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Review | In the writings of Thomas Jefferson, clues to his inner life


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In “His Masterly Pen,” a thoroughly engrossing study of Thomas Jefferson, Fred Kaplan demonstrates that he, too, wields a masterly pen. Although the subtitle of the book describes it as “a biography of Jefferson the writer,” it is more accurately an examination of the insights into Jefferson’s character and philosophy that Kaplan has drawn from the personal and public writings of our most celebrated Founding Father.

The book is thus not a traditional biography. Readers familiar with Jefferson’s life, both public and private, will soon note some uneven coverage in Kaplan’s narrative. For instance, Jefferson’s flirtation with Maria Cosway is fully developed, while his long relationship with Sally Hemings is barely mentioned — largely, one must assume, because there are no letters to or about Hemings that would help Kaplan plumb Jefferson’s inner life.

The primary function of this nicely paced and well-written narrative is to serve as context for Kaplan’s exploration of a number of themes. Four of these themes stand out for this reader: the impact of class and region on Jefferson’s social attitudes and racial and gender assumptions; Jefferson’s seemingly unlimited capacity to rationalize his own behavior and to avoid unpleasant truths; the creation of and commitment to a romantic myth of America as a nation of contented yeoman farmers; and the intense Anglophobia around which his politics and policies took shape after the war. These do not, of course, exhaust Kaplan’s attention, for they do not take into account, for instance, Jefferson’s approach to intimacy or his philosophical ruminations on religion and slavery, both of which are fully developed in this volume. But these four themes illustrate Kaplan’s skill in discovering Jefferson’s character and his political ideology through the products of his “masterly pen.”

Consider Kaplan’s analysis of Jefferson’s emerging commitment to independence. In 1774, Jefferson composed an essay addressed to the Virginia Legislature and later published as “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” Like many if not most of the members of the Virginia planter class, Jefferson viewed Britain’s decision to impose taxes and new restrictions with visceral alarm. That it was done without consulting these elite White men constituted an insult to their status as gentlemen. The resulting resentment led Jefferson to place the blame for the intensifying political crisis squarely upon the British government. But Kaplan sees more in “A Summary View” than class-based outrage. The essay is only one example of Jefferson’s lifelong capacity to blame any crisis or failure on someone else, or on some other country than his own. “A Summary View” also introduces Jefferson’s hostility to Britain, its culture and its economic system, a hostility that would last long after American independence was won.

Kaplan reads the central argument of “A Summary View” as simultaneously specious and persuasive, the former because it is filled with “historical inaccuracy and special pleading” and because its author is unwilling to acknowledge any counterargument; the latter because of its “no-holds-barred emotional intensity, its … inventiveness in combining feeling, argument, language, and ideology.” “A Summary View” was, Kaplan concludes, an example of the highest form of propaganda.

Only the Declaration of Independence, written two years later, would surpass “A Summary View” in all these elements. Where many scholars have characterized the Declaration’s indictment of the king and his government as a perfect example of lawyerly argument, Kaplan sees in it the same intense undercurrent of rage against real or imagined tyranny that Jefferson displayed in “A Summary View.” And, as Kaplan notes, the Declaration required a “mental dissonance” for Jefferson, who owned hundreds of enslaved people, to claim that the king’s intention was to enslave his White colonists.

Kaplan later explores Jefferson’s capacity for mythmaking in support of his vision for the new republic. As Jefferson envisioned America’s future, he saw an agrarian society sustained by a free, independent and contented White yeomanry. These patriotic yeomen, whose act of tilling the soil ensured their moral superiority over urban tradesmen and merchants, were largely a fiction produced by Jefferson’s capacity to build an argument on unfounded generalizations and distortions of fact. Kaplan provides the reality that Jefferson stubbornly avoids, pointing out that many Virginia farmers, if not most, endured a subsistence-level existence that brought little satisfaction or contentment. Kaplan also dismisses as myth Jefferson’s insistence that city life was rife with immorality while rural life encouraged moral values. As Kaplan points out — and as Jefferson knew — Virginia’s agrarian population had its share of “loafers, wastrels, alcoholics, gamblers, sexual adventurers, and abusive husbands.” Yet Jefferson’s ability to paint a vivid picture of a bucolic American paradise was so persuasive that members of later generations have been known to embrace the myth and to mourn the passing of an era of happy yeomanry.

Kaplan recognizes the synergy produced when these themes overlap, as when Jefferson’s myth of a nation founded on yeomanry combined with his intense hatred of Britain to form the building blocks of his political ideology. Although many historians have narrated the rise of two opposing political parties in the 1790s, it is Kaplan who fully captures the emotional intensity of Jefferson’s hatred of Hamiltonian policies and the nationalists’ attachment to urban life. Kaplan does this not simply by examining the creation and eventual victory of the Jeffersonian Republican Party but by reading Jefferson’s letters and public texts on this subject with what might be described as a forensic attention to detail. Under his textural microscope, the reader can see clearly the obsessive Anglophobia that drove Jefferson to support an absolutist, anti-republican French king, as well as a French Revolution that devolved into dictatorship, in order to achieve his party’s success.

A less-adept historian might substitute parlor psychoanalysis for subtle interrogation of the texts. To his credit, Kaplan does not go further than what the accepted narrative framework and a sympathetic but critical reading of Jefferson’s papers allows. The skill with which the author wields his own masterly pen ensures a better understanding of this brilliant and talented 18th-century man who could not fully escape the moral failings of his social class or the weaknesses of his own character as he helped give birth to a new nation.

Carol Berkin is the author of “A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism.”

A Biography of Jefferson the Writer

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