As anybody resigned to spending a small fortune to see Broadway’s hottest hip-hop musical will tell you, Alexander Hamilton’s stock among America’s Founding Fathers is presently way up. This means, in the shorthand of historic dualism, that Thomas Jefferson’s stock is now way down. The song, “What’d I Miss,” that introduces Jefferson’s character in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” depicts him as a clueless, two-faced dilettante. Which pretty much sums up how the author of the Declaration of Independence is faring these days in the popular imagination of the republic his document helped create.
The distinctions between the two men have been parsed this way and that through generations of high school history classes: Hamilton, the orphaned immigrant who became the first U.S. treasury secretary and an advocate of expanded federal powers, forever poised against Jefferson, the Virginia farmer-polymath-slaveholder who became the third U.S. president and abiding hero to those who believe that government is best when governing least. Both men were, of course, far more complicated than this; especially Jefferson, given how his contradictions and peccadillos — chiefly his long-term sexual liaison with slave Sally Hemings — have been exposed to greater, more rigorous scrutiny.
In “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” Annette Gordon-Reed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose inquiries into the Jefferson-Hemings relationship upended long-standing presumptions about the third president’s rectitude in such matters, teams up with Jefferson scholar Peter S. Onuf. “Neither a running critique of Jefferson’s failures nor a triumphant catalog of his successes,” as the authors write, the book doesn’t clear Jefferson’s name so much as reframe the context in which his life and ideas are examined.
Not a strictly chronological biography, “Most Blessed” examines elements of Jefferson’s life through such themes as “Home,” “Plantation,” “Politics” and even “Music.” Throughout, Gordon-Reed and Onuf judiciously and incisively sift through their subject’s letters, speeches and writings, notably his 1785 “Notes on the State of Virginia,” a detailed examination of post-Revolutionary War society that was Jefferson’s only full-length book published in his lifetime and, thus, the closest thing to his personal vision of an ideal society.
That vision, as with the man himself, was fraught with paradox: On the one hand, his “Notes” condemned slavery as an “injustice” that “turned whites into tyrants and impaired their capacity for self-control,” the authors write. Yet although he acknowledged that slavery was at odds with his ideals of human liberty, Jefferson also believed he “could still have enslaved people’s best interests at heart” with an “enlightened” patriarchal approach to the institution. In the meantime, he anticipated “a revolution of public opinion” that “through republican means” would end slavery and “redeem the commonwealth.”
These days, skeptical Americans see such a tightrope walk as emblematic of Jefferson’s indulgence in having things both ways. Throughout his life and far beyond his death, he’s been called to account for it and for many other ambivalent and ambiguously held beliefs. His fellow Virginian, chief justice John C. Marshall, characterized Jefferson as the “‘great lama of the mountains’” or, as Gordon-Reed and Onuf interpret it, “a mysterious figure hopelessly out of touch with the real world.” Yet as hard as they, too, are on Jefferson’s inconsistencies, they seek some saving graces. While the book’s authors regard Jefferson’s “faith in the future” to resolve the slavery question as “absurdly misplaced,” they acknowledge that he at least did “see a way forward.”
The authors also gently extract their subject from some common misperceptions, including Jefferson’s supposed allegiance to states’ rights: “Despite some serious reservationsabout the new frame of government” being established by the federal constitution, Jefferson “knew that disunion would be disastrous . . . for the viability of the American experiment in republican self-government.” And the authors argue that while he was skeptical about the “miracles performed in the Bible,” Jefferson was not, as many today believe, an atheist; he believed in prayer while also insisting on the separation of church and state.
Back and forth, forth and back. In an age such as ours where certainties are tweeted, proclaimed and feverishly sought in the public domain, Jefferson’s seeming embrace of contradiction and paradox is frustrating. Gordon-Reed and Onuf share this pain. But in the end, they, too, seem to embrace, if warily, Jefferson’s vagabond imaginings and ideas as embodying America’s willful, constant impulse to revise and reinvent itself. If history is any guide, the pendulum that now swings in Alexander Hamilton’s favor will surely swerve back toward Jefferson — and “Most Blessed of Patriarchs” submits the first, convincing brief for that shift.