefferson’s character, to condemn or acquit him.” But in the same paragraph, after considering Jefferson’s conduct while governor of Virginia and president of the United States, Valsania writes: “He was eminently principled, responsible, and coherent. He never acted randomly or for a personal or momentary interest” (113).
While readers will likely quarrel with that sanguine appraisal, they will also have to be impressed with the sensitivity with which Valsania reads not only Jefferson’s texts but his context, too. The author’s capacious mastery of intellectual history allows him to smoothly guide his reader through the varied traditions that informed Jefferson’s philosophical anthropology, from Newton to Montesquieu to Locke to Hutcheson. Along the way Valsania reminds the reader that one-to-one and one-way influences are too simplistic; rather the intellectual traditions should be seen as “convergences, structural analogies, and a family likeness” (24). And he never loses sight of late eighteenth-century Virginia and its pull on Jefferson’s views on nature and mankind. Jefferson’s perceptions of communitarianism, of politics, of humanism, and of family cannot, we see so clearly in this book, be separated from his lived experiences as a Virginia planter–patriarch.
Finally, Valsanio has immersed himself in the voluminous secondary literature on Thomas Jefferson’s thought, and he clearly explains when he disagrees with or adds to the interpretations of other scholars, including Peter Onuf, Gordon Wood, Jan Lewis, and Garry Wills. One might think that with such scholarly conversations foregrounded in the text (rather than relegated to the footnotes), alongside the detailed philosophical explorations and the deep reading of Jefferson’s essays and letters, that the book might get clunky or that...