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Reinterpreting Jefferson

In 1800, at what was arguably the apex of his political career, Thomas Jefferson began writing one of his few autobiographical reflections in a decidedly humble tone: “I have sometimes asked myself whether my country is the better for my having lived at all? I do not know that it is. I have been the instrument of doing the following things; but they would have been done by others; some of them perhaps a little later.” He followed that self-doubting pronouncement with a list of accomplishments that ranged from minor issues—improving navigation on the Rivanna River, for example—to more significant ones, such as his reforms of Virginia’s criminal code. Two decades later, Jefferson was nearing death, almost destitute, and aware that his family’s future was in grave danger. In an appeal to the state legislature for financial aid in the form of a lottery, Jefferson no longer speculated that other men could have performed the same tasks as he himself had done. Instead, Jefferson now framed his life as a hinge upon which history had turned: if he had “withdrawn” from leadership as vice president in the 1790s, “nothing on earth is more certain that…republicans thro’out the Union would have given up in despair, and the cause would have been lost forever.”

From these brief, seemingly contradictory evaluations of Jefferson’s life, two enduring lessons may be gleaned: first, as the contributors to Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: Biographers and the Battle for History make clear over and over again, even the most careful and accurate (auto)biographies are shaped by the circumstances in which they were written; and second, Thomas Jefferson is a particularly difficult figure about whom to write. Perhaps Jefferson’s self-deprecating tone in 1800 offers a rare moment of insight into the private insecurity of a notoriously inscrutable man, or perhaps Jefferson actually always thought of himself as the truly indispensable American statesman. Perhaps Jefferson could afford to act humble in 1800, but not in 1826, when his circumstances had changed so drastically. The answers to these and other questions will always be up for debate, partly because the thousands of documents and letters crafted by Jefferson contain numerous similar contradictions, and partly because, as early biographer George Tucker put it, “it was the fate of Thomas Jefferson to be at once more loved and praised by his friends, and more hated and reviled by his enemies” than anyone else. To this day, some find “any praise” of the Virginian “distasteful,” while others will accept “nothing less than one unvarying strain of eulogy.” A biographer must attempt to straddle the line between criticism and praise, all the while aware that each one of us writes, at least in part, as products of our own times. And no biographer has a more difficult time of it than a Jefferson biographer.

Memory, Rivalry, and History

Thomas Jefferson’s Lives began as a celebration of a leading Jefferson scholar who—ironically—has not written a traditional Jefferson biography. In 2012, Jefferson scholars converged at a conference to celebrate Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History, emeritus, at the University of Virginia. Few have influenced the field as much as Onuf; he is a much-beloved teacher whose “interpretations of Jefferson,” Gordon S. Wood tells us, “in many respects are superior to most, if not all, of the previous interpretations.” Conference papers began with Jefferson’s interpretations of himself and ended with works published in the 1970s. Twelve of these papers were then edited into their present format by Robert M.S. McDonald, history professor at the U.S. Military Academy, along with a foreword by Jon Meacham, an introduction by Barbara Oberg, and an afterword by Wood. Taken together, these essays form a comprehensive overview of those who have formed Jefferson’s reputation, for better or for worse, and in doing so informed how Americans felt about themselves and their republican experiment.

McDonald organized the twelve main essays into three roughly chronological sections: “Memory,” “Rivalry,” and “History,” embracing “a broad conception of biography” in order to better capture the ways in which individual writers have shaped historical interpretations of Jefferson over the years. Jefferson was deeply aware of the ways in which his story was linked to that of America, and he made careful efforts to shape his reputation, both while living and after death. It is therefore fitting that “Memory” begins with J. Jefferson Looney’s examination of Jefferson’s autobiographical writings before offering perspectives on biographers who either knew Jefferson personally, or who were able to interview those who had. McDonald and his wife, historian Christine Coalwell McDonald, provide an essay on Jefferson’s friend and colleague at UVA, George Tucker; Andrew Burstein profiles enthusiastic midcentury biographers Henry S. Randall and James Parton; Jan Ellen Lewis illuminates the work of Jefferson’s loyal granddaughter (and biographer) Sarah N. Randolph; and Richard Samuelson focuses on Henry Adams, like his great-grandfather a critic—but not a hater—of Jefferson. While these early accounts of Jefferson’s life differed in some respects, they were typically positive toward their subject. Even Adams had words of praise for Jefferson’s intentions, if not for his results.

From the battles between Federalists and Republicans to the Civil War to the Progressives to the Cold War liberals to the modern focus on race and slavery, Jefferson has been shaped and reshaped, appropriated and attacked.

The next section of Jefferson’s Lives, “Rivalry,” focuses on the group who had reason to hate Jefferson: biographers of his enemies Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. As Nancy Isenberg puts it, these writers “all aimed their verbal pistols at Jefferson in one way or another.” The biases of biographers result in flawed accounts, to be sure—and yet, Isenberg and Joanne B. Freeman’s essays in “Rivalry” demonstrate that any portrait of Jefferson is incomplete unless his enemies’ perspectives are included. Whereas Jefferson’s friends made allowances for his failures and papered over his more controversial actions, the biographers of his foes delighted in highlighting Jefferson’s backroom political dealings, moments of dishonesty, and complicated status as a freedom-loving slaveholder.

“Rivalry” traces the competition between Jefferson and Hamilton for first place in the national consciousness: focus on Jefferson’s weaknesses makes Hamilton seem more virtuous, and the Civil War “seemed to prove the necessity of a strong central government and the validity of Hamilton’s beliefs,” as Oberg puts it. Hamilton biographies soared in popularity toward the end of the 19th century, while Jefferson’s politics became uncomfortably identified with states’ rights and secession. During the Progressive Era, Jefferson’s advocacy for the western farmer and democracy made him once again popular with a range of figures, from Frederick Jackson Turner to Woodrow Wilson, and although Hamilton’s capitalism made him a hero to Presidents Harding and Coolidge, the crash of 1929 and crisis of World War Two cleared the way for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to memorialize Jefferson as the “Apostle of Freedom.” Americans seesaw between Jefferson and Hamilton; if the trend continues, perhaps we shall get a Jefferson musical, after all.

Jefferson’s Lengthened Shadow

FDR’s admiration for Jefferson owed much to a 1925 biography by Claude Bowers which, Brian Steele tells us, argued “[i]f you supported the people, you were with Jefferson; and if you were with Jefferson, you had to be a Democrat with a capital ‘D.’” But New Deal Democrats were not the only ones to rediscover their love for Jefferson in the 1930s; Albert Jay Nock, author of the 1926 biography Jefferson, inspired claims that the third president “would have killed himself if he could have seen ahead to Roosevelt II.” Nock’s libertarian Jefferson opposed centralized power as the chief threat to individual liberty. Steele’s essay, which opens the final section of the book, concludes both that Jefferson’s ideas are timeless, forever deserving study, and that scholars must “continue to consider carefully what others have understood about him, even as we recognize that whatever insight we glean will one day bear the marks of our time, just as theirs does.” In writing biographies, we reveal as much about the imperatives of our own ages as we do about the world of Jefferson.

This becomes increasingly apparent in the final four essays, dedicated to biographers Gilbert Chinard, Marie Kimball, Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson, and Fawn Brodie (or “that woman,” as The Papers of Thomas Jefferson editor Julian Boyd called her). Herbert Sloan, R.B. Bernstein, Francis Cogliano, and Annette Gordon-Reed each raise interesting points about their subject’s backgrounds and motivations, the strengths and weaknesses of their work on Jefferson—and, with rising frequency, slavery, race, and Sally Hemings. The biographers’ willingness to address those three controversial topics becomes the measure by which their work is weighed; we learn that writers such as Chinard and Kimball largely avoided them, while Malone and Peterson displayed “blind spots,” struggling mightily to defend the reputation of the man they both admired greatly in the face of rising criticism. As Jefferson’s papers became more accessible during the later half of the 20th century, and the Civil Rights Movement led to new scholarly focus on Jefferson’s status as a slaveholder, Malone tried to dismiss the Hemings controversy with an appendix. Peterson dedicated slightly more analysis to the topic (six pages, total), but ultimately—mistakenly—concluded that, as Cogliano puts it, “it was impossible for Jefferson to have had a sexual relationship with Hemings because it would have been out of character for Jefferson to engage in behavior that he deemed immoral.”

When in 1971 Fawn Brodie published a review essay dealing with both Malone and Peterson’s biographies, she questioned whether they chose Jefferson as a topic because of “resonances” between their own lives and his; three years later she published Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, using Freudian analysis to make the case for a Jefferson-Hemings liaison. For Gordon-Reed, Brodie’s book is a “masterpiece,” the product of a “courageous, first-rate, and creative” mind. Brodie pushed the Hemings family to the forefront of the Jefferson narrative, giving equal weight to their stories for the first time, and forcing scholars such as Malone and Peterson to confront the testimonies of Madison Hemings and others whom they would rather have ignored. The trajectory of Jefferson scholarship has forever altered, in part due to Brodie and in even larger part due to Gordon-Reed herself, because the voices of white witnesses to Jefferson’s life are no longer given more credence than those of black people. Any biographers from this point forward will have a wider range of sources with which to wrestle, and a more complex—and human—Jefferson to explain.

The biographies of biographers in Thomas Jefferson’s Lives should serve as a reminder to historians that we write, not only to analyze and explicate the past, but as representatives of our own times. Future scholars will read us, not only to learn about Jefferson, but to analyze the ways in which we fashioned a Jefferson that fit the most pressing issues of our own days. From the battles between Federalists and Republicans to the Civil War to the Progressives to the Cold War liberals to the modern focus on race and slavery, Jefferson has been shaped and reshaped, appropriated and attacked. He truly is, as he himself suspected, indispensable to the American story, the wordsmith of our most noble ideals, shaper of our republican values, and symbol of our most awful paradoxes. Now, when we know more than ever about the impenetrable Virginian, we should recall the words of Joanne Freeman: “balance is everything when unraveling the meaning of a life.”

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