The Mind of Thomas Jefferson/Thomas Jefferson: Draftsman of a Nation

By Bernstein, Richard B. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Mind of Thomas Jefferson/Thomas Jefferson: Draftsman of a Nation

Bernstein, Richard B., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Mind of Thomas Jefferson * Peter S. Onuf * Charlottesville: Univer-sity of Virginia Press, 2007 * x, 282 pp. * $49.50 cloth; $19.50 paper

Thomas Jefferson: Draftsman of a Nation * Natalie S. Bober * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007 * xvi, 360 pp. * $22.95

Most scholars and popular writers who address the subject of Thomas Jefferson have pinned to their lapels a metaphorical campaign badge for or against him. Such sidechoosing hampers calm attempts to understand Jefferson, and recent historians (including the present writer) have argued for setting this habit aside. The books under review offer hope not only that the prevailing interpretation of Jefferson is evolving in the direction we need but also that scholars' efforts to achieve that goal are percolating beyond the borders of academia.

Peter S. Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, is a central figure in modern Jeffersonian scholarship. Onuf, a refreshingly iconoclastic scholar and teacher despite his resounding title, has worked with vigor and collegiality to foster new investigations of Jefferson's life and work, and he has set a high standard with his own writings. In 2000 his collection of essays, Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, situated Jefferson in his time and in the process undermined simplistic attempts to make him a modern American saint or the devil of the nation's past. The Mind of Thomas Jefferson complements Jefferson's Empire and extends the careful, historically nuanced, and subtle interpretative enterprise he launched in his earlier book.

The Mind of Thomas Jefferson is so rich and dense that a brief review can only provide a map of the book's four parts for the guidance of intellectual prospectors. Part one, "Jefferson and the Historians," presents two valuable review essays (one co-written with Jan Ellen Lewis) assessing evolving efforts to make sense of Jefferson and to see him as a symbolic stand-in for larger efforts to understand America. The third essay, "A Declaration of Independence for Diplomatic Historians," sets Jefferson's most famous work of draftsmanship within the context of international relations in Jefferson's time, arguing that scholars should heed what a declaration of independence meant in a world of empires and nascent nation-states. (David Armitage's The Declaration of Independence: A Global History [2007] answers Onuf's call to view the document from a global perspective.)

The four essays in part two, "Jefferson's World," focus on President Jefferson as an architect of the Louisiana Purchase and its expansion of the American Union. Onuf stresses the importance for Jefferson of seeing America in a geopolitical context, facing threats from hostile European powers and Native American nations as well as possible threats of disunion from American settlers on the frontier.

The three essays in part three, "Religion and Education," stress Jefferson's concern to ensure an enlightened American citizenry as a guarantor of preserving American liberties and national interests while sustaining its and Jefferson's republican commitments. Onuf's essay-length introduction to Robert M. S. McDonald's history of West Point brings out the United States Military Academy as an educational counterpart to Jefferson's far more famous University of Virginia. Also, his examination of Jefferson's views of the relationship between religion and education helpfully contextualizes Jefferson, pointing out how modern attempts to co-opt Jefferson as an atheistic secularist or as a proto-evangelical Christian do equal violence to the historical record.

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