16 February, 2009Issue 8.4HistoryNorth America

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Histories of a Revolutionary

James Moxness

Thomas JeffersonFrank Shuffelton (ed.)
The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson
Cambridge University Press, 2009
228 pages
£15.99
ISBN 978-0521686976



Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “There is no history, only biography.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in historical work on Thomas Jefferson. As an individual, Jefferson is one of the most conflicted, and poorly understood, characters in American history.

The third US President is a case study in contradiction. Jefferson originally wished to condemn slavery directly in the Declaration of Independence, and yet he owned slaves. He believed that a world without the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth was “‘something not fit to be named’ even, indeed, a hell”, and yet he took a knife to the Bible to cut out the parts he considered false, creating his own tome titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Without turning to the man in his time, there is little hope of bringing the enigmatic Jefferson nearer to our own understanding. Too many historians have let the contradictions in Jefferson’s life become a touchstone for contemporary political posturing and polemic.

The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson both evades and succumbs to this lamentable tendency. According to its preface, the Companion aims to form “an accessible introduction to the life and work of Thomas Jefferson”. But it also intends to “speak to abiding modern concerns about American culture and Jefferson’s place in it”. The dual goal generates a methodological conflict between editorialism and true historiography. The best writing illuminates Jefferson through his own writing and the writing of his contemporaries. Other essays stretch to view Jefferson through a modern lens, sacrificing good history to the vicissitudes of contemporary political opinion.

This contrast in method—and accordingly, in quality—is no more potent than between Gordon Sayre’s essay, “Jefferson and Native Americans: Policy and Archive”, and Douglas Anderson’s piece, “Jefferson and the Democratic Future”.

Sayre’s essay superimposes contemporary ethical and political questions onto Jefferson’s life and actions, with particular regard to his treatment of Native Americans. Sayre opens with Jefferson’s meticulous excavation of a Native American burial mound, which he calls “disturbing” because “Jefferson did not attempt to get permission from the kinfolk or descendants [to excavate] as he would be required to do under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.” While Sayre wishes to bring legal force to his argument, one wonders if First Chief Justice John Marshall would wish to remind Sayre that the US Constitution forbids retroactive application of the Act.

The remainder of Sayre’s essay swings rather unpredictably from source-based history to modern subjectivity. He examines Jefferson’s interest in the linguistic history of Native American peoples, describing not only Jefferson’s work in the area, but also Jefferson’s call for further research. Sayre follows this analysis by criticising Jefferson for depositing the information he acquired in public libraries that Native Americans would not have been able to use.

While it is not objectionable to provide opinion on history, confusing the two is academically irresponsible. It is scarcely more appropriate to judge Jefferson’s interaction with Native Americans according to late 20th century American policy on the matter than it would be to criticise the 1792 B.C. Babylonian Hammurabi for failing to delineate freedom of speech. Sayre seems unaware of the fact that blurring the line between history and critical opinion makes for bad history and unconvincing judgments.

The best writing in the Companion avoids this confusion and successfully presents Jefferson as an individual in his own time. Douglas Anderson’s essay reveals a man beset by self-doubt and tormented by a conflicting desire to defend his political ideals and flee from the cacophony of politics. Anderson attempts to understand Jefferson’s own attitude toward his legacy as part of the democratic future of America. He does not attempt to bring Jefferson into the court of the 21st century for arraignment, but rather, illustrates the man’s complexity and contradictions using appropriately chosen primary source material.

The reader is excellently served by this method. Anderson opens with Jefferson’s plan for his own burial, a careful and erudite yet ambivalent document. In beginning to ponder his grave, Jefferson quoted the Greek poet Anacreon: “A scanty dust to feed the wind/ is all the trace it will leave behind.” Jefferson eventually settles on an almost poetic personal expression: a tomb with a simple epitaph and a consummately Jeffersonian design of simple geometric forms.

Anderson appropriately explains Jefferson’s style here as part of his aversion to the very idea of “legacy”. Again, he finds sources in Jefferson’s own ideas, observing that Jefferson’s objection to a cumulative national debt was grounded in his idea that “the world belongs in usufruct to the living” and that no generation “has the right to bind the actions of its successors”. Readers today cannot help but pause and wonder if Jefferson’s exhortation for us to put the long-term ideals of liberty and of future generations ahead of short-term goals has been too easily and perilously ignored.

Anderson presents a man who seems more content alone on his estate than at the helm of the new nation, an individual who writes in an almost na√Øve seriousness that “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture; especially, a bread grain”, and a president uncomfortable with the idea of being a leader. Anderson questions American historian Joseph Ellis’s view that Jefferson’s ideas are so foreign to the 21st century that for us Jefferson is a quiet figure with little to say. Instead, and rightly, Anderson believes that Jefferson points out “the continuing necessity to strive towards a yet unattained freedom for all”, something which is perhaps more pertinent than ever. Anderson defends this point with the best evidence, Jefferson’s own words from the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, where he wrote that those in America are a “people who mean to be free (emphasis added),” a phrase ultimately replaced by the Congress with “free people”. The conflicted Jefferson shines through prominently.

In reading the Cambridge Companion, one feels that the essays focusing on Jefferson-the-man help us understand the inner character and soul of the prominent “founding father” of America, while those which struggle with Jefferson on modern terms find only disappointment and disjointed logic. This struggle is the natural yet regrettable outcome of a scholarship that wishes to see the genesis of modern American society’s failures in the inner flaws of the founding figures of the nation. While it is never right to blindly lionise the figures of the past, we would do better for ourselves to seek improvement, not blame, in society’s ills, and to avoid forgetting that good history is always about context and original source material.

The best we can do in historiography is to uncover the individual, the sensible and the irrational together, and through that better understand ourselves and where we are going. Examining Jefferson on his own terms can illuminate the current time by calling us to remember that our greatest identity comes not from security, consumption, or wealth, but in preserving our ideals and our liberty, especially when it is most difficult. Jefferson calls upon posterity to preserve “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to the utmost, not for the benefit of ourselves, but for the benefit of those yet to come. In short, a better, contextual understanding of Jefferson-the-individual points the way not to who we are, but who we mean to be.

James Moxness is reading for an MPhil in Classical Archaeology at Merton College, Oxford.