Monday, April 11, 2016

It’s Always About Slavery - Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

April 8, 2016 4:42 p.m. ET

Jefferson image from article

By Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf
Liveright, 370 pages, $27.95

Jefferson’s character flaws are hard to ignore, but there is more to his life and thought than hypocrisy.

In November 1793, writing to his friend Angelica Church, Thomas Jefferson, at the time America’s first secretary of state, offered a glimpse into the way he wished to be thought of by posterity. One daughter and her husband already lived with him at Monticello, he wrote, and “if the other shall be as fortunate in due process of time, I shall imagine myself as blessed as the most blessed of the patriarchs.” That word “patriarch” sounds decidedly un-republican: It suggests the command of a revered forebear, the authority of tradition—the very opposite of the independent reason that Jefferson felt, or said he felt, should lead each new generation.

Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, historians at Harvard University and the University of Virginia respectively, use the remark as a point of departure for a discussion of the varied and frequently contradictory ways in which Jefferson thought about himself and his place in the new American republic. Their book “ ‘Most Blessed of the Patriarchs’ ” ranges widely—its chapters examine Jefferson’s evolving views on Virginia, France, the United States, politics, music and religion. Yet the authors never stray far from one topic: slavery. They want to explain, they write, “how this progressive patriarch came to rest easy within the confines of a way of life that he believed to be retrogressive”: that is, how the forward-thinking Jefferson, so hopeful that the institution of slavery would soon expire in America, over time arrived at a kind of unspoken acceptance of it. That he did so while siring children with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings (their relationship is the subject of Ms. Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Hemingses of Monticello”), gives the subject a human depth that can hardly be exhausted.

The authors are accomplished scholars, yet somehow the entire book feels wrong. It’s not that they revile Jefferson in the manner of Henry Wiencek, whose book “Master of the Mountain” (2012) goes out of its way to interpret everything about Jefferson in the worst possible light. Nor do they deify their subject or attempt to turn his brilliant but inconsistent thought into a coherent philosophy. No, what Ms. Gordon-Reed and Mr. Onuf have done is something that one wouldn’t have thought possible: They’ve made Thomas Jefferson small and boring.

Jefferson’s character flaws are hard to ignore: He tended to self-absorption; he could be cold to those close to him; and of course the allegation of hypocrisy is a reasonable one. What the authors of “ ‘Most Blessed of the Patriarchs’ ” offer, however, isn’t so much criticism as polite contempt: that superior attitude so typical of modern academic discourse. Their Jefferson is unremarkable except in his capacity to delude himself about his status and ambitions. His compulsive need to add wings and rooms to his home “consumed him and allowed him to imagine himself as a plantation patriarch in a prosperous and improving landscape.” His decision to free a slave who had fled from Monticello rather than pursue him “was another action that allowed Jefferson to see himself as a benevolent patriarch—doling out random acts of leniency as he thought the situation warranted without . . . weakening his position as a slave owner at all.”

There’s nothing untrue about these and many similar observations, but this vaguely disdainful tone grates after the first hundred pages or so. This is a man, let’s remember, who guided his nation through a successful and ordered revolution, embedded the principle of religious freedom in its founding documents and earliest political traditions, kept it from bloodshed in the first test of its unity (the election of 1800), more than doubled the extent of its territory, and founded one of the world’s great universities. Yet the reader of “ ‘Most Blessed of the Patriarchs’ ” may be forgiven for wondering why we care about him at all. The bolder criticisms mounted by other biographers, whatever else may be said about them, at least present him as a man of major accomplishment and flaws.

Just as off-putting is the authors’ unsubtle, clumsy presentation. We learn that Jefferson, having once abandoned Monticello before the arrival of British troops, “was simply devastated when the [Virginia] legislature . . . launched an investigation into his conduct as governor.” He was devastated—in case you can’t figure it out—because “in a patriarchal world that valued martial valor, this was an attack on Jefferson’s masculinity.” Similarly, the authors observe that “he was far ahead of his time on other extremely important matters. He was willing to question religious dogma, argue for the separation of church and state, and welcome scientific insights and advances with an open mind.” I doubt very much that the authors actually believe that no one questioned religious dogma or welcomed scientific progress until the late 18th century. Yet that is what they have written.

Much of the book claims to reach fresh and original conclusions, but most of these are identical to the old ones. Jefferson’s ambiguous religious views, for example, are well known: He labored to strip the Scriptures of their supernatural claims, but at certain times was capable of making observations on God and faith that even orthodox believers could accept; and it’s clear that his hostility to the Christian church was neither total nor constant. After traversing this familiar material, though, Ms. Gordon-Reed and Mr. Onuf conclude that “perhaps [Jefferson’s] labors represented the culmination of a faithful republican’s efforts to bend toward the common, moral sense of his Christian countrymen.” Huh?

We may wish to praise or censure him, but the author of the Declaration worked painstakingly to express himself clearly—and that is a good bit more than the authors of this monograph can claim.

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