Thomas Jefferson Criticism - Essay

C. Alphonso Smith (essay date 1910-11)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thomas Jefferson,” in Southern Literary Studies: a Collection of Literary, Biographical, and Other Sketches, Kennikat Press, 1967, pp. 94-119.

[In the following essay, originally delivered in lecture form at the University of Berlin in the fall and winter of 1910-11, Smith begins with a brief biographical sketch that focuses on influences in Jefferson's writing. Smith then provides a broad overview of Jefferson's publications, including a discussion on some obscure works that have escaped critical attention.]


Had Thomas Jefferson not written the Declaration of Independence or had he written nothing...

(The entire section is 5716 words.)

Fawn M. Brodie (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sally Hemings,” in Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, W. W. Norton and Company, 1974, pp. 228-45.

[In the following essay, Brodie examines Jefferson's writings and records from 1778-1779, concluding that they imply a close relationship between Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings.]

The earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead.

Jefferson to Madison, September 6, 17891

Sally Hemings' third son, Madison, born at Monticello in 1805, wrote explicitly of the beginnings of his mother's relationship with Jefferson:

Their stay (my...

(The entire section is 9350 words.)

James M. Cox (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jefferson's Autobiography: Recovering Literature's Lost Ground,” in The Southern Review, Vol. XIV, No. 4, October, 1978, pp. 633-52.

[In the following essay, Cox assesses the literary value of Jefferson's Autobiography, claiming that it represents an early American example of the under-examined memoir genre. Cox also delves into the influence and interplay between Jefferson's work and the more famous Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.]

My text is the Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson. It is hardly fair to contend that devoting attention to it is to recover lost ground for literature since there is scarcely any evidence that...

(The entire section is 9471 words.)

Robert A. Ferguson (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mysterious Obligation”: Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, in American Literature, Vol. 52, No. 3, November, 1980, pp. 381-406.

[In the following essay, Ferguson discusses the origins and structure of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. Ferguson dismisses the common claim that Notes is a disjointed, non-literary work, insisting that once the reader understands the influences and processes behind the formatting of the work, the text is much more cohesive and coherent than previously thought.]


Thomas Jefferson, by any standard, is a major writer of the early Republic, and his one book, Notes...

(The entire section is 10093 words.)

Charles A. Miller (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Human Nature: Variations on Equality,” in Jefferson and Nature: An Interpretation, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988, pp. 56-87.

[In the following essay, Miller discusses Jefferson's views on human nature and equality. While Jefferson believed in the moral equality of all humankind, he felt that certain groups—blacks, Indians, and women—were not culturally, physically, or intellectually equal to white males.]

As a natural historian, Jefferson distinguished one species from another by grouping individuals according to their “prominent and invariable” similarities. On this basis, the basis of comparative anatomy, the distinguishing nature of the...

(The entire section is 15706 words.)

Harold Hellenbrand (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Language of Improvement and the Practices of Power,” in The Unfinished Revolution: Education and Politics in the Thought of Thomas Jefferson, University of Delaware Press, 1990, pp. 119-40.

[In the following essay, Hellenbrand explores the way Jefferson's thoughts on education informed his political and social philosophies.]


Between the publication of Notes on the State of Virginia and the end of his presidency, Jefferson devoted little time to philosophizing about education and planning free schools. In Virginia he reached an impasse. His legal project to reconceive patrimonial...

(The entire section is 10116 words.)

Garrett Ward Sheldon (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Liberalism and Classicism in Jefferson's Political Philosophy,” in The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Sheldon examines Jefferson's political philosophy within the context of Western political thought and concludes that Jefferson drew from several theoretical traditions in formulating his own philosophy.]

Great men are obliged to suffer many indignities, not the least of which is the tendency of lesser men continually to write books about them. Thomas Jefferson has suffered in this regard perhaps more than any other famous American. Volumes have been written on Jefferson as...

(The entire section is 5670 words.)

Kenneth A. Lockridge (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Commonplaces II: Thomas Jefferson,” in On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century, New York University Press, 1992, pp. 47-73.

[In the following essay, Lockridge examines Jefferson's Commonplace Book, written in his youth, noting that the selection of quotations and the writings that accompany them exhibit both rebellion and misogyny.]

William Byrd was not alone in the intensely misogynistic vision rendered in his commonplace. That view of women evidently persisted in private male discourse for some time, as at least one further case testifies....

(The entire section is 9301 words.)

George Alan Davy (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Argumentation and Unified Structure in Notes on the State of Virginia,” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 26, No. 4, Summer, 1993, pp. 581-93.

[In the following essay, Davy examines the rhetorical strategies employed by Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia and suggests that the work's detailed descriptive passages add credibility to the portions devoted to argument.]

Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia has been called “in form primarily a handbook”1; and indeed, Jefferson's own statements about the book's origins suggest that it was intended as a reference work. In his autobiography, he writes...

(The entire section is 4709 words.)

David Haven Blake, Jr. (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Posterity Must Judge’: Private and Public Discourse in the Adams-Jefferson Letters,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 1-30.

[In the following essay, Blake discusses the correspondence between John Adams and Jefferson and situates their letters within the larger public political discourse of the time.]

I first saw the Constitution of the United States in a foreign country. Irritated by no literary altercation, animated by no public debate, heated by no party animosity, I read it with great satisfaction. … In its general principles and great outlines, it was conformable to such a system of government as I had...

(The entire section is 10999 words.)

Robert A. Williams, Jr. (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

“Thomas Jefferson: Indigenous American Storyteller,” in Thomas Jefferson and the Changing West: From Conquest to Conservation, edited by James P. Ronda, University of New Mexico Press, 1997, pp. 43-74.

[In the following essay, Williams, a Native American scholar, explores Jefferson's ideas of Native American inferiority that contributed to the Indians' removal in the nineteenth century, but suggests that today Jefferson's writings on natural rights could be used as arguments to decolonize Native American populations living on reservations.]


Writing as a Native American scholar, I wish to ask in this essay what use Indian...

(The entire section is 13369 words.)

James H. Hutson (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thomas Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists: A Controversy Rejoined,” in William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 4, October, 1999, pp. 775-90.

[In the following essay, Hutson discusses the newly-restored manuscript of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, and its effect on current controversies over the separation of church and state.]

Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, January 1, 1802, contains a phrase that has become almost a household expression in the present-day United States: “a wall of separation between church and state.” In his letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson linked this phrase...

(The entire section is 6471 words.)

Robert M. O'Neil (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The ‘Wall of Separation’ and Thomas Jefferson's Views on Religious Liberty,” in William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 4, October, 1999, pp. 791-94.

[In the following essay, O'Neil discusses the importance of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists and his consistent view on the separation of church and state throughout his career.]

In the first Supreme Court case that dealt with the clause of the First Amendment that declares that Congress shall pass “no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the justices recognized the central importance of the framers' views in defining the proper relationship between church and state. Those views...

(The entire section is 1359 words.)

Anthony F. C. Wallace (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Notes on the Vanishing Aborigines,” in Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans, Belknap Press, 1999, pp. 75-107.

[In the following essay, Wallace discusses the sections of Notes on the State of Virginia that deal with Native Americans and claims that many of Jefferson's facts were inaccurate.]

After Jefferson left the Virginia governor's office in 1781, his letters to George Rogers Clark shifted from matters of war—which continued unabated in both the east and the west—to matters of science. In December 1781 he asked Clark to send to Monticello “some teeth of the great animal whose remains are found on the Ohio” and...

(The entire section is 11640 words.)

Douglas Anderson (essay date 2000)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Subterraneous Virginia: The Ethical Poetics of Thomas Jefferson,” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, Winter, 2000, pp. 233-49.

[In the following essay, Anderson discusses Notes on the State of Virginia as Jefferson's exploration of the intersections between the individual self and the collective self, between psychology and history.]

Whatever turns the soul inward on itself, tends to concenter its forces, and to fit it for greater and stronger flights of science.

—Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry

In defending the vigor of colonial culture against the...

(The entire section is 8625 words.)

Peter S. Onuf (essay date 2000)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jefferson's Empire,” in Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, University Press of Virginia, 2000, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Onuf explores Jefferson's visions of America as a nation and as an empire, taking into account the more regressive tendencies of Jefferson's political thought.]

Thomas Jefferson cherished an imperial vision for the new American nation. Future generations of Americans would establish republican governments in the expanding hinterland of settlement. This rising empire would be sustained by affectionate union, a community of interests, and dedication to the principles of self-government Jefferson set forth in...

(The entire section is 7870 words.)

Robert Booth Fowler (essay date 2000)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mythologies of a Founder,” in Thomas Jefferson and the Politics of Nature, edited by Thomas S. Engeman, University of Notre Dame Press, 2000, pp. 123-41.

[In the following essay, Fowler assesses Jefferson's declining reputation in recent years and discusses, in particular, Jefferson's ideas concerning natural rights.]

In his fine book The Natural Rights Republic, based on his Frank M. Covey, Jr., lectures at Loyola University Chicago, Michael Zuckert leads his readers to an appreciation of the intellectual dimensions of the founding of the United States. As Zuckert observes, the founders combined multiple sides of American political thought,...

(The entire section is 7742 words.)