A character study of Thomas Jefferson as ‘patriarch’

In “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs,” historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf create a character study of Thomas Jefferson, attempting to explain our third president through his perceived role as patriarch to both his families and to his slaves.

‘Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination’

by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf

Liveright, 320 pp., $27.95

It’s not entirely clear that the world actually needs another biography of Thomas Jefferson. True, he played a remarkable role in shaping the young American democracy at a time when it was not at all clear that the rebellious colonies would emerge as a cohesive nation.

He wrote the Declaration of Independence, served as the nation’s third president, second secretary of state and as ambassador to France. But the library of Jefferson biographies is seemingly boundless and includes contributions such as Dumas Malone’s six-volume series (“Jefferson and His Time”), a work that took more than 30 years to complete and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for the first five volumes. What’s more to add?

But perhaps the sheer volume of scholarship is a testament to Jefferson’s enduring contributions and his elusive and contradictory personal life. Jefferson was a master of soaring rhetoric, articulating lofty principles of universal justice and equality while simultaneously not only owning large numbers of African-American slaves, but sleeping with one of them — Sally Hemings — and fathering several children by her. The relationship, long rumored and the subject of fierce debate, is no longer subject to serious question in the wake of definitive DNA testing.

Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf take on the task of explaining Jefferson’s own vision of himself and how he reconciled these conflicting threads in their somewhat awkwardly titled new book, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.” Gordon-Reed, a professor at Harvard Law School, is the author of the “The Hemingses of Monticello,” for which she won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Onuf, one of the nation’s leading Jefferson scholars, teaches at the University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson himself. No insignificant pool of talent here.

The book is largely a character study, organized in sections seeking to explain Jefferson’s understanding of himself and his life through his roles as a “patriarch” or as a “traveller,” both at home and abroad.

It’s an approach that allows exploration of Jefferson, unleashed from a chronological narrative. But perhaps more interesting, the book returns, like a touchstone, to remind the reader that Monticello and all that it stood for was built on the backs of enslaved African-Americans. Jefferson may have preferred to turn his face and avoid the harsh reality of his slaveholding, but neither these authors, nor history, will allow that contradiction to stand unexamined.

Of course, Jefferson’s fraught relationship with Sally Hemings is central to understanding Jefferson. Hemings was just 16 when she accompanied Jefferson’s young daughter from Philadelphia to Paris, where he served as the American representative to France.

Jefferson fathered several children with Hemings and, as Gordon-Reed and Onuf note, he held great affection for both his acknowledged as well as his unacknowledged family. He agreed with Hemings to free their children when they reached adulthood, a deal he honored (even as he simultaneously refused to free the slaves who kept Monticello afloat economically).

In the end, the book is an important contribution to understanding Jefferson in light of his now-confirmed relationship with Hemings. Sex, as they say, changes everything. Even our understanding of Jefferson himself.

Comments are closed.