I’m a fan of biographies, but what I am not always a fan of are the 800-1000+ pages that go with it. It is clearly hard to condense someone’s life in to a book, but what is most impressive is when an individual of prominence is both captured but also analyzed through a lens, a certain approach that allows for novel insight. If brevity comes as part of the deal the all the better. You won’t get all of the key dates and places, or walk the chronological path of their life, but you may get some insight in to how that person thought, what motivated them, and how that played in to their actions. The splendid Benjamin Franklin biography by Edmund Morgan falls squarely in to that category.
Jefferson, like Franklin, is a prime candidate for this more nuanced approach to the biography due to the sheer volume of writing that already exists about the man. In Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf “they add a fresh and layered analysis, one centered more on his interior life than his deeds for posterity”, an attempt to dig in to and understand the contradictions of his character.
Much of this book is set not in New York or Washington or Philadelphia, the places from which Jefferson entered the American pantheon, but in Monticello, the place that most reflected him. It is “Monticello’s ambiguous moral geography” — and Jefferson’s own — that the authors set out to explore in a sort of scholarly Lewis and Clark journey through the mind and philosophy of the most enigmatic of the founders.
New York Times
Walton Muyumba, in a great review in the Chicago Tribune, also emphasizes how this book focuses on the internal machinations of this influential politician, writer and thinker:
Keeping the tension between the past and the present, foreign and familiar in play, Gordon-Reed and Onuf raise Jefferson in relief, against his times and ours, to examine his attitudes about home, family life, public service, slavery, politics, friendship and education. The Jefferson who emerges in these pages is a dynamic, complex and oftentimes contradictory human being.
Of all the contradictions on display in an analysis of Jefferson’s life, his approach to slavery garners the most interest.
The authors cogently remark that, by convincing himself that it was possible to be a slaveholder and still have enslaved people’s best interests at heart, Jefferson was in fact promoting the “proslavery fantasies of happy relations between masters and slaves on southern plantations.”
Of course, we know that Jefferson often referred to slavery as “evil,” but the aging patriarch persuaded himself that its eradication was a task best left to future generations.
One of the authors, Annette Gordon-Reed, also spoke about this in an interview with NPR on the books release:
SIMON: Yeah, he thought of himself as benevolent.
GORDON-REED: Yes, of course. I mean, he thought that he was doing this – he did think that slavery was evil and he thought that slavery was going to die away. He thought that along with the Enlightenment, as people became more enlightened, they would see that this was a retrograde system. But while slavery was continuing, he thought of himself as a benevolent slaveholder. That’s a problematic category for us…
GORDON-REED: …Because it just doesn’t go together. But in his time and in his world, there were gradations of how people conducted themselves as slave owners.
NPR Weekend Edition Saturday April 16, 2016·7:57 AM ET
Jefferson’s thoughts on government via the way he ran his home are also plucked from this more personal approach to the biography:
Jefferson’s concept of a republican nation composed of self-governing states, counties, and “wards” which, in turn, were composed of family units, predated the groundbreaking discovery of fractals in 1975 by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, an occasional visiting professor at Harvard. A form of geometric repetition, fractals are, as one writer described them, “smaller and smaller copies of a pattern successively nested inside each other, so that the same intricate shapes appear no matter how much you zoom in to the whole.” Mandelbrot’s favorite example was the cauliflower—“a single floret,” he wrote, “looks like a small cauliflower. If you strip that floret of everything except one floret of a floret…it is again a cauliflower.
And so, as Gordon-Reed and Onuf demonstrate in their excellent book, Jefferson’s self-fashioning as blessed family patriarch was inextricably and intimately tied to his vision of self-governing communities and a self-governing free nation. Monticello was what Jefferson wanted for himself—and, minus slavery, it was also a prescription for a free republican nation in which citizens could enjoy their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In his imagination and in his mind, the mountaintop home over which he presided constituted an ideal model for the nation and the world.”
MOST BLESSED OF THE PATRIARCHS: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination
By Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf
Illustrated. 370 pp. Live right Publishing
Sign-up for the WhatBook newsletter and get ideas for new books to read delivered directly to your inbox: