Jefferson: Hero or Villain? It’s Complicated.
An interview with Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf
Jun 7, 2016
13 Min read time
It is almost impossible to grasp how much Thomas Jefferson believed in progress.
Engraving of Thomas Jefferson, early nineteenth century / Michał Sokolnicki and Tadeusz Kościuszko, Library of Congress
On April 13, the 273rd anniversary of his birth, Thomas Jefferson began trending on Twitter. The commentary arrived in an uneven stream, varying between patriotic quotes of dubious origin and spirited condemnations of “the biggest hypocrite the world has ever known.” A few days later, a writer for The American Conservative complained about her recent visit to Jefferson’s Monticello, which was marred by a docent who “just went on and on” about “how difficult life was for his servants.” The author found the tour “patronizing and condescending”—not to the memory of Jefferson’s slaves, but to herself. And in a daring new novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, Stephen O’Connor juxtaposes scenes imagining Jefferson’s notorious relationship with Hemings, his slave, with real historical documents, including excerpts from the memoirs of Jefferson’s chattel and his own criticisms of the “infamous practice” of human bondage.
A ghost haunts the stage of American politics and culture, and it looks an awful lot like the king.
In their new book, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf take another look at the life and legacy of the third president. More a collection of interpretive essays than a cradle-to-grave biography, the book combines a careful analysis of Jefferson’s thought (the focus of Onuf’s influential body of work) with a deft portrayal of his personal life, closely attuned to his intertwined black and white families (the study of which Gordon-Reed revolutionized in her Pulitzer-winning 2008 volume The Hemingses of Monticello). I sat down with the authors to talk about the complexities of their central character, the shallowness of the hypocrisy charge, and the continuing importance of thinking seriously about Jefferson and his contemporaries in the age of “founder chic.”
Kreitner: “Jefferson the God,” you write, “has given way to ‘Jefferson the Devil’”—both in the public mind and among professional historians. What has gone into each of those characterizations, why is that evolution a problem, and in what ways do you think your book solves or moves beyond it?
Gordon-Reed: Jefferson the God appeared during the time of great-man biography and the nineteenth-century celebration of “the hero.” People were very proud of the accomplishments of the United States of America. They wanted to tell Jefferson’s story the way they told stories about all great men of that period, emphasizing the good things they had done. Not until the twentieth century—and this is generally attributed to Lytton Strachey—did we get what’s called “new biography,” where you’re looking at the subject’s private life. Psychoanalysis had begun, and people were looking more at the inner person and trying to find what drives her. Jefferson the God persisted, but once we got to the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, society became more attentive to other people—people of color, women, and so on. All of a sudden we were looking at the founders in a different way, and at Jefferson in particular. People had made claims for Jefferson in ways he never made for himself. That led people to set him up as Jefferson the Devil.
Onuf: As psychoanalytically informed people know well, hate and love are very close. What Annette and I are struggling against are exaggerated depictions of a real person who lived in real time. It’s very hard to avoid the fallacy of saying about your subject, “He speaks to us.” Of course, Jefferson does in some ways: the voices he takes on, or that people impute to him, are a crazy medley of irreconcilable nonsense—that’s what is projected onto Jefferson. But he is still important, and we need to grapple with the question of how he will be important to us in the future. We’re trying to make sense of him the way he made sense of himself, without abandoning our own moral perspectives, our own need to tell what we think is the truth. But to either lionize him or demonize him is silly. It doesn’t help. It occludes a proper understanding.
Gordon-Reed: He makes sense to himself. There’s this whole new idea of viewing Jefferson through the lens of hypocrisy. He is no more hypocritical than other members of the founding generation, if you really look at their lives. You could find things they believed and ways in which they acted contrary to those professed beliefs. We need a reboot. People need to go back and look at Jefferson seriously instead of arguing among one another about how many more things we can each find out about Jefferson, how many contradictions. That’s a way of writing about him that hasn’t been very productive. We’ve been stuck in a ditch. You kind of know what people are going to say.
Onuf: I’ve always said that I’m sort of conflicted about Jefferson. That’s a cant phrase, but it suggests the interpretive problems are yours, not your subject’s. You are deeply conflicted about your subject, who didn’t have your conflicts. It doesn’t mean he didn’t have his own or that we can’t explore them, but they’re not the ones over which we usually get on our high ground to condemn people as moral hypocrites, as if we were totally transparent and honest and sincere and authentic and all those good things—because we’re shit, basically.
Kreitner: It seems to me that we like to reflexively condemn Jefferson as a conservative because we don’t want to face up to just how radical he was in certain respects. We’ve collectively chosen Alexander Hamilton as our founding-era avatar because he expects much less of us. Indeed, one might say he asks us only to keep shopping, to paraphrase George W. Bush’s recommendation for national success. What do we lose if we give up Jefferson as somebody worth admiring or even just thinking seriously about?
Onuf: Jefferson was indeed a radical in his own day. It’s hard for us to see this because we are so obsessed with his failure to address what we now see as the compelling issues that define our history. But Jefferson’s project was to demolish the old regime—the entangled hierarchies of society, church, and state that denied people’s fundamental, “natural” rights. This is ancient history for us, not radical politics. Nor are we comfortable with Jefferson's conception of the self-governing republic: homogenous, exclusive, and “equal” in ways we find troubling. For Jefferson, the people was a great family of families. His people was in a state of war with an enslaved people, unjustly held in bondage, whom he thought should fulfill their own destiny in another country.
He believed in progress. We see this faith as at best naïve, or more typically as a cop out. But he thought until his death that the American Revolution had changed everything: the republic he helped bring into being would be an engine for moral progress.
Gordon-Reed: That was the central point of his world and his life, the American Revolution and the founding of the United States of America. He had a particular vision about how things would proceed, and he was going to try to make sure that he was part of that.
Onuf: “Part” is the word, because he rejected the notion of the great man or lawgiver, and he gave voice to what he thought were the common sentiments of the people. We might see this as delusional, that he would sublimate his own identity in that of the people. But that’s exactly what was new. The great paradox about the American Revolution is that we heroize the founders as a select cast of people who loom above everything, but Jefferson’s big point was that it was a people’s revolution. He had a notion of the people that we today are somewhat skeptical about: that they’re educable, for instance; that they could be enlightened; that self-government is a form of enlightenment—all these jazzy things that he really believed in. These commitments involve a degree of self-effacement and self-abnegation at odds with how he actually made a way for himself in the world. After all, this is a guy who has a really big sense of self.
Gordon-Reed: He definitely does. Think about his return home to Monticello after getting politically beaten up in the cabinet of George Washington’s first administration. There are people who say he was sincere about enjoying his retirement from politics. I find that hard to believe. He was thinking, “I’m not going to let these people screw this whole thing up!”
Kreitner: He would have preferred not to lose.
Gordon-Reed: Exactly. This was the project of his life. There is this megalomania: “If I don’t get back in there, this is all going to hell.”
Onuf: It’s a sense of self that resonates with us now. We live in the world of selfies, but that’s just an extension of having rooms of our own, of thinking of our own worlds as comfortable places. I think you can trace that back to Jefferson. A republic is supposed to be a government of selves. It’s self-government! Every individual has to consent. That implies a citizen who has rights, who is autonomous, who is independent—someone who is a kind of sovereign unto himself. But they come together. Somehow some kind of public identity, collective identity, emerges from that. That’s the fantasy, at least.
Gordon-Reed: And he just knew it was going to happen. He had a strong belief in science and education. He thought, “Maybe these people are kind of rough-and-tumble now, but if you get a public education system going, if we have participatory government at the lowest level and all the way up, it’s going to get better and better.” That’s the key to him, and it’s very difficult for us to believe in, this idea that the world is going to get better and better. I don’t know if many people believe that now. It seems naïve.
Onuf: We don’t believe in progress, but we think he’s a hypocrite. That says it all about us.
Kreitner: What do you mean by that?
Onuf: Okay, well, do you believe in progress? I mean, I assume you have a suitably late-modern notion of human possibility and limitation in a world that might not exist a couple millennia from now.
Kreitner: More like New York City not existing in a hundred years, but otherwise that’s about right.
Onuf: Right. We are tormented by the future. It’s not something that we can embrace with the fervor of a religious believer. We have a hard time understanding Jefferson as a unitarian Christian who dreams of universal enlightenment, who believes that we’re never going to reach a level of perfection that is the millennium itself but that the world is nonetheless going to get better and better because of the almost infinite possibility of progress. This is something that astonished eighteenth-century natural philosophers, who said to themselves, “Gosh, what a world we live in and we are only beginning to understand it!” That, you might say, is a hopelessly naïve, optimistic notion of the possibilities of progress—of course, that possibility also indicates the possibility of regress, so he’s a very anxious guy, as am I—and we don’t have that. Americans throughout our history to one degree or another have embraced the notion of manifest destiny, infinite possibility, national greatness, the fulfillment of human flourishing. In this disenchanted moment, we just don’t get his big story.
He had this sense of a new world aborning, the destruction of the old regime and all hierarchical relationships. It wasn’t just about liberating individuals. That’s what I keep insisting on when I talk to people about Jefferson. That was a means toward an end. If we’re empowered because we have rights and we’re autonomous and independent, the point of having those rights is to come together. Union is the point, at the micro level and the macro level. That’s the powerful dream. It’s one that for us is something of a mystery. We look back and ask, what has union actually meant? Psh! Not a whole lot. It’s very hard for us to recapture the freshness and the wonder of that moment when the world seemed new.
Gordon-Reed: We look at this and say, “Are you kidding me? You couldn’t possibly have believed that. You’re lying to us, or you’re trying to trick us.” But he did believe it.
Onuf: Part of our disenchantment is that we have privatized and secularized and individualized love and attachment. All of that is intensely focused on our immediate connections, and of course sometimes those are contingent and ephemeral. The idea of bonds of love, that’s what Jefferson found in Jesus. It’s sort of embarrassing these days to talk about that, isn’t it? “Love your fellow Americans.” Really? Have you watched TV lately?
Kreitner: You mentioned Jefferson’s key concept of the nation as a “family of families.” But this is a man who basically had two families, one considered white and the other black, one free and the other enslaved. What kind of nation was he talking about, then?
Gordon-Reed: Think about how white supremacy complicates that idea. Jefferson lives in a society with what he considers this intractable problem. He couldn’t say we should all be one family regardless of race, creed, or color. You can barely say that now. He’s not going to go there. This notion of love and family and community is in the context of a group of folks who were brought here, who were forced to come here, in chains. What are we going to do with them? He has no solution other than that they have to find their own country where they can find love and autonomy and so forth.
Onuf: That’s the thing about the Enlightenment. The history of cosmopolitanism—the identification of all humanity with all humans everywhere—that is an Enlightenment legacy. But so is the idea of approximating that within a defined group of people. That is, the idea of a nation is an Enlightenment construct just as is the idea of the world. And these ideas are in constant tension with one another, because the nation, to meaningfully exist, has to be bounded.
Gordon-Reed: At the level of theory and writing, that’s what he said. But in the end, when he’s writing his will, he says the people he enslaved should have the right to stay in Virginia where their family and connections are. Duh! That’s the answer. That’s why every black person should stay in America, because they have families and connections here, too. When he’s writing Notes on the State of Virginia back in 1782, he’s operating at this theoretical level and says everybody should have their own country because, as he says, speaking of and for white people, “We’re prejudiced and they’re going to hate us, so we can’t get together.” But in his actual life, he has to make decisions.
Onuf: To what degree does any sovereign nation fully map onto a distinct ethnic, racial, religious identity? Look at the United States today. The idea of homogeneity of a nation is fundamentally problematic. It’s a messy world, and it’s pointless to blame or praise Jefferson’s generation for all of this, because this is what we live with. On the highest meta level and, as Annette suggests, at the most intimate micro level, we’re living with these same tensions, problems, conflicts, and contradictions. We can chart our own course. We haven’t replicated Jefferson’s Virginia. Who would want to? It was a nasty place. But you can’t escape history. That’s why we keep coming back to it.
June 07, 2016
13 Min read time