As both a founder, philosopher, and thinker, I find the ideas of Thomas Jefferson fascinating. I also enjoy scholarship about him. He’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but many of his works are as timely today as when he first wrote them and as an archetype of what it means (or meant?) to be American, my interest in Jefferson is abiding. Each year, I teach my 7th graders about Jeffersonian America. When I do that, I find time to read a new book about Jefferson. This year’s read was a joint project of two of the most pre-eminent Jefferson thinkers in the United States: Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf.
The first half of the book’s title, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”, is taken from a phrase Jefferson used to describe himself in a letter written to a friend in 1793. On the one hand, its an odd choice for a man whose faith in republicanism seemed a rebuke of the elitism of patriarchy. On the other hand, at his beloved home, Jefferson was very much the patriarch, as father and overseer of an estate and its population, both enslaved and free. That Jefferson loved his home at Monticello is a well-known fact; this book makes clear how much Jefferson’s affection for home was about how he saw himself in the world.
The book uses Jefferson’s writings, journals, and letters to situate the man in his world. Traveling with him from Monticello to Paris and Philadelphia, and then back to Virginia, the reader sees Jefferson at home two lights. The first, as Jefferson himself preferred, as a largely benevolent patriarch of his own family. It also tells the considerably more complicated story of Jefferson as patriarch of the people he holds in slavery, including the Hemings family.
I found the book engaging and thoughtful, both in its thoughtful analysis and in its careful use of details as provided in Jefferson’s letters and journals. I learned more than I had ever known before of Jefferson’s affection for music. He was a violinist himself and sang duets with his wife Martha while courting her. He ensured his daughters had piano lessons and arranged for some of his sons by Sally Hemings to learn the violin. He had a fondness for mockingbirds, whose songs he enjoyed, and sometimes kept one in a cage.
Gordon-Reed and Onuf include a more careful interpretation and understanding of the the famous Jefferson Bible then I had ever read before, including Jefferson’s own doubts about his sometimes doubtful faith. As his journals make clear, he felt blessed by a higher power and believed in one. At the same time that his personal interest in faith was strong, in the public realm Jefferson felt that mankind must depend on its self, not its god.
The book takes Jefferson at his word and challenges his sense of self, even while attempting to understand this most blessed patriarch in critical and thoughtful terms. It left me more fascinated than ever with Jefferson and is a book I will return to again and again as I think and teach about Thomas Jefferson.