- Thomas Jefferson: Nationalist, Scientist, Politician, . . . and Slaveowning Monster?
Thomas Jefferson always has been too big a subject to be left to historians. Because so many people have a stake in Jefferson and what he symbolizes, it is impossible to cordon him off as a subject fit only for dispassionate scholarly inquiry. The presses teem with books about Jefferson—monographs, character studies, thematic biographies, and full-dress lives—all seeking to bring readers closer to the man from Monticello. The books under review are among the latest to grapple with Jefferson. Three complement and extend the understanding of a more critical stage of Jefferson’s posthumous reputation that has evolved since the 1960s. The fourth challenges that view, charging that the prevailing interpretation shields Jefferson from the judgment of posterity for his conduct as a slaveowner.
In Thomas Jefferson and American Nationalism, Brian Steele addresses the central role of American nationalism in Jefferson’s thought. Steele, who teaches American history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, argues that Jefferson believed that only a united American nation could bring into reality and defend the moral and political principles that he cherished as uniquely American, but that he knew could also inspire the world. Wryly noting that [End Page 227] “Jefferson himself was probably the first” to use Jefferson as a proxy for America, Steele explores how seeing Jefferson as a nationalist enables us to understand anew his thought and actions and the complex relationships among his commitments (Steele, pp. 2–3).
Steele thus rejects the older view that assigns the label of nationalism to such Federalists as Alexander Hamilton and that stamps Jefferson with labels of localism or sectionalism. Like Jeremy D. Bailey and Peter S. Onuf,1 Steele urges us to abandon such stale dichotomies for the more difficult but rewarding task of elucidating how Jefferson saw nationalism. For Jefferson, Steele maintains, the enterprise of political thought began within the context of defining a new American nation, winning its independence, and deciding the meaning and use of that independence. Thus, Jefferson’s American nationalism, instead of a testing ground for other ideas, becomes the fount from which those ideas flowed.
Steele’s tightly reasoned, well-researched study sets Jefferson in historical context while examining unique aspects of his thought. Chapter one roots Jefferson’s version of the American national story in the revolutionary politics of the 1770s; Jefferson posited a free, independent people who launched a project of creating an American polity to give that nation institutional shape. Turning to that people’s domestic life, chapter two describes Jefferson’s conception of American republican domesticity, which he also wanted to be a model for peoples around the world. Addressing Jefferson’s view of the contrast between America and Europe, chapter three elucidates how Jefferson saw American national character as making democratic politics possible while rendering European political thought and experience irrelevant to the New World. Chapter four probes Jefferson’s ideas about citizenship and political participation, explaining (but not explaining away) the exclusions from citizenship and political participation that Jefferson advocated. Jefferson defined those who could take part in America’s democratic constitutional self-government by reference to the “others” whom he excluded—specifically African Americans, free or enslaved, and Native Americans refusing assimilation into white society. Focusing on Jefferson’s politics in the new nation, chapter five traces the evolution of his perception that Federalist conceptions of American public life were counter-revolutionary and dangerous. By moving into political opposition...