- Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography by Maurizio Valsania
Thomas Jefferson, Enlightenment, Gender, Race, Body
In the preface to his monumental biography of Thomas Jefferson, Merrill D. Peterson made what he characterized as a “mortifying confession”: Despite two decades of study, Jefferson remained “elusive,” his personality still “impenetrable.”1 Although Jefferson wrote thousands of letters [End Page 345] and left ample evidence of his political viewpoints, he concealed the essential elements of his personality from posterity, tantalizing today’s scholars with numerous seeming paradoxes. In Jefferson’s Body, Maurizio Valsania professes to have found a way to finally breach the Jeffersonian defenses and offer a glimpse into the inner life of the Sage of Monticello. Through a corporeal biography, a “coherent historical narrative about Thomas Jefferson’s outer self,” Valsania argues, we can gain new information not only about Jefferson’s long-hidden personality but also about the ways in which he understood the many “Others” that surrounded him—particularly Native Americans, African Americans, and women (1).
Other biographers have offered descriptions of Jefferson—his unusual height, his red hair, his sometimes peculiar attire—but Valsania’s corporeal biography offers a far more encompassing portrait, ranging from Jefferson’s posture to his medical conditions to his opinions about women, and drawing from the fields of anthropology, psychology, and whiteness studies, to name a few. Because “[o]ur bodies control us at least as much as we control our bodies,” setting our minds in motion, often revealing what we wish to hide, shaping our feelings and beliefs in important ways, a corporeal approach to Jefferson aims to explain his personality from the outside in (3). But Valsania also argues that Jefferson, more than most, exercised control over his own corporeality, drawing from his Enlightenment principles of “naturalness and simplicity” to fashion himself as a simple “nature’s man” (4). To Jefferson, his corporeality implied possibility rather than limitation: He believed that he controlled his own body, and he strove to present to the world his ideal image of moderate, mild, limber masculinity.
In the first half of the book, entitled “Self,” Valsania argues that for most of his life Jefferson succeeded in presenting his body according to this ideal of simplistic naturalism. Though he was even taller than George Washington, Jefferson sought to portray himself not as a threatening, martial presence, but rather as a civilized, healthy, balanced individual. He shaped his body by choosing the relatively mild exercises of walking and horseback riding; he carefully controlled his diet; he practiced graciousness in his relationships, seeking to avoid disputes and to converse easily with all he met. Observers commented on his smile and gentle manner, as well as his limber posture; he had a “caring, playful presence,” evinced by his willingness to join in the games of his children and grandchildren (30). Valsania explores these facts to draw broader [End Page 346] conclusions regarding Jefferson’s republican, modern values: Jefferson “meant to be publicly acknowledged as a soft, gentle, harmonious, and simple nature’s man, a product of his land” (79). Consciously rejecting the martial, aggressive masculinity of Virginia’s past, Jefferson sought to personify his enlightened ideals, hoping others would follow his example.
Halfway through the book, Valsania pivots from an examination of Jefferson’s body to a view of “others” from Jefferson’s perspective. Here, Valsania advances two lines of argument: On the one hand, he posits that Jefferson’s conception of “nature” encouraged him to pursue perfection in his own corporeality, but whenever Jefferson viewed the “other” through the lens of “nature,” he came to the opposite conclusion. American Indians, African Americans, and women all resided, in Jefferson’s view, within the strict confines of a natural order, from which they could not remove themselves. This belief stemmed from the “racialized, genderized, hierarchical, and traditional society” from which “Jefferson’s humanism and Enlightenment sought to emerge,” albeit not always successfully (114). His racism and entanglement with slavery clouded his vision when it came to his attempts to “objectively” categorize and...