Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy

Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy

Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy

Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy


This first major study of Thomas Jefferson's reputation in nearly fifty years is concerned with Jefferson and history-both as something Jefferson made and something that he sought to shape. Jefferson was acutely aware that he would be judged by posterity and he deliberately sought to influence history's judgment of him. He did so, it argues, in order to promote his vision of a global republican future. It begins by situating Jefferson's ideas about history within the context of eighteenth-century historical thought, and then considers the efforts Jefferson made to shape the way the history of his life and times would be written: through the careful preservation of his personal and public papers and his home, Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. The second half of the book considers the results of Jefferson's efforts to shape historical writing by examining the evolution of his reputation since the Second World War. Recent scholarship has examined Jefferson's attitudes and actions with regard to Native Americans, African slaves, women and civil liberties and found him wanting. Jefferson has continued to be a controversial figure; DNA testing proving that he fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings being the most recent example, perhaps encapsulating this best of all. This is the first major study to examine the impact of the Hemings controversy on Jefferson's reputation. Key Features
• The first study of Jefferson's reputation to be published since 1960• Considers the impact of slavery on Jefferson's reputation and Jefferson's relationship with slavery
• Explores the history of the Sally Hemings controversy


In March of 1807 Thomas Jefferson wrote to the comte de DiodatiTronchin, an old friend from his days among the diplomats at Versailles. Reminiscing about 'the many happy hours' he had spent with the comte and Madame Diodati on the banks of the Seine, Jefferson recalled, 'those were indeed days of tranquility & happiness'. Jefferson then shifted his focus from personal matters to the geopolitical situation. Writing from the comfort of his home at Monticello, he drew an unfavorable contrast between the tumult to be seen in Napoleonic Europe and the supposed tranquility of Jeffersonian America.

Were I in Europe pax et panis would certainly be my motto. Wars &
contentions indeed fill the pages of history with more matter, but more
blest is the nation whose silent course of happiness furnishes nothing for
history to say. That is my ambition for my own country, and what it has
fortunately now upwards of 24 years while Europe has been in constant
volcanic eruption.

Jefferson boasted of the peace enjoyed by the United States when he was halfway through his difficult second presidential term. As he wrote to Diodati his former vice president, Aaron Burr, was awaiting trial in Richmond, Virginia on charges of treason for allegedly attempting to detach the western states from the American union. American commerce was beset by trade restrictions imposed by France and Britain. Within two months the British warship Leopard would fire on the uss Chesapeake, threatening to start a war between Britain and the United States. Given such turmoil, how could Jefferson justify his optimistic view of recent American history?

Jefferson believed that if the American republic succeeded, the result would be a republican millennium that would witness the triumph of liberty over tyranny across the globe. As a consequence there would be no more 'wars and contentions' and history itself would end. He believed, as . . .

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