Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson And The Empire Of Imagination

I, uh… I am not sure what the second half of that title is doing there. While I am sure that Jefferson was imaginative, that’s not really what this book is about (and most folks, including the authors, do not consider Jefferson to be an original thinker). And while you could make a strong argument for Jefferson having helped create an American Empire (the Louisiana Purchase and also the war against the Tripoli pirates).

But the first part makes a great deal of sense, because the authors’ main line seems to be that Jefferson saw himself and the world through the lens of an agrarian view of the family, with the patriarch at the head. Even democracy was a democracy of small patriarchs. It’s well understood that the Founding Fathers were deeply invested in protecting the rights and political prerogatives of landowners, so this isn’t that different, but the emphasis on family – and most especially on the role of the head of the family – is where they make their mark.

If you read my last post, you know I am struggling with Jefferson right now.

So also, I think, are Gordon-Reed and Onuf.

They want to praise Jefferson, but like Antony to Caesar, they seem rather to have ultimately come to bury him (yes, I know, a literal reading, rather than a true understanding of Antony’s intent in that speech).

They cannot get beyond his hypocrisy, because their unearthing sees it everywhere in his ideas. Even worse, they see him as being less and less committed to even the idea of ending slavery as time went on.

Like many writers, they view his time in Paris as crucial. But they see a sort of reaction wherein Jefferson reinvented himself in his mind as uniquely American (and also invents an image of America) that pushes him away from criticism of slavery, because he saw many European thinkers as inherently critical, so he wound up dropping the subject within himself.