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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



THE INNER JEFFERSON: by Andrew Burstein (University Press of Virginia) 0-8139-1720-4

Thomas Jefferson wished to be remembered for three achievements in his public life. He had served as governor of Virginia, as U.S. minister to France, as secretary of state under George Washington, as vice-president in the administration of John Adams, and as president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. On his tombstone, however, which he designed and for which he wrote the inscription, there is no mention of these offices. Rather, it reads that Thomas Jefferson was "author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia" and, as he requested, "not a word more." Historians might want to add other accomplishments--for example, his distinction as an architect, naturalist, and linguist--but in the main they would concur with his own assessment.

With such a towering figure in the founding moments of American national public life, it is often hard to imagine the man. Burstein’s popular book delves into the character of Jefferson by thoroughly exploring his ideas and relationships, setting them fully within an 18th century frame of reference, one of optimism and faith in rational progress. "When I contemplate the immense advances in science," Jefferson wrote, "and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life, I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt that they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were."

According to Burstein, Jefferson set the autonomous individual as the centerpiece of his conception of law and human rights, requiring that moral responsibility begin with the self. "He saw life, in part, as a struggle between self-mastery and self-deception. His politics were the politics of consent, his idea of family that of a marriage based on love and devotion and development of the moral sense in offspring. Cultivation of sensibility, sanctification of life, appreciation for the sublimity of nature as a further nourishment of the soul: here was Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness, coexisting and contending with the intense reality of frequent early death.

Jefferson expressed with unmatched eloquence the secular source of individual morality to offset what he saw as the persistence of clerical bigotry and false righteousness. A man is his temper. He becomes virtuous by discovering the softness of his inward nature, by drawing wisdom from his introspective moments, by finding in his Heart his sympathy toward humanity, and by acquiring nobility in taste. Jefferson sought peace of mind in this fashion. He was a man who thereby made himself beloved—and at the same time sought to undermine, with unusual ferocity, those he despised. Controversial as he was in his lifetime, he no doubt felt the goodness of his harmonious intent…

"The way Thomas Jefferson would have wanted his private story to end is with a definition of his humanism, the part of Jefferson shared by his durable public persona and his energetic, if tormented, inner self. He believed in a free mind. He was a liberal in the particular sense that John Dewey gave to the word in 1940: "Liberalism is humble and persistent, and yet it is strong and positive in its faith that the intercourse of free minds will always bring to light an increasing measure of truth. And so it is that Jefferson’s optimism endures in the minds of Americans and others who continue to search for happiness."


An American Controversy

by Annette Gordon-Reed

University Press of Virginia

$, cloth, 288 pages, notes, bibliography, index


Rumors of Thomas Jefferson’s sexual involvement with his slave Sally Hemings have circulated for two centuries. It remains, among all aspects of Jefferson’s renowned life, perhaps the most hotly contested topic. With THOMAS JEFFERSON AND SALLY HEMINGS, Attorney Annette Gordon-Reed uses logic and a consistent attention to the fact not only to show the compelling evidence for the relationship but how noted scholars have attempted to ignore or distort the evidence over the years. Her views are likely to intensify this ongoing debate as she identifies glaring inconsistencies in many noted scholars’ evaluations of the existing evidence. She has assembled a fascinating and convincing argument: not that the alleged thirty-eight-year liaison necessarily took place but rather that the evidence for its taking place has been denied a fair hearing.

Friends of Jefferson sought to debunk the Hemings story as early as 1800, and most subsequent historians and biographers have followed suit, finding the affair unthinkable based upon their view of Jefferson’s life, character, and beliefs.

Gordon-Reed responds to these critics by pointing out numerous errors and prejudices in their writings, ranging from inaccurate citations, to impossible time lines, to virtual exclusions of evidence— especially evidence concerning the Hemings family. She demonstrates how these scholars may have been misguided by their own biases and may even have tailored evidence to serve and preserve their opinions of Jefferson. Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law at New York University Law School, doesn't take a position for or against the proposition that Thomas Jefferson may have had a liaison of nearly 40 years with a slave named Sally Hemings, and that Hemings may have borne him several children. Instead, in this scrupulously researched book, Gordon-Reed examines the evidence both for and against Jefferson's liasion with Hemings. Among the strongest evidence in this provocative book is the fact that though Jefferson's time in Virginia was limited when he was in public life, Hemings's six children--born over 15 years--were delivered with months after each of Jefferson's stays at Monticello.

Her analysis of the evidence is accessible, with each chapter revolving around a key figure in the Hemings drama. The resulting portraits are engrossing and very personal. Gordon-Reed also brings a keen intuitive sense of the psychological complexities of human relationships, relationships that, in the real world, often develop regardless of status or race. The most compelling element of all, however, is her extensive and careful research, which often allows the evidence to speak for itself. THOMAS JEFFERSON AND SALLY HEMINGS is a controversial new look at a centuries-old question that should fascinate general readers and historians alike. It promises to be the definitive word on the subject for years to come.

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