HistoryJanuary 24, 2018
Most Blessed of the Patriarchs
In a 1793 letter to Angelica Schuyler Church in 1793, Thomas Jefferson described himself as "the most blessed of the patriarchs," a revealing sentiment that provides a window into the mindset of one of America's most famous founding fathers.
As a republican patriot and plantation patriarch, the contradictions of Thomas Jefferson's private and public worlds continue to fascinate and confound. Two of the leading scholars of Thomas Jefferson, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, collaborated to produce an insightful study of how Jefferson understood himself and his life's work as a revolutionary, politician, president, and slaveholder. 'Most Blessed of the Patriarchs': Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, offers readers an intimate and provocative exploration of Thomas Jefferson's progression through life.
The following excerpt from the "Epilogue" outlines the authors' approach to "tak[e] Jefferson apart" by exploring his attachment to his home and to his family and his sense of duty to the young nation.
"PATRIOT AND PATRIARCH: these are the two roles that Jefferson embraced in his lifelong quest to fashion himself. Throughout his adult life, and particularly in his later years, he imagined that self in the view of posterity. He envisioned the nation as an unfolding succession of generations, with each rising generation governing itself-and its share of the "earth"-while preparing the way for its successors. As he approached death, he imagined himself in our place, looking back and taking stock of his generation's "atchievements." We have some idea of what he wanted us to see. What do we see? How prophetic was his vision?"
"The way we have taken Jefferson apart in "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs"-exploring the various roles he played and examining his ways of engaging with the world-suggests how we might put him back together, respectful of the self he sought to fashion but sensitive to the constraints and contradictions of his times and to the capacity we all have to tell stories about ourselves that obscure, elide, and overlook unpleasant truths. Things that seemed natural and could be taken for granted in his day are problems for us now: the kind of republican "patriarchy" that Jefferson celebrated and sought to practice strikes us as an arbitrary, privileged status, a "social construction" that we can-and should-live without. Yet our present-day quarrel with privilege should also enable us to recognize and sympathize with Jefferson's crusade against the unnatural and unjust privileges of aristocrats, monarchs, and priests. In the end he never did lead a crusade against slavery. But he certainly recognized the radical injustice of an institution that epitomized despotic rule-and that, he knew, would constitute a fatal flaw in the constitution of republican Virginia."
"The slavery problem hit close to home for Jefferson, and that is one of the major reasons that we have spent so much time with him there, at Monticello and in the temporary homes he created elsewhere. It was in his plantation world that Jefferson followed an archaic script, exercising patriarchal authority over his household and brute force over the enslaved people the commonwealth's laws defined as his "property." But the patriarch understood household governance in sentimental terms, fashioning himself as a good man with a sacred responsibility for the happiness and well-being of all of his dependents. And well-governed families, he thought, were the foundation of republican self-government. Genuine consent depended on the independence and autonomy of equal citizens, secure against each other as well as against overreaching, illegitimate governments. Abstracted from the world of plantation slavery, Jefferson's advocacy of individual rights and the broad distribution of authority under federalism still strikes resonant chords for exponents of participatory democracy and local self-government. Jefferson, however, could never tear himself away from his beloved plantation and the people, free and enslaved, who looked out and labored for his happiness. At home, where Jefferson lived, his democratic ideas did not tell an emancipatory story; they instead protected, justified, and perpetuated a regime of unequal domestic relations, including slavery."
"Jefferson put his entire self into his home, psychologically as well as financially, and those investments made it increasingly difficult for him to imagine any radical changes in his household regime. Home was his lodestar, a place that existed most vividly in his imagination. Absent for long stretches of time, the master of Monticello had to manage his never-ending construction campaigns from afar, with completion of his dream house always receding into the future."
"The mountaintop was a perpetual construction site, and before his final retirement the house itself was often unoccupied. The domestic scenes he imagined materialized only when he was in residence, during his first retirement (1794-97) and periodic vacations when Martha and Maria and their families visited. Jefferson, nevertheless, kept the home fires burning in correspondence with family members, in planning improvements, and in acquiring things for his house."
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