Thomas Jefferson was arguably the central figure in the early American republic. No one contributed more to the formation of the country or had more sustained influence. But how did he think of himself and what he was doing in the world? How did he want others to perceive him?
The authoritative and eminently readable “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” is an excellent place to look for answers to these questions. Annette Gordon-Reed, who received the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for her groundbreaking The Hemingses of Monticello, and Peter S. Onuf, the country’s leading Jefferson scholar, delve deeply into the development and evolution of Jefferson’s thought. They give careful attention to both his public and private writing to help define his attitudes about many subjects, including the role of women.
Jefferson came to view the family as a microcosm of the nation. He may have idealized home so much because, as a committed patriot and skilled politician, he was so often away from his own. Born into the top of Virginia’s social stratum, he enjoyed extraordinary advantages. At the same time, perhaps more than any of the other founders, he wrestled with the moral and practical implications of long-term relationships among Native Americans, enslaved people and white settlers. He came to accept the concept of inevitable human progress, and he believed future generations would resolve these problems.
A particular highlight of the book is a discussion of the critical importance of the years during his diplomatic service in France, when his slaves, James and Sally Hemings, lived with him. When he returned home, Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery changed. He continued to see it as an evil, but not as the main degrading foundation of his country’s way of life. At the same time, Jefferson insisted publicly that patriotism began at home. The bonds that sustained family life, he thought, were the only stable and enduring foundation for republican self-government.
The authors are often asked, “What is left to be known and said about Thomas Jefferson?” Their reply is “granny
.” This stimulating book is a valuable guide to our most intriguing founding father.