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  • Jefferson and the Virginians:Democracy, Constitutions, and Empire by Peter S. Onuf
  • Mark Boonshoft
Jefferson and the Virginians: Democracy, Constitutions, and Empire. By Peter S. Onuf. Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018. Pp. xiv, 194. $38.00, ISBN 978-0-8071-6989-6.)

Peter S. Onuf knows Thomas Jefferson as well as any historian, and it shows in Jefferson and the Virginians: Democracy, Constitutions, and Empire. This slim book is based on Onuf's Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History, delivered at Louisiana State University. After an introduction and an essay on the centrality of union to Jefferson's thinking, each chapter puts Jefferson in conversation with another Revolutionary-era Virginian on an important theme: with Patrick Henry on democracy, James Madison on constitutionalism, and George Washington on empire.

Given the structure of the book, there is no linear narrative per se. As Jefferson's conversations with his interlocutors return to similar events, so does the reader. But the intellectual starting point is 1776. As Onuf frames it, in that moment Virginians defended their rights as Virginians under their provincial charter. Revolutionaries in other colonies similarly defended their rights under their charters. Yet through their shared defense of liberty and the "blood sacrifice" of revolution, members of these different colonies, who governed themselves under different charters, "became conscious of themselves as a people," as Americans (pp. 29, 52).

The people still had to be made whole, which happened in the book's other main inflection point: the election of 1800. As Onuf shows in the chapter on Patrick Henry and democracy, Jefferson saw the partisan politics of the 1790s as a reenactment of the imperial crisis. The Federalists—of which Henry was now one—were a faction. And factions, according to Jefferson, were illegitimate. By contrast, "a great political party that would mobilize the people to secure their liberties … would bring the body politic to life" (p. 115). That party was Jefferson's Republican Party. As Onuf shows in chapter 3, Jefferson's view downplayed somewhat the importance of the Constitution. James Madison disagreed with Jefferson's idea that the American people formed themselves because Madison, instead, credited the 1787 Constitution with creating the American people. To Jefferson, that idea underestimated "national differences," which distinguished Americans from other people. These differences had become "increasingly conspicuous to Jefferson" while abroad in the 1780s (p. 83).

The Jeffersonian ascendancy culminated in the expansion of an American empire across the continent. Onuf's comparison of Jefferson's and Washington's notions of empire is particularly effective. Washington believed that he and the Continental army—a national institution—had won Americans an empire during the Revolutionary War. This view explains Washington's uncompromising faith in the new national government. He was unfazed by the "apparently conflicting imperatives of differentiation and emulation," of Americans' need [End Page 694] to repudiate their former British identity while building a British-style state (p. 131). But Jefferson continued to look back to the Declaration of Independence, in which Americans committed themselves to a union of states. The people's sovereignty was not the product of national power; rather, it manifested through various levels of government. As Onuf puts it, "Republicans were the true federalists, insisting that the multiplicity of jurisdictions in an expanding union made the United States strong" (p. 142). It was through an expanding and democratic—indeed, Jeffersonian—union that Washington's continental empire came to be.

Slavery is not a central thread in Jefferson and the Virginians, but the Missouri crisis is the chronological end point to Onuf's interpretation. Jefferson saw northern agitation about the Missouri question as an attack on the Union, that "ultimate end and justification of republican self-government" (p. 42). The Union had made possible the existence of an American people, but it "was destined to collapse" because of the peculiar institution (p. 41).

This is Onuf's "last book" (p. xii). It is characteristically sophisticated and sometimes dense. It also brilliantly, and movingly, encapsulates many central interpretive threads of the last half century of early American intellectual history, which Onuf himself did so much to create.

Mark Boonshoft...