Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson; drawing by David Levine

Conventional wisdom has it that there are more books written about Abraham Lincoln than any other American figure. If so, then Thomas Jefferson must be running a close second. Over the past several decades there has been a never-ending profusion of works about him and his various interests. Since 1990 the University of Virginia Press alone has published sixty-eight books on Jefferson. At the same time other publishers have also been turning out numerous books on the man who is widely understood to be the apostle of America’s democracy.

That the spokesman for our democracy should be a slaveholding aristocrat is surely the greatest irony in a history full of ironies. Although many historians and others are embarrassed about his contradictions and have sought to knock him off the democratic pedestal—some Democratic Party organizations renaming Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, for example—his position, though shaky, still seems secure. After all, Lincoln himself said “all honor to Jefferson” and used him and his Declaration of Independence to mobilize support for the antislavery cause.

But Jefferson is not just a spokesman for democracy and equality. He personified the American Enlightenment and set forth the progressive promise of America’s future. More than any other figure, he created out of the empire of his imagination an “empire of liberty” that would stand in opposition to the tyrannical empires of the Old World. All of this came from the books he read, the music he played, the people he loved, the nature he observed, and the world he experienced.

The range of his intellectual and cultural concerns was staggering to his contemporaries and is still breathtaking for us. Surely no political figure in American history, and certainly no president, has had such expansive and varied interests as Jefferson. Books coupling his name with almost every subject under the sun have poured from the presses: Jefferson and law, and constitutionalism, and civil liberties, and philosophy, and the art of power, and religion, and education, and the classical world, and nature, and the West, and tourism, and secrets, and optimism, and progress, and happiness, and science, and mathematics, and architecture, and music, and farming, and copying machines, and debt, and women, and wine, and cooking, and linguistics, and paleontology, and gardens, and slavery, and Indians, and even the Koran. So far Jefferson, unlike Lincoln, has not been linked to zombies, but that may come in time.

Because we now know so much about him, the two authors of an important book, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs,” Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, have concluded that “a reassessment” of him is very much in order. Not only is the publication in letterpress editions of all his papers rapidly proceeding, but we now have available family recollections, including those of the enslaved Hemings family, that provide us “with heretofore unknown information” about Jefferson’s life and help clarify for us the circumstances of familiar events. Indeed, Gordon-Reed and Onuf believe that “we are in a particularly critical and, potentially, transformative time in Jefferson scholarship”—a moment that requires a fresh interpretation of this endlessly fascinating figure.

The authors are well aware of the great inconsistencies in the man. Jefferson spoke of liberty and nevertheless held other human beings in slavery; he said he hated politics and yet was a master politician; he was always outwardly polite to his enemies but spoke harshly of them in private. The authors know all about his contradictions and duplicities. But unlike many of his critics, they don’t want simply to brand Jefferson a hypocrite and leave it at that. Such a common response, they say, is understandable, even predictable. “But it is ultimately shallow because it is far too easy on his times, on his fellow white Americans, and on all of us today.” They believe that there is a much richer, more complicated and important story to tell about the world Jefferson inhabited and the way he moved through that world.

Since the main outlines of Jefferson’s life and character have been in place for some time, Gordon-Reed and Onuf’s book is not “meant to be a conventional biography of Jefferson that runs chronologically from his birth to his death.” Instead, they want to explore what Jefferson meant when, while still secretary of state, he returned to Monticello in 1793 and called himself “the most blessed of the patriarchs.” How did he come to conceive of himself as a patriarch? As he moved through the world as a plantation master, father, grandfather, revolutionary, public figure, and finally elder statesman, how did this role that he fashioned for himself as a republican patriarch influence his conduct?

Gordon-Reed and Onuf claim that they are not aiming to critically assess what Jefferson’s life might mean for us. Nor do they see their book as an effort to tell us how Jefferson ought to have behaved—so easy to do in retrospect. Instead, they want to understand what Jefferson himself thought he was doing in the world. They want “to present a picture of the total man,” by which they mean to include his ideas about slavery, race, and the place of women as well as his political activity and his vision of the nation’s future.


These two authors are as well equipped to carry out this formidable task as any scholars in the world. Gordon-Reed is professor of American legal history at Harvard Law School and the author of two very significant books on Jefferson’s involvement with the Hemings family at Monticello. Almost single-handedly Gordon-Reed has been responsible for convincing nearly the entire historical profession and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the staff of Monticello that Jefferson took his mulatto slave, Sally Hemings, as his concubine and fathered at least six children with her, four of whom lived to adulthood. Perhaps no two events in the entire two centuries of writing about Jefferson have had a more momentous impact than the DNA tests published in Nature in 1998 that found that someone in the male Jefferson line fathered the last son of Sally Hemings, and the publication of Gordon-Reed’s two scholarly works, one of which actually preceded the DNA findings. Because of these recent developments, we now must look at Jefferson in an entirely different way than we used to. His Hemings children have become real historical figures.

For his part Onuf has been living with Jefferson for a very long time. As the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor at the University of Virginia over the past quarter-century, he has contributed more to Jeffersonian scholarship than anyone alive. Not only has Onuf himself written several books on various aspects of Jefferson, but he has directed numerous dissertations on Jefferson and his interests, mentored many young academics working on Jeffersonian topics, and edited at least a dozen books that have made important contributions to Jeffersonian scholarship.

The new book is not easy reading. It assumes that the reader already knows a good deal about Jefferson and his life, and because it is not a chronological narrative it skips about quite a bit in time and place. The book is really a series of ruminations on various aspects of Jefferson’s life, all rather loosely tied together.

It is divided into three parts. The first, entitled “Patriarch,” deals with Jefferson’s home and plantation in Virginia. The second section, entitled “‘Traveller,’” focuses on Jefferson abroad and takes his political career up to the mid-1790s when he became the leader of the Republican Party in opposition to the Washington administration and to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The third part, entitled “Enthusiast,” describes Jefferson’s love of music, thus returning to his youth and his marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton. The authors recount his retirement years at Monticello when he was besieged by visitors and explain his religious attitudes. Only in an epilogue are his presidential years mentioned.

So any reader expecting a full account of Jefferson’s life should go elsewhere. But if the reader already knows the outlines of his life, then this collection of reflections will be richly rewarding. It is full of fascinating insights about Jefferson. For example, he always regarded himself as “the smartest person in the room” and a very good chess player, but when he went to France and was quickly and repeatedly beaten in a chess club, he promptly gave up the game. Sometimes he didn’t know his own mind. He repeatedly railed about the priestcraft and politics of Federalist New England and expressed his love for his “country” of Virginia. Nevertheless, the authors point out that “in the empire of this stalwart Virginian’s imagination, the perfect republican society looked a great deal like New England, and almost nothing like Virginia.”

Although the two authors never explain how they divided up the writing of the book, anyone familiar with their interests and their writing styles will be able to deduce who wrote what. They apparently didn’t work very hard to give their book a single voice. In fact, they seem to have allowed themselves to write about what each was interested in, which has resulted in some repetition and some contradictions and a disproportionate emphasis on some topics at the expense of others. Music was clearly important to Jefferson, for example, and the authors have devoted an entire chapter to it, while scarcely mentioning some other important subjects, such as Jefferson’s conception of law and the judiciary or his idea of economic sanctions as an alternative to war.

If the book has a major theme tying its disparate pieces together, it is the relationship between Jefferson’s private and public life, between the republican patriarch at home at Monticello and the participant in the larger world. (That’s apparently why the authors spent so much time on music at the expense of other subjects that did not fit this theme.) Jefferson made so much of being a patriarch at home, ruling autocratically over his extended family, including his hundreds of slaves, because that was where he seemed most in control of his world. Not only could he demand the love of his white family, but he could punish, sell, or free members of his enslaved family. If white masters were not careful, said Jefferson, slavery could have debilitating effects on themselves and on the domestic felicity of the family. This was one of the main reasons he hated the institution. Slavery turned whites into tyrants and weakened their capacity for self-control. And control was what Jefferson most valued.


Perhaps, the authors suggest, Jefferson idealized home and land so much because he was so often lured away from his own by the temptations of the larger world, a world that he discovered he could not easily manipulate and control. Despite his love of home, Jefferson found a “self-abnegating” justification for his overweening ambition to make a mark on the larger world: patriotism. In fact, they write, “no other member of the founding generation served in public life so long and in so many different capacities as he, at almost every level of government.” It was patriotism, the authors suggest, that resolved the tension between Jefferson’s private self and his public life, where he realized his “true calling in life.” Patriotism became the means by which he merged his personal identity with that of “the people.” Indeed, none of the Founders ever voiced more confidence in the opinion of common ordinary people than Jefferson. That alone perhaps justifies his being called the apostle of democracy.

His future greatness might have been hard to predict. His father, a self-educated surveyor and planter from the western part of Virginia, died when Jefferson was fourteen. Although he was raised by his mother’s Randolph family, which was one of the most distinguished families of Virginia, he always identified with the rough frontier character of his father and not his mother’s family. When his wife’s father died, he inherited not only thousands of acres of land but dozens of slaves, including the Hemings family, some of whom were the half-siblings of his wife Martha. Although he doubled the size of his estate and became one of the richest slaveholding planters in Virginia, he saw himself as different from the other wealthy planters. He stood apart from them and was superior to them, scorning their manners, their architecture, and their parochialism.

Building his home, Monticello, on a mountaintop symbolized his separation from his peers. He may have been a patriarch who kept records of everything, but he was not much of a manager and his plantations were not well run. In fact, Gordon-Reed and Onuf claim that despite Jefferson’s idealization of the sturdy yeoman, he had no natural affinity for farming. What he really wanted to become was a premier intellectual, indeed, nothing less than the most cultivated and cosmopolitan man in Virginia, if not in all of North America. Living on the edge of the wilderness, however, he never lost the sense that at Monticello gentility was always mixed with barbarity—if only because of the presence of slaves who were bought, sold, and whipped. As slaveholding masters went, he was not unkind, but he had trouble understanding that benevolence was not enough. He was bewildered when a slave ran off. Since the slave had never been beaten, Jefferson wondered why he would ever want to run away.

This patriarchal master was intelligent and highly disciplined and out of his sense of superiority took radical positions on issues that his colleagues often shied away from. He spoke out against slavery and in 1769 (or so he claimed in his autobiography) tried but failed to get the Virginia legislature to move against the institution. In 1774 he wrote the most radical pamphlet on behalf of the American cause against Great Britain until the appearance in 1776 of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

In 1782 his wife Martha died. Suddenly he was a thirty-nine-year-old widower who apparently had promised his dying wife that he would never remarry. In 1784 the Confederation Congress appointed him as a minister to negotiate commercial treaties in Europe. At long last he had an opportunity to experience the larger cosmopolitan world that he had only read about.

Living abroad changed Jefferson’s attitude toward his country. French manners and morals, and especially the loose behavior of French women, convinced him of the superiority of his own country. Jefferson believed that men and women in France had unnatural sexual relations—a belief, Gordon-Reed and Onuf suggest, that revealed his own sexual anxieties. At any rate Jefferson feared that young Americans touring abroad were bound to be corrupted by the flirtatious and licentious nature of Frenchwomen. When they returned to America, their corruption would weaken their ability to maintain a healthy republican family, the basic institution on which the success of the nation depended. By a healthy republican family, the patriarchal Jefferson meant “women fulfilled their true nature by sacrificing themselves for the comfort and well-being of their families.”

Of course, it was in France that Jefferson developed his relationship with Sally Hemings. For their lengthy account of the way Sally and her brother James, who was learning French cooking to bring back to Monticello, negotiated a new future for themselves, the authors rely on Gordon-Reed’s powerfully written book on the Hemingses. By the time Jefferson returned home in 1789 Hemings had become his concubine, what one of Jefferson’s friends called a “substitute for a wife.” But she was hardly any sort of wife. Although she was quartered in the house, she remained his chambermaid and closet concubine with no public role whatever. Neither he nor his white family ever acknowledged that she was his concubine.

That Jefferson, who wrote harshly against racial mixing and voiced strongly his suspicions of black inferiority, should have fathered children with a black slave would have been inconceivable to most white Americans through the past two centuries and is still inconceivable to many today. But the evidence has become increasingly overwhelming, and few historians doubt the truth of the relationship anymore.

What is difficult to understand is Jefferson’s unwillingness to recognize the relationship either privately or publicly. Many of his fellow slaveholding planters carried on relations with their slaves and had offspring whom they often recognized with personal attention and gifts, sometimes even mentioning them in their wills. Jefferson did nothing of that sort. He made no effort to prepare his enslaved offspring, whom he had promised to free, for their financial futures, and he apparently did not even bother to teach them to read; the Hemings children had to coax the white children in the household to help them to learn to read. He did note Sally’s children—his children—in his Farm Book, dutifully entering their births along with the new colts he acquired and the hogs he killed.

Jefferson’s experience with the aristocratic privilege and the monarchical tyranny of France helped to persuade him that Virginia did not have to be reformed after all. America may have been stained by slavery, but it did not have the maldistribution of property and the huge numbers of oppressed peasants that plagued the French nation. Jefferson said that American women, unlike those in Europe and in the barbaric society of the Indians, did not have to work in the fields; instead they could be kept in their proper place at home where they could perform their natural functions as wives and mothers. Of course, Jefferson was thinking of his own planter class, ignoring the reality that lower-class white women and female black slaves did have to work in the fields.

In the 1790s his earlier opposition to slavery softened. He had hitherto thought that masters and slaves existed in a state of war; now he came to believe that amelioration of the slaves’ condition was sufficient or, at least, was all that was possible. Jefferson, in other words, prepared the way, as Gordon-Reed and Onuf put it, for the “antebellum proslavery fantasies of happy relations between masters and slaves on southern plantations.”

As the book proceeds, the authors’ strenuous efforts throughout to link Jefferson’s preoccupation with family and his private household with his concerns in the larger world of the nation begin to flag and become confusing. They claim that Jefferson had reduced the conflict between the Federalist and Republican parties in the 1790s to the Hamiltonians’ lack of “local attachments—to family, friends, and neighbors—that defined the true patriot.” They maintain that Jefferson and his Republican followers were simply “projecting self-interested partisan intentions onto their political enemies” and “were oblivious to their own persistent provincialism.”

But this claim and their assertion that “Jefferson certainly misunderstood Hamilton” seem strange and perverse. Although Jefferson cloaked his opposition in the rhetoric of disinterested patriotism (which the authors seem to find reprehensible), he understood only too well what Hamilton was up to in seeking to turn America into a European-type fiscal-military state. He and Hamilton both knew that their conflict was not simply personal (as Gordon-Reed and Onuf imply) but that there were great political and social interests at stake. Neither man, of course, knew the future and neither fully understood the character of the people backing them, but Jefferson rightly sensed that much of the nation was on his side—a perception that was vindicated in the election of 1800.

In the end the authors believe that Jefferson’s dual roles as patriarch and patriot had become incompatible. He had begun by thinking of “home” as “the elemental building block of the new republican edifice,” that the country was the “family writ large.” But by the early nineteenth century this identification of home and nation was no longer tenable. Jefferson had come to insist “on the absolute and unbreachable wall between private and public.” As president, the authors conclude, Jefferson “was not a patriarch, for the country was not his exclusive domain; unlike the master’s actions in the privacy of his household, the public servant’s performance was always subject to a vigilant people’s surveillance.”

Although the authors acknowledge that no founder devoted more years to public service as a Virginia legislator, congressman, governor, diplomat, secretary of state, vice-president, and finally president than Jefferson, they spend relatively little time on his public achievements, apparently believing that other biographers and historians have amply covered them.

On the eve of his death in 1826 Jefferson wrote words that have resonated through the years and still resonate today and that do much to account for his special place in American culture. May the American experiment in democracy, he said,

be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government…. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.