The Complexity of Thomas Jefferson – Or Not-So-Much



Jeffersonian scholarship is not a fool’s errand, but it is extremely arduous.


By Dr. M. Andrew Holowchak
Philosopher and Historian


Merrill Peterson, the preeminent Jeffersonian scholar, writes in his watershed work, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, “Jefferson was a baffling series of contradictions.” Albert Ellis in American Sphinxstates magisterially that Jefferson’s “multiple personalities” are much like “the artful disguises of a confidence man.” Peter Onuf writes in The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, “The search for a single definitive, ‘real’ Jefferson is a fool’s errand, setting us off on a hopeless search for the kind of ‘knowledge’ that even (or especially) elude sophisticated moderns in their encounters with each other—and themselves.” Thus, there appears at the beginning of nearly every Jeffersonian biography, including the best biographers, some statement of or caveat concerning the difficulty, if not impossibility, of getting to know Jefferson. It has become part of the ritual. It is also part of the lure.

Is Jefferson really a “baffling series of contradictions” and an “American sphinx,” and is Jeffersonian scholarship really a “fool’s errand”? Might not such caveats merely be rationalizations for the possibility of scholarly mistakes?

What is frequently missed in reading Peterson’s work is that he is not committed to, as is Onuf, the impossibility of continued progress in coming to know Jefferson. Yet there are for Peterson nodi.

One difficulty is that Jefferson—a man of great intellectual breadth and depth, and a man of uncommon ideals—wrote voluminously and appealed to everyone at some cognitive or visceral level. Because he appeals to everyone at some level, says Peterson, scholars give numerous depictions of him. “In his letters, account books, and other memoranda, Jefferson left ample records of his personal tastes and habits; yet, as with his public record, it was possible to draw from these almost any picture the writer wished.”

Furthermore, Jefferson often dissimulated. “More ardent in his imagination than his affections, he did not always speak exactly as he felt towards either friends or enemies. As a consequence, he has left hanging over a part of his public life a vapor of duplicity, or, to say the least, of indirection, the presence of which is generally felt more than it is seen.”

Moreover, Jefferson was fundamentally a curious immixture of everyday citizen and philosopher. “It was precisely because Jefferson combined, or seemed to combine, the traits of the man-of-the-people and the man-of-vision that he was capable of being mythicized as the Father of Democracy.”

Yet Peterson is clear that those difficulties can be overcome. The perplexity is in the scholars, not in Jefferson. Peterson writes: “The historians could not fairly plead the lack of information on Jefferson. If still fragmentary, it was constantly on the increase. The difficulty was less one of the scholars’ knowledge than of the uses they made of it. The image of Jefferson shattered when they came through the doors of partisan, and perhaps hereditary, prejudice to the interpretation of the facts.” He adds, “If Madison was right [in asserting an early and uniform devotion to liberty and the equal rights of man], as I think he was, the apparent ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions in Jefferson’s life and thought, so much dwelled upon by latter-day scholars, mattered little in the light of this fundamental harmony and clarity of purpose.”

Jefferson indeed was a man of fundamental harmony and clarity of purpose. Because of those enduring qualities, Jeffersonian scholarship might be a dead lift—an inordinately difficult task—but it is not the cul de sacthat scholars habitually claim it is.

There are reasons why scholars—and here I refer to first-tier scholars—make mistakes when approaching Jefferson.

First, there is refusal to take Jefferson at his word. As Peterson states, Jefferson does not always speak frankly. He often dissimulates. The reasons are politeness and guardedness. Jefferson is in the habit of speaking to correspondents in language with which they are familiar and on topics in which they are especially interested. Moreover, dissembling often occurs because of caution. Jefferson was wont, for instance, not to share his religious views with correspondents or the general public—his own family did not know his religious views—for fear of public censure. That fear was genuine. Close friend Dr. Thomas Cooper, for instance, was kept from a professorship at University of Virginia on account of his liberal religious views made public. Had Jefferson’s religious views been commonly known, his political career also would have doubtless been hampered. Such things noted, scholars who are committed to a Protean Jefferson tend to read into or “deconstruct” Jefferson’s writings, when there is no good reason for doing so, and the result is a proliferation of amphigories that follow the whims of scholars. unprofitably lead readers in a number of directions, and tell us nothing about Jefferson.

Second, there is the tendency to read the secondary literature without reading much of Jefferson. This mistake occurs especially on the subjects of race and slavery, where having thoughts of one’s own might be a signal of one’s own racism. On both topics, scholars characteristically remind themselves and other scholars that it is sufficient to glance at Query XIV of his Notes on the State of Virginia,without uptake of Jefferson’s caveat that the views expressed on Blacks are based on limited and biased observations, and to read the writings of Gordon-Reed and uptake her views on both subjects. Jefferson is racist because he owned slaves and freed too few in his life. Furthermore, Jefferson is hypocritical because he politically preached austerity but lived high on the hog and because he preached small government and strict constructionism but went forward with the Louisiana Purchase without constitutional sanction. The result of too much immersion in the secondary literature at the expense of reading Jefferson is scholarly moribundity. I have in my own years of Jeffersonian study found that many of the “contradictions” we find in Jefferson evanesce when one takes Jefferson at his word.

Third, there is aversion or unwillingness to engage critically with others in the secondary literature. In essays and biographies on Jefferson, there is all too little critical engagement with the writings of others. The unfortunate result is a scholarly inertia in the field of Jeffersonian studies, which is somewhat of a fetid mishmash. Just about anything goes and there is little, if any, forward movement. It is one thing to recognize the right of authors to express idiosyncratic views on some issue, but that not to say that all such idiosyncratic views carry the same weight. Some views are not well supported by evidence and those views ought to be weeded out through scholarly critical appraisal. They are not.

Last, there is failure to read what Jefferson readand what shaped his thinking, other than the political literature to which Jefferson had access and that Jefferson assimilated. Jefferson was widely read. He studied the sciences, religion, law, philology, morality, political thinking, and the arts, inter aliaviz., anything that might improve the human condition.

It is said by a grandchild that he was more often seen with a book by a Roman or Greek author than any other author. Authors such as Homer, Tacitus, Seneca, Cicero, Epictetus, and Demosthenes shaped his thinking more than others and lack of acquaintancy with that literature—especially in the original language—and with Greek culture and Roman culture leads to misapprehension of Jefferson’s political, educational, and moral views. I shall go so far to say that anyone who wishes to be a competent Jeffersonian scholar should be trained also as a Classical scholar.

Again, there is Jefferson’s empiricism. He was a dyed-in-the-wool empiricist in the manner of Bacon, Locke, Kames, and Hume and lack of acquaintancy with philosophical empiricism often leads to egregious errors—especially when it comes to apprehension of Jefferson’s views in Notes on the State of Virginia. Empiricism in the manner of Bacon and Newton—e.g., use of hypothetic-deductive reasoning, appeal to simplicity, detailed description without critical commentary—appear in abundancy in the book, especially in the early naturalistic queries. Again, no one without amply acquaintancy with philosophical empiricism—e.g., Newton’s Principia Philosophica and Stewarts’ Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind—ought to enter seriously into Jeffersonian studies. That is why Jefferson is often said to be wishy-washy and confused in his Notes on the State of Virginia, when he claims that he is not afforded evidence sufficient to confirm a hypothesis or decide among competing hypotheses—e.g., the strange existence of petrified shells in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky in Query VI.

Also, Jefferson took morality very seriously. I have argued in several publications that he was preeminently a moralist. His moral views were shaped not only mostly by ancient virtue ethics, but also by the New Testament, the moral-sense and moral-sentiment literature of his day like Kames’ Principles of Morality and Natural Religionand Hutcheson’s A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, religious sermons like those of Rev. Bourdaloue and Rev. Massillon, novels like Cervantes’ Don Quijote, poetry like Shakespeare’s plays and Homer’s Odyssey, and utopian literature like Mercier’s L’an 2440. His moral views were also the grounding of his political views, as the aim of a Jeffersonian republic was not only efficient governing, but also a happy and thriving citizenry in conformance with political liberalism—what I call liberal eudaimonism.

In sum, Jeffersonian scholarship is not a fool’s errand, but it is extremely arduous. It requires that a scholar be of large erudition and widely read in all, or almost all, subjects that Jefferson studied. When the groundwork is done, one might find that Jefferson was a man who was in vital respects much simpler, and less perplexing, than scholars typically portray him.


Originally published by History News Network, 02.16.2019, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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