Revealing the Total Jefferson

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.…

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