After two hundred and fifty years of mining the elusive Mr. Jefferson, one wonders what more could possibly be left to dissect…
Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary is a complex dissection, albeit not for wimps or the casual reader of history. It is well written however, and will appeal to discerning readers outside the academic-and-related world. Looking at Mr. J. via the author’s crucible, it is a well-conceived and fascinating new view of one of the most fertile minds the country has ever produced.
Author and professor Kevin R.C. Gutzman assigns five separate concepts that commanded Thomas Jefferson’s intellect throughout his life: federalism (i.e. government), conscience (religion), colonization (slavery/race), the Indians, and his dearly beloved University of Virginia (education).
While most of the fine blurbs and recommendations already received by the author are from high-level academics, I am happy to add a non-academic voice to that throng. Professor Gutzman would surely be delighted to have a few readers-for-pleasure among his fans.
I scoured to find Professor Gutzman’s personal definition of “revolutionary,” but I take the liberty to assign a humble and totally non-academic thought of my own: Revolutionary: the conceptual challenge of norms and ideas that have been in effect, not only in one’s own time, but sometimes for centuries.
Happily for posterity, the “revolutionary” Jefferson was a well-considered man, and never espoused the “down with” without providing an equally compelling “up with.” Whether or not it was feasible is immaterial at this point. In his case, it is truly the thought that counts.
Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment, and arguably the most enlightened of them all. For two centuries, historians have found him “maddening,” “a sphinx,” “a mass of contradictions,” “an enigma” and you get the point… Some modern historians, who dedicate their entire careers to analysis-by-single-issue, usually fail to acknowledge whatever might be understood as a whole. Then of course, there is the sneaky feeling that Mr. J. did not wish to be so easily understood.
In “revolutionizing” Federalism (government), Jefferson had plenty of company, and that even included adversaries. After all, a government of-by-for the people had never been tried, at least never on such a large scale. Jefferson’s crystal ball into the future, however, may not have been as shiny as others. He envisioned a semi-utopia of yeoman farmers, generally left to their own devices, as the country expanded across the continent. He also believed it would take a hundred generations to populate it. It took perhaps, five. And they weren’t all farmers. And their own devices became divisive.
His thoughts about religious freedom, however, was not only revolutionary, but threatening. Some are still threatened by it today. As a deist, Jefferson advocated man’s right not only to believe, but to worship as he chose – or not – commenting that if a man believes in one god or twenty gods, “it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Perhaps he counted up the damage of religious wars over the centuries. Perhaps he believed that the yeoman farmers would be too busy yeoman-farming to be coerced into mandatory soul-saving attendance and taxation.
When Jefferson lived, slavery had been an institution in America for 150 years. The tiger by the tail. Believing that freeing black slaves was one thing; what to do with them once freed was another. How would they survive? There was widespread concern that all it would do is create a permanent under-class. Colonization (resettling freed slaves back to Africa, the West Indies or places elsewhere) was not his original idea, but would continue to be “on the table” as it were, and count as its supporters both Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln a generation or two later. It never became an effective solution.
Thomas Jefferson’s interest in the Indians, the people who inhabited America long before the Europeans came, was not only sincere, but sincerely curious. While he was generally disdainful of Blacks as a race and as a culture, he was both respectful and appreciative of the Indians in all aspects, and hoped to happily assimilate them into American life. That in itself was not only revolutionary, but doomed to failure. He seemed to have little company from his countrymen in that regard. The general impression of Indians was savage, fierce, warlike, and people to keep as far away as possible.
Jefferson’s interest in education, in all its aspects, was revolutionary and lifelong. Basic free public education for all. Secondary education for the deserving. Scholarships for the intellectual cream. Down with pedantry and the rod, and up with engaging with the students in a collective assembly of the best and the brightest. Believing that an educated populace is the best protection of our freedom, he simmered the education pot for decades, until it became the food (make that dessert!) for his elderly mind and soul.
Mr. Jefferson was not perfect, but to paraphrase his fellow-Founder Benjamin Franklin, “he was a man, not a demi-god.” And since we cannot have perfection, posterity must be satisfied by his general excellence.
Gutzman’s book may be a challenge to read, but as the reader perseveres, it becomes thought-provoking and amazing as we recognize the heights that one intelligent mind is possible to attain. As Mr. J. looks down upon us from Mount Rushmore or otherwise, he would be pleased at Gutzman’s balanced evaluation of choices of subjects dear to his heart. The discerning reader will appreciate Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary and enjoy it thoroughly!
Kevin R.C. Gutzman
St. Martin’s Press, 2017