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"Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" : Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination
by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf


Overview -

Thomas Jefferson is often portrayed as a hopelessly enigmatic figure a riddle a man so riven with contradictions that he is almost impossible to know. Lauded as the most articulate voice of American freedom and equality, even as he held people including his own family in bondage, Jefferson is variably described as a hypocrite, an atheist, or a simple-minded proponent of limited government who expected all Americans to be farmers forever.  Read more...


 
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More About "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" by Annette Gordon-Reed; Peter S. Onuf
 
 
 
Overview

Thomas Jefferson is often portrayed as a hopelessly enigmatic figure a riddle a man so riven with contradictions that he is almost impossible to know. Lauded as the most articulate voice of American freedom and equality, even as he held people including his own family in bondage, Jefferson is variably described as a hypocrite, an atheist, or a simple-minded proponent of limited government who expected all Americans to be farmers forever.

Now, Annette Gordon-Reed teams up with America's leading Jefferson scholar, Peter S. Onuf, to present an absorbing and revealing character study that dispels the many cliches that have accrued over the years about our third president. Challenging the widely prevalent belief that Jefferson remains so opaque as to be unknowable, the authors through their careful analysis, painstaking research, and vivid prose create a portrait of Jefferson, as he might have painted himself, one "comprised of equal parts sun and shadow" (Jane Kamensky).

Tracing Jefferson's philosophical development from youth to old age, the authors explore what they call the "empire" of Jefferson's imagination an expansive state of mind born of his origins in a slave society, his intellectual influences, and the vaulting ambition that propelled him into public life as a modern avatar of the Enlightenment who, at the same time, likened himself to a figure of old "the most blessed of the patriarchs." Indeed, Jefferson saw himself as a "patriarch," not just to his country and mountain-like home at Monticello but also to his family, the white half that he loved so publicly, as well as to the black side that he claimed to love, a contradiction of extraordinary historical magnitude.

Divided into three sections, "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" reveals a striking personal dimension to his life. Part I, "Patriarch," explores Jeffersons's origins in Virgina; Part II, " 'Traveller, ' " covers his five-year sojourn to Paris; and Part III, "Enthusiast," delves insightfully into the Virginian's views on Christianity, slavery, and race. We see not just his ideas and vision of America but come to know him in an almost familial way, such as through the importance of music in his life.

"Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" fundamentally challenges much of what we ve come to accept about Jefferson, neither hypocrite nor saint, atheist nor fundamentalist. Gordon-Reed and Onuf, through a close reading of Jefferson s own words, reintroduce us all to our most influential founding father: a man more gifted than most, but complicated in just the ways we all are.

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Details
  • ISBN-13: 9780871404428
  • ISBN-10: 0871404427
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publish Date: April 2016
  • Page Count: 400


Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Presidents & Heads of State
Books > History > United States - Revolutionary War
Books > History > United States - 19th Century

 
Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2016-02-08
  • Reviewer: Staff

Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Hemingses of Monticello, and Onuf (The Mind of Thomas Jefferson), professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia, probe the paradoxical figure of the third president, unpacking what Jefferson himself “thought he was doing in the world.” They neither indict nor absolve Jefferson; instead, they aim to make sense of his contradictions for modern sensibilities by mining familiar texts, as well as his actions as a Virginia plantation owner and American ambassador to France. Although considered progressive for his time, Jefferson was fully cognizant of the hypocrisy of owning slaves while fighting for liberation from Great Britain. Jefferson’s immersion in revolutionary France tempered his attitudes toward slavery, but did not persuade him to abandon it. He made his peace with this moral dilemma by striving to be the “kindest of masters.” The authors reveal what plantation family life meant to Jefferson and explain how his notoriously poor plantation management shaped the lives of Monticello’s enslaved people. They also offer fresh insights into his attitudes about privacy and religion, and his relationships with his wife, Martha, and his slave Sally Hemings. In seeking to reconcile the various strands of Jeffersonian thought and action, Gordon-Reed and Onuf have produced a fascinating addition to the Jefferson canon. (Apr.)

 
BookPage Reviews

Jefferson's mission

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 “Everything.” This stimulating book is a valuable guide to our most intriguing founding father.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

 
BAM Customer Reviews