Tags: Presidential History | biography of thomas jefferson | author depictions | changed | years

Biography of Thomas Jefferson: How Author Depictions Have Changed Through Years

By    |   Friday, 22 May 2015 01:07 PM

Thomas Jefferson has been revered and reviled through the years, but his reputation as the wise man of the young republic has stayed largely intact.

Modern attitudes toward race, combined with troubling new discoveries, have served to dim the light of Thomas Jefferson’s enlightenment for some, and different authors have changed how the Sage of Monticello has been depicted through the years.

It doesn’t help that, after more than two centuries of examination, scholarly and otherwise, of his life and letters, Jefferson remains a difficult man to read.

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Even the late Merrill D. Peterson, acknowledged by many as one of the foremost authorities on the third president, noted in the introduction to his 1970 biography of Jefferson that of “all his great contemporaries, Jefferson is perhaps the least self-revealing and the hardest to sound to the depths of being. It is a mortifying confession but he remains for me, finally, an impenetrable man.”

Part of Peterson’s problem, as he acknowledged, was resolving the many conflicts and contradictions Jefferson presented — notably the architect of freedom who nonetheless owned slaves. And where previous admirers of the man would wrestle with the paradox, later writers would not hesitate to choose sides, and look less neutrally on Jefferson’s slave paradox.

As Daniel P. Jordan said in his introduction to “Jeffersonian Legacies,” a collection of essays published to mark Jefferson’s 250th birthday, “Jefferson’s reputation in the academic community and with the general public has been inextricably bound up with our contemporary concerns about race.”

In 2008, Francis D. Cogliano would write in “Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy”: "No single issue has contributed as much to the decline of Jefferson's reputation since World War II as the slavery question."

The Sally Hemings affair, long whispered about and brought to light again in the 1990s when DNA tests indicated a “high probability” Jefferson fathered at least one of the children of his slave, Hemings, caused a brief sensation, but it seemingly opened the gates for more open and unequivocal criticism of Jefferson the slave owner.

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Slaveholder though he was, Jefferson was excused by much of history as a benevolent master. But Henry Wiencek wrote in the Smithsonian Magazine that Jefferson kept his slaves out of sight and let economic advantage override any moral qualms he had about slavery — especially when it came to the profitable nail factory his slaves operated. Jefferson, Wiencek said, discovered he made a 4 percent profit every year simply as a result of his slaves having children — and used his slaves as collateral for a loan to finance the renovation of Monticello.

It’s not the first time, though, that Jefferson’s conflicted stance caused his reputation to suffer. “Jefferson’s reputation changed over time, reaching its nadir in the closing decades of the nineteenth century,” Joyce Appleby wrote in “Jeffersonian Legacies.” “... the Civil War had disclosed the pernicious effect of the states’ rights doctrine ascribed to Jefferson; national reformers confronted problems that required more effective, not less active government; and the democratic values Jefferson had championed lost much of their charm when America’s wholesome farmers had become defiant populists. It was hard then to do Jefferson justice, and even harder to celebrate him.”

Even during his own time, anti-slavery advocates found Jefferson frustrating. “Many people of his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him,” Wiencek wrote. “When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified; it felt like praying to a stone.”

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Thomas Jefferson has been revered and reviled through the years, but his reputation as the wise man of the young republic has stayed largely intact.
biography of thomas jefferson, author depictions, changed, years
Friday, 22 May 2015 01:07 PM
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