Finding the Founding Father A new book explores our continuing fascination with Jefferson.

“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

By Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf (2016, Liveright) 370 pages, with index and endnotes

At a conference held at Monticello on the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson in 1993, the distinguished historian Joyce Appleby asked, “Why is Jefferson the only president whose name forms an adjective of general meaning?”[1] We speak of specific political regimes (“Jacksonian democracy”) or policies (“Wilsonian diplomacy”), and the term “Jeffersonian” has been applied to these as well. Alone among presidential adjectives, however, “Jeffersonian” also attaches to attributes of our national character, such as “vision,” “dream,” or “individualism.” The breadth of meaning of “Jeffersonian” is as complex as the nation that uses it because, as Merrill Peterson so convincingly wrote of his legacy, Jefferson lives on in “posterity’s configuration” of a constantly changing image of the man, regardless of its “truth or falsity”: more than any other figure in American history, he has served as “a sensitive reflector … of America’s troubled search for the image of itself.”[2]

Important Jefferson biographies, not surprisingly, have appeared when national crises have forced Americans to reflect on their national identity. We might date the first of these to 1858, when Henry S. Randall’s three-volume Life of Thomas Jefferson celebrated the Jeffersonian “axioms, creeds, and gathering-cries to great masses of his countrymen” that looked to the protection of democratic governance at a time when the ominous threat of secession called it into doubt.[3]  It was no accident that five years later Lincoln appealed to Jefferson as avatar of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The Jefferson family supplied a wealth of reminiscences, anecdotes, and personal documents to demonstrate his human side, but Randall wrote to celebrate Jefferson’s achievement in founding and leading the political party that unified a divided nation after the bitterly contested election of 1800. Reconstruction brought its own challenges, and James Parton’s 1874 Life of Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States, identified Jefferson with a philosophy of limited government that would appeal to North and South: a “government simple, inexpensive, and strong, that shall protect all rights, including those of posterity, and let all interests protect themselves, assuming no functions except those which the Constitution distinctly assigns it.” If anyone needed reminding of the relevance of past to present, Parton drove home his point: “these are the principles which Jefferson restored in 1801, and on which the future of the country can be safely trusted.”[4] For good measure, he highlighted Jefferson’s opposition to the spoils system, whose creation he assigned to the Burr faction of his party.

The 20th century enlisted Jefferson as the nation’s bulwark against challenges to democracy in a world fast succumbing to totalitarian regimes. The Jefferson Monument was completed in 1943, and that same year historian Dumas Malone began work on what he planned to be a four-volume “definitive” Jefferson biography, which grew to six volumes before completion in 1981. In one of the odder examples of Jefferson scholarship, Malone wrote “An Imaginary Letter” from Jefferson to President Franklin Roosevelt in the spring of 1943, “when I should be two hundred years old had I continued on earth.”  “If I were living now,” the superannuated ex-President wrote to FDR, “you may be sure that I would oppose with all the force at my command whatever should seem to be the greatest tyrannies of the age, the chief obstacles to the free life of the human spirit; and I should favor what seems to be the most effective means of bringing appropriate opportunity within the reach of all, regardless of race or economic status.” Malone was a liberal Roosevelt Democrat, and his resurrected Jefferson went on to “protest against the use of my name” by “those who quote me in regard to the limitations of government and the dangers of its power,” especially in the present; “never has it seemed more important than it does now to reassert faith in the dignity of human personality and in the power of the human mind.”[5]

Their book is no apologetic, either for Jefferson or for succeeding generations who have been unwilling or unable to honestly confront slavery and its legacy—what Jefferson called the “one fatal stain” that had corrupted “what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts.” These authors are concerned with “truth or falsity” in the writing of history.

The most recent addition to the list of timely great Jefferson biographies is “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs.” Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf. They, too, recognize the importance of timing, admitting that “ … we are in a particularly critical and, potentially, transformative time in Jefferson scholarship” when, for both the public and much of the community of scholars “‘Jefferson the God’ has given way to ‘Jefferson the Devil.’” They could easily and correctly have extended the “critical and, potentially, transformative time” to describe our present crisis in race relations, when much of the public identifies Jefferson as the owner of hundreds of enslaved African Americans, the sexually exploitative master of his teen-aged human property Sally Hemings, and the unfeeling father of their unacknowledged children. The debate is heated and divisive, propelled by a national re-evaluation of our racial past and, because we are talking about Jefferson’s role in “America’s troubled search for the image of itself,” by our painful efforts to come to terms with the present.  What Parton wrote in 1874 seems equally true today:  “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.”[6]

Though acknowledging the fraught nature of their subject, Gordon-Reed and Onuf announce at the outset their intention to avoid identifying Jefferson as either divine or satanic. To their credit, they succeed in doing so by moving beyond the standard and unsatisfying tactics employed by others in analyzing a subject as complex as Jefferson: the on the one hand … but on the other strategy; the person of his times contextual framework; or the simplistic label of hypocrite. They reserve particular disapproval for the last. To take interpretive refuge in the accusation of hypocrisy, they write, is “an understandable, even predictable, response. 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.” Their book is no apologetic, either for Jefferson or for succeeding generations who have been unwilling or unable to honestly confront slavery and its legacy—what Jefferson called the “one fatal stain” that had corrupted “what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts.”

These authors are concerned with “truth or falsity” in the writing of history. “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” should be required reading for a general public that deserves more than easy evasions or tired indictments, for students who deserve an honest and unflinching engagement with the historical past, and for citizens seeking solutions for the problems of a troubled legacy. It would not be so without the unique perspectives and unparalleled achievements that set its authors apart from anyone writing about Jefferson today. Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren professor of law and legal history at Harvard Law School, is author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997) and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008). The former appeared a year before the release of DNA evidence provided convincing proof of Jefferson’s parentage of at least one of his slave’s children. Deniers remain, but Gordon-Reed built her case as a lawyer (she was not trained as a historian), questioning the evidence of doubters and carefully but critically weighing the record of overwhelming substantive and circumstantial evidence to conclude that there existed a monogamous intimate relationship between master and slave that lasted more than three decades and produced four children who survived to adulthood. The eloquence and meticulous research she brought to The Hemingses make it a masterpiece of the historian’s craft, and Jefferson studies will never be the same. We can no longer comprehend the complexities of Thomas Jefferson and his world without understanding a life intertwined with his enslaved “substitute wife” and their children. Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, began his career writing about the political structure of the Early Republic, and has continued to make significant contributions to the history of nationhood while turning his attention to Jefferson. At “Mr. Jefferson’s University” his writings on the man and his era attracted an extraordinary group of young historians, including many from Europe, who came there to study Jefferson unburdened by preconceived agendas or issues of national identification with their subject. Together, mentor and apprentices produced one of the most significant bodies of revisionist, groundbreaking Jefferson scholarship of any time or place.

Gordon-Reed and Onuf present their approach in their book’s title. Although Jefferson spent surprisingly little time at Monticello between 1784 and 1809 while serving as minister to France, secretary of state, vice-president, and two terms as president, he always looked to his mountaintop residence as the focus of his life, where, he wrote while engaged in destructive combat with Hamilton in 1793, he would someday be “liberated from the hated occupation of politics.” Looking to a day when he could enjoy the company of his children and grandchildren at Monticello, he mused, “I shall imagine myself as blessed as the most blessed of the patriarchs.” Seeing him as patriarch—no matter how objectionable that might seem today—allows the authors to ask and explain “how this progressive patriarch came to rest easy within the confines of a way of life that he believed to be retrogressive.” Their achievement lies in recovering “what Thomas Jefferson thought he was doing in the world” and tells us far more than obsessing over “what he ought to have been doing.” From this starting point, the authors can investigate how fulfilling were those roles that shaped his thought and actions: as slave owner, head of two extended families—black and white, slave and free—and revolutionary public official.  “How,” they ask, “did he deploy the tremendous resources at his disposal—his talent, ambition, wealth, personal will, and social position—to fulfill the roles he set for himself early on in his life?”

Seeing him as patriarch—no matter how objectionable that might seem today—allows the authors to ask and explain “how this progressive patriarch came to rest easy within the confines of a way of life that he believed to be retrogressive.” Their achievement lies in recovering “what Thomas Jefferson thought he was doing in the world” and tells us far more than obsessing over “what he ought to have been doing.”

Patriarchy elevated him to a very privileged status, but also one that came with the responsibilities (or “duties,” as he preferred to call them) of place and power. Always a firm believer in a natural hierarchy of gender and race, he saw himself as obligated to use his power in what he conceived of as an “enlightened” manner over others. Never comfortable with the forced labor he was legally entitled to demand of the enslaved, he constantly pursued his own version of “enlightened mastery” by which “he would exercise a more benevolent and public-spirited form of mastery, compatible with his revolutionary republican principles.” As patriarch, he expressed regret that his enslaved “women and children are often employed in labours disproportioned to their sex and age” and he investigated crops whose cultivation, he hoped, would be “easier and equally beneficial, [so that] all temptation to misemploy them would be removed, and the lot of this tender part of our species be much softened.” Our surprise is lessened, therefore, when the authors inform us that he had Monticello’s privies cleaned only by slaves who volunteered to do so, and for which repellent work he paid them.

Recognizing de facto slave marriages, his purchases and sales of slaves were generally made to keep families together, and he accorded slave women the dignity of the term “Mrs.” Even so, he knew enough about the brutality practiced on neighboring plantations to deny that the enslaved were the happy recipients of care and protection. To the contrary, he “never made the pivot to the nascent proslavery ideology that would have rationalized his life in an instant.” Jefferson by all accounts believed that those under his patriarchal control would reciprocate his patriarchal, if condescending, concern by remaining loyal and obedient, and he was truly shocked when his own slaves fled. But he knew that he was more the exception than the rule. As he said of his religion, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”[7] Jefferson’s version of enlightened patriarchy was a soothing palliative for the pain he certainly felt as a slaveholder, and he took great comfort in the redeeming power of what he saw as enlightened amelioration. As long as it remained under his control, the informal power to mitigate the harsh formal power of the law served to demonstrate his humanity and, he believed, earn the gratitude of those he controlled, and all without diminishing his authority. It allowed him to think of himself, the authors rightly point out, as “traveling on a road of progress that would be extended in increments toward the inevitable endpoint where slavery would disappear,” even if he did little to that purpose.

To his dying day he maintained his faith in the ultimate triumph of mankind’s reasonable impulse, which he imagined as bringing to the nation as a whole the enlightened stability he imagined for Monticello—what the authors explain as his “conception of the republic as family writ large.” It would take the guardianship of patriarchal benevolence to educate ordinary citizens, of course, and to empower their rational faculties against the ignorance that ambitious aristocrats would use to delude them. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” he wrote shortly after founding his university, “it expects what never was and never will be.” Enlightened patriarchy took form in his close control of the curriculum at his university, with patriarch faculty living among students, supervising their progress through a strictly prescribed curriculum. Such was his confidence that he was driven to tears when students rioted and pelted faculty with rocks in 1825.

To his dying day he maintained his faith in the ultimate triumph of mankind’s reasonable impulse, which he imagined as bringing to the nation as a whole the enlightened stability he imagined for Monticello—what the authors explain as his “conception of the republic as family writ large.”

Jefferson’s optimism has been derided as naïve, cynically self-serving, and even delusional. It certainly made him unique, and his expectations about slavery were no more wishful or sincere than his confidence that America would someday be a nation composed entirely of Unitarians. But such confidence will be more easily understood if we accept the authors’ invitation to see Jefferson as a self-fashioned individual who “charted his way through the empire of his imagination.” There, in the inevitable future, he confidently expected the fulfillment of his imagined republic, where reason would overwhelm and destroy slavery. Writing in confidential reply to a “request of two lines of sentiment on the subject” less than two months before his death, he confessed, “The revolution in public opinion which this cause requires, is not to be expected in a day, or perhaps in an age; but time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also.”[8]  History, he believed, “was on his side.”

It is in that hopeful invocation of the empire of the imagination that Gordon-Reed and Onuf find our answer to Parton’s proposition, “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong.  If America is right, Jefferson was right.”  The answer is neither, and both, because, as Parton added (in words rarely quoted), “we cannot claim for either a final and indubitable triumph.”[9]

[1] Joyce Appleby, “Thomas Jefferson and His Complex Legacy,” in Peter S. Onuf, ed., Jeffersonian Legacies (Charlottesville, 1993), 1.

[2] Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (rev. ed., New York, 1960), xiii.

[3] Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1858), “Preface,” vi.

[4] James Parton, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States (New York, 1974), iv.

[5] Dumas Malone, “Mr. Jefferson to Mr. Roosevelt,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1943, accessible at www.vqronline.org/essay/mr-jefferson-mr-roosevelt (accessed 10 September 2016).

[6] Parton, Jefferson, iii.

[7] Jefferson to Ezra Stiles Ely, 25 June 1819, https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-religious-beliefs, accessed 12 September 2016.

[8] Jefferson to James Heaton, 20 May 1826, Thomas Jefferson. Writings, comp. Merrill D. Peterson (New York, 1984), 1516.

[9] Parton, Jefferson,, iii.

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