"Most Blessed of the Patriarchs": Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

by Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter S. Onuf

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2230

Authors: Annette Gordon-Reed (b. 1958) and Peter S. Onuf (b. 1946)

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Publisher: Liveright (New York). 400 pp.

Type of work: History

Time: 1760–1826

Locales: Virginia; Washington, DC; and Paris, France

Distinguished historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf examine the mind and character of Thomas Jefferson, who worked diligently to create an image of himself as a member of the natural aristocracy and a modern-day patriarch, exhibiting behavior that could serve as a model for governance in the new nation.

Principal personages

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States (1801–9)Courtesy of Tony RinaldoCourtesy of Liveright Publishing CorporationCourtesy of Kristin K. Onuf

Martha Jefferson, his wife

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Martha Jefferson Randolph, his older daughter

Maria Jefferson Eppes, his younger daughter

Sally Hemings, one of his slaves and mother to several of his children

There is a prodigious amount of scholarship on Thomas Jefferson; books published or reprinted just since 2000 dealing exclusively or in large part with Jefferson number in the hundreds. Biographies, collections of Jefferson’s sayings, scholarly editions of his papers, and even advice books based on his writings are available to twenty-first-century readers looking to learn more about the author of the United States’ Declaration of Independence and the country’s third president. The sheer volume of recently published work suggests that Jefferson remains a topic of interest to millions of readers and a subject for continuing study by academics, whose methodologies and ideologies have undergone significant transformation in the preceding four decades.

Sorting through the piles of books (not to mention scholarly and popular articles) can be a daunting task. Nevertheless, it is certain that some work will stand apart, either because of the reputation of the authors or the controversial approach they employ to study Jefferson’s life and character. “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination is distinguished on both counts. Any book by Annette Gordon-Reed published after her groundbreaking 1997 study Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and her Pulitzer–Prize winning book The Hemingses: An American Family (2008), is virtually guaranteed to garner significant attention. Her partnership with distinguished University of Virginia historian Peter Onuf made “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” a highly anticipated release, and reviews were plentiful and generally laudatory. Among major publications, only the Wall Street Journal offered a skeptical assessment, the focus of which is telegraphed in the title: “It’s Always about Slavery.” Jefferson’s complex, contradictory, and often confused attitudes toward this most controversial subject is certainly at the heart of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”; why it is so and how Gordon-Reed and Onuf deal with the problem provide a good indication of what they are aiming to do in this unusual revisionist study.

Gordon-Reed and Onuf’s approach is hinted at by two words in their book’s title: “patriarch” (with its direct tie to “patriarchy”) and “empire” are terms of opprobrium in contemporary scholarship. Hence, one might expect that this book will not continue in the tradition of Dumas Malone’s Pulitzer Prize–winning six-volume biography of Jefferson (1948–81), which treats Jefferson reverentially. By contrast, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” is part of a larger, decades-long project to revise earlier assessments that elevated the Founding Fathers to near-sainthood. For many historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jefferson shared first place with George Washington (or stood only slightly behind him) in that pantheon, whose collective wisdom set the United States on its path to becoming the world’s foremost democracy. Before World War II, few historians (and few in the general public) sought to challenge the myths that had grown up around these men—and the women associated with the Founders were often either ignored or politely honored as supporters keeping the home fires burning while their men did the real work of revolution and governance. As putative author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson has been especially admired for the ideas in this document that many ascribe to him alone, since Americans are familiar with the Enlightenment philosophers on whom Jefferson drew for his ideas. Many elide Jefferson’s declaration with the Constitution, a document written when he was serving his country in France and which he influenced only through correspondence with those actively engaged in its writing. Nevertheless, many outside the scholarly community consider Jefferson the guiding hand in these foundational writings that shaped the nation. The myth of Jefferson that has emerged presents him as a selfless, morally incorruptible, far-sighted visionary and patriot who was committed unquestionably to the notion that “all men are created equal” and have certain inalienable rights. It is a portrait of the saint as patriot.

Scholarship in the past four or five decades has exploded that myth, recasting Jefferson and his fellow Founders as men with personal flaws. Alexander Hamilton, always a bit suspect, has come to be seen as a man of overwhelming ambition. John Adams is now confirmed to have been officious, opinionated, and jealous of the Virginians who dominated the early government. Benjamin Franklin has been recognized as something of a libertine. Even Washington has been exposed as somewhat imperious, with a sense of self-aggrandizement that made him either oblivious to—or averse to confronting—political wrangling that almost destroyed the new country before it could hold its third election for president.

Both Gordon-Reed and Onuf have written books that contribute to a refashioning of Jefferson’s image, and their collaborative effort in “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” further explodes some of the traditional hagiography to reveal Jefferson as a more complex figure than received opinion suggests. The authors take deconstruction to an extreme, choosing to interrogate Jefferson’s ideas topically rather than chronologically to explain how Jefferson embarked on a systematic effort at self-fashioning, creating the image of himself he wished to project to the world, and how he sought to control events and rationalize ideological inconsistencies to make sure his contemporaries and posterity would view him as he wished.

Early in their narrative, Gordon-Reed and Onuf make an important statement about their aims, saying that they “seek to understand what Thomas Jefferson thought he was doing in the world,” and that they “take Jefferson at his word about his beliefs, goals, and motivations.” However, they continue, “this does not mean that we always endorse Jefferson’s formulations of why he did things or what he thought about matters.” This claim of disinterestedness holds up in many portions of their book, breaking down at only one point—but a key one—that links their study with the deflationary efforts of contemporary scholars described above.

The sections of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” in which Gordon-Reed and Onuf are able to offer balanced assessments focus on Jefferson’s efforts to create an image of himself as an Enlightenment gentleman and natural aristocrat who would stand first among equals in the new republic he and his fellow Americans were creating. Citing a letter Jefferson wrote in which he describes himself as “most blessed of the patriarchs,” the authors claim that the statement “provides a window into his thinking about his place in the world and his sense of self.” Gordon-Reed and Onuf rely on that epithet, and the term “master,” to describe Jefferson in both public and private life. Jefferson’s vision of his ideal self as a patriarch meant he was master of his domain and all within it, head of an extended family (both free and enslaved) that looked to him for guidance and direction, submitted to his will (and whim) as if it were law, and served his every need. Of course, as the narrative explains, this worked best for Jefferson when he was at home at Monticello.

Exercising meticulous control over the development of the architecture, layout, and daily life at Monticello allowed Jefferson to create a place where he truly was the center of his world. As the authors point out, Jefferson was often less successful away from his mountaintop domain in maintaining his sense of mastery. In France, he found that while the culture and sophistication he had admired from afar met (and sometimes exceeded) his expectations, he was not always comfortable—because he was not always the smartest or most sophisticated person in the room. Similarly, when he stepped forward to act in the political arena, he found much of the work distasteful, because others did not engage in what he considered civilized discourse over the principles and aims of the new United States. As the authors note, however, while Jefferson expected that the new national government would “rise above partisanship,” his own behavior while vice president and even later as president shows that he was often blind to the self-serving nature of his own efforts to denounce the “self-interested partisan intentions” of political opponents.

Where the authors’ contemporary values are most in evidence are in discussions of slavery. Admittedly, Jefferson’s writings on the evils of slavery seem starkly at odds with his reliance on slave labor at Monticello. After quoting a passage from Notes on the State of Virginia, in which Jefferson rails against the institution, Gordon-Reed and Onuf ask, how could Jefferson “exempt himself, and his plantation, from this devastating indictment?” Their answer, developed in several sections of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”, is that through a deft bit of intellectual sleight of hand, Jefferson opted to believe that Southern slave owners would eventually become more enlightened and abandon the practice, and in the meantime those who owned slaves could ameliorate conditions by behaving benevolently toward them. Of course, this self-serving evasion does not stand up to Gordon-Reed and Onuf’s unflinching critique, and the portrait of Jefferson as slave owner is none too flattering. Ultimately, they argue that he let himself be convinced of the righteousness of his behavior because he needed his slaves—his property—to maintain the kind of lifestyle he envisioned for himself as a modern-day patriarch. The judgmental nature of the authors’ analysis comes through in observations such as the following: “For their part, the enslaved could make a show of devotion to Jefferson with a clear understanding of the precariousness of their position. . . . They could not possibly have loved him in any meaningful sense.” They are quick to point out the irony of Jefferson’s innate bias: “The philosophical Jefferson claimed that blacks could not employ reason, and he spoke patronizingly of his hopes for their intelligence. . . . Yet the plantation owner Jefferson gave black people tasks that he knew required reason and that he fully expected them to complete—which they did.” One can see behind the idealized community of Monticello, they claim, “the legally enforced labor of the enslaved and the culturally imposed domestic labor of white female family members that made it all possible.” Such judgments may not be wrong, but they display a bias born of twentieth- and twenty-first-century attitudes toward social issues.

Despite the exceptional scholarship and keen insight that Gordon-Reed and Onuf bring to this book, it is unlikely that “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” will be the last word on Jefferson. As they observe, “There is evidence that, as close as Jefferson was to them, members of his own family were unable, at times, to read his emotions effectively.” How are succeeding generations to reach an understanding when contemporaries could not penetrate the mask Jefferson wore when dealing with even his most intimate acquaintances? Joseph Ellis may have captured Jefferson’s character best in the title of his 1996 book American Sphinx. Like the mythological creature, Jefferson seems unlikely to yield up all of the mysteries that combine to make up his complex, enigmatic, and sometimes maddening character. He continues to remain, like the Grecian urn in Keats’s famous 1820 ode, a figure that “dost tease us out of thought, as does Eternity.”

Review Sources

  • Baker, Peter. Review of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf. The New York Times Book Review, 10 Apr. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/books/review/most-blessed-of-the-patriarchs-by-annette-gordon-reed-and-peter-s-onuf.html. Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.
  • Kendall, Joshua. “Jefferson: Brilliant but Self-Absorbed, Troubled.” Review of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf. Boston Globe, 19 Apr. 2016, www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2016/04/18/portrait-jefferson-brilliant-but-self-absorbed-troubled/p18g3HAVWnQttMrTuYoqsK/story.html. Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.
  • Muyumba, Walton. “‘Most Blessed of the Patriarchs’ Sketches Profoundly Human Portrait of Thomas Jefferson.” Review of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf. Chicago Tribune, 8 Apr. 2016, www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-thomas-jefferson-most-blessed-of-the-patriarchs-20160408-story.html. Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.
  • Simpson, Matthew C. “Thomas Jefferson’s Double Life.” Review of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf. New Republic, 10 May 2016, newrepublic.com/article/133386/thomas-jeffersons-double-life. Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.
  • Stewart, David O. “Thomas Jefferson: Master of All and of Everything.” Review of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf. The Washington Post, 29 Apr. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/thomas-jefferson-master-of-all-and-of-everything/2016/04/27/c40eb5ae-d4d0-11e5-9823-02b905009f99_story.html. Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.
  • Swaim, Barton. “It’s Always about Slavery.” Review of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf. The Wall Street Journal, 8 Apr. 2016, www.wsj.com/articles/its-always-about-slavery-1460148148. Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.

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