“Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination”
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Thank you very much, Governor Heineman, for that wonderful introduction. I have been greatly heartened by the warmth and hospitality of the people of Nebraska—I’ve not been to Omaha before. My only other trip to Nebraska was to Lincoln a couple of years ago, and upon my leaving they gave me a red jersey, so I figured that red might be appropriate to wear tonight. But people have been remarkably generous and I’m very honored to be here tonight at this event that is so historic for you and something that evidently the community supports very much.
I also want to put in a plug myself: for the past couple of years I’ve been on something called the National Commission on the Humanities, which is a commission that Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Lamar Alexander asked the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to put together to try to make the case for the humanities. STEM and science, those kinds of things are very important to the United States and very important to our country, but we wanted to make the case that people should not forget the humanities. One of the things that we did in our meetings and one of the things that we’re going to continue to do after the issuance of our report “The Heart of the Matter”—which I can get copies of to anybody who’s interested—is make the case for the humanities and talk about how vital it is for the American citizenry to know about history, to know about literature and culture, those things are important too, as important as science. Not against science, not against STEM, but all of this has to go together, and we’re going to be working with humanities councils and hopefully Humanities Nebraska to put things together so that this message is sent out all throughout the community.
So I’m very happy to be a part of this event that fits very nicely with something that I’ve been thinking about for the past two years.
The Enigma of Thomas Jefferson
Now, on to the topic of the night, Mr. Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson is an enigma; he’s seen as an enigma by many people, considered to be the most contradictory. He’s written of as the President, as the member of the founding generation who has so many more contradictions than others. We know about this because Jefferson left lots of records, many many records: over 18,000 letters that he wrote, a memorandum book that I have used extensively in my own work that documents every single transaction he made during the day from the time he was in his twenties until his eighties—if you can imagine going to Starbucks and buying something and coming back and you write down, “$3.60 for a cappuccino on October 29, 2013”—that kind of thing, an enormous treasure trove of work, a farm book, a garden book, as I said the memorandum books, he kept copies of all the letters he sent out and a record of when he sent them out and letters as they came in. So, this is a person who was an inveterate record keeper and there’s a lot of documentary evidence left about him.
But, people still see him as this enigma. Joseph Ellis has written of him as the “American Sphinx,” an incomprehensible person, an impenetrable individual despite all of these documents. People feel that you should know him because you have all of these records. I’ve been interested in him for many years—my interest began as a child when I read a book about him in the third grade, and that launched my study of slavery and life at Monticello and study of Jefferson. And for a time, I sort of bought the idea that he was, because of his contradictions, this person who could not be understood.
My first book was an attempt to get a handle on how other historians had written about a particular question, and that is whether or not Jefferson had had a long-term liaison with a woman on his plantation named Sally Hemings. I was writing more about historians, what they thought about this subject, but, necessarily, the question of whether it was true or not entered the discussion, and I sort of came to a conclusion at the end of the book that it was likely that this story was true. But that was not the main point of my book; it was really about how historians had crafted a particular image of Jefferson and how we viewed him.
In the process of doing that, I got the idea that I really, at some point, wanted to do a biography of Jefferson. And I actually am going to be doing a biography of Jefferson, not the book that I’m working on with Peter that I’m going to be talking about in a second, but a two-volume biography of Jefferson, because I think that in light of all that we know about him now and in light of all the work that has been done on slavery at Monticello and slavery as an institution, there’s a way to write a new story of Jefferson that takes all of this into account and brings the whole man full. And we can get a true picture of him, and I wanted to do that.
In between getting to the biography of Jefferson I wrote a book called The Hemingses of Monticello, which was really to try to master one particular area of Jefferson’s life, that is, life at Monticello, life on the plantation, before I embarked upon a larger book, the book that was supposed to be the biography. It occurred to me that one of the ways in which you learn a topic is to write a book about it. The obsessive-compulsive person that I am, I thought the best thing to do would be to write a book about it and to learn about him, and I thought the best way to do that was with a co-author, with someone with whom I’ve had an intellectual engagement since the beginning of my career as a Jefferson scholar. My first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy was published at the University of Virginia Press, largely with the urging of Peter Onuf, who you will hear from tonight as we are in conversation to talk about our new book. Peter is an intellectual historian; I do social and cultural history and political history. We both write about Jefferson’s political life. I thought that this would be a way to get into Jefferson, to talk about things or to learn about things that I knew things about sort of superficially: I know John Locke and Hume and Montesquieu, the people who influenced him, I know what Jefferson wrote about a number of issues, but my focus was mainly on day-to-day life, what he was doing, not as much what he was thinking. So, I asked Peter, who is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor at UVA—he’s emeritus now, but now he’s a senior scholar at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies—I decided to ask him, “Why don’t we collaborate on a book?”
The book in and of itself I think would be good to try to push back on this notion of Jefferson as this impenetrable person; in fact, Jefferson can be known as much as any of us can be known. I mean, you can’t know everything about anybody, but just because he’s not here and just because he left this voluminous body of information it was wrong to ever think that you could know him completely. But I think you could know him as well as we could know anybody else. And we think it’s a valuable thing to do because so much of Jefferson’s life, so many of the questions that were raised during his time, so many of the issues that he grappled with are things that we are thinking about today.
What Can We Learn from Jefferson Today?
Now, historians are always concerned about this issue of presentism, of being anachronistic or holding people to the standards of today, but the truth of the matter is that most people are interested in history because they want to know how we got here. What does it mean to me? I like history— when I grew up I used to like to go through old microfilms and read old newspapers, not to any particular end, but I was just interested in what people were doing in the past whether it had anything specifically to do with me or not. But I think there is an aspect of it for all of us that says, “How are we here?”
Why do we have a problem of race? What about our political system? What do we think about federalism? What do we think about states’ rights? What about the relationship between the federal government and the state government? What about the judiciary? Why is it that the court gets to decide whether something is unconstitutional; why couldn’t a President decide that, why can’t Congress decide that? How did we get to this place?
And Jefferson is a wonderful vehicle—that’s sort of mercenary sounding—a vehicle for discussing these kinds of issues, because as the master of a slave plantation the question of slavery and its role in the history of the United States is implicated there. Race—he wrote Notes on the State of Virginia in which he muses about the races and the differences in the races, in which he speculates that blacks may be inferior to whites. He talks about blacks’ hearts, blacks emotionally: at one point he says that blacks have the best hearts of any people in the world, but he was not so sure about their—our—intellectual capabilities. That’s a question, this issue of racism and white supremacy, that has bedeviled the United States from his time until now. He grappled with the question of whether or not we could have a multiracial society: he didn’t think that blacks and whites could live together without turmoil, without an actual fight, a race war. Whites would never give up their prejudices against blacks and black people would never be able to forgive white people for the things that had been done to them as slaves. I was talking earlier today with faculty and students about this question—Jefferson’s attitude about race and black people’s place in society—and one of the things I said is that he brings out all of these issues very, very well and we focus in on him because other members of the founding generation did not really write about this.
We really don’t know what George Washington felt about race because George Washington was not really given to musing about the future in the way that Jefferson was—he was much more given to recording his fox hunting episodes. He talked about other things; I’m exaggerating of course. But Jefferson is our philosophical president, and people made fun of him for that: his head is in the clouds, thinking about the future, seeing himself as a visionary. Not all of his visions came to pass, for better or worse, but that’s his image and that’s the way he thought of himself, as a person who’s thinking about the future. If you can imagine him sitting at Monticello and he’s surrounded by African American people and he’s thinking about the future: “What is this country going to be like?” And he looks out the window or he hears the sounds of people who have been enslaved: “What are we going to do with these people? Can they be republican citizens? Can we accept them as republican citizens?” That question was posed strongly in his day-to-day life, his existence, and it formed the way he thought about the world. I suggested earlier today that perhaps one of the reasons John Adams has become such a subject of fascination—not that he’s not a fascinating person in some ways, just not as fascinating as Jefferson—is because his story is cleaner in the sense that you don’t have to grapple with all of these issues. Slavery—you don’t have to grapple with it; Adams didn’t have to grapple with it in the manner that Jefferson did. He didn’t have to grapple with race in the manner that Jefferson did.
So, all of these things are there, present in this person, and, when we write about him, we are in some ways trying to answer this question, “How did we get here?” through the life of this particular person. So, Peter and I are going to try to make him as coherent as possible. We are going to suggest that this habit we have of separating out the public Jefferson and the private Jefferson as two distinct things is problematic. I think that too was convenient for historians because the private life, in some ways, we now know, was problematic. Not just the Hemings question, but when people began to think more about women, for example—Jefferson’s relationships with women, with his daughters, what we would call today the sort of “patriarchal attitude” about women—this caused discomfort for people. People began to move away from assuming that this was a happy family in the way the historians had posited it as a happy family. We began to say, “Is this just love of his daughters, is it control?” People began to take a more realistic view of him in that area. So, it’s not just race, but it’s the issue of Jefferson and women and what is going on privately that was sort of cordoned off.
Peter and I want to talk about how Jefferson’s private understanding of family radiates out to Jefferson the public person. He saw the United States as sort of a larger construction of a family, a larger iteration of this notion of family: a republican family to a republican local community to a republican nation. So if you understand how he thinks about family, you understand how he comes to a particular configuration which he thinks is the best configuration of a nation. So, the public-private distinction we try to collapse.
The “Empire of Imagination”
The title of the book is The Most Blessed of Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination. Our publisher is kind of pushing back on the “empire of imagination” because they don’t think people really know what that means—obviously the book is going to try to tell people what that means, but it’s hard to argue with marketing people about stuff. Once we talked to people about it we got some positive feedback from people here in Omaha, and I’m told that Omaha is the place where people do a lot of market testing. So we’re going to carry this message back to W.W. Norton and say, “You know, people in Omaha like ‘Empire of Imagination’ so we’re going to stick with that.”
But the first part of it, “The Most Blessed of Patriarchs” comes from a letter that Jefferson wrote after he has decided to leave his position as Secretary of State. I suppose many of you know that his great rival was Alexander Hamilton, who was in the cabinet with him at that time, and they were sort of at each other’s throats; he said they were “pitted at each other like two cocks.” Hamilton won that round, essentially—he doesn’t win the end, but he won that particular battle for Washington’s favor—and Jefferson is going home to lick his wounds, taking his marbles and going home, and saying “I’m out of public life forever.” There’s some real question about whether or not he actually believed that—some people say that he had come home for good, but I’m not so certain; it’s hard for me to imagine that he could ever have really walked away from that when he thought that there was any danger. He actually saw Hamilton and his crew as an affirmative danger to the Revolution that he had devoted his life to. So, I don’t really think he was going to go away forever.
But he goes back and he’s writing this letter and he describes himself, talking about what’s going on in his family, that his elder daughter had been married and if his younger daughter gets married then he will be content, he will be “the most blessed of the patriarchs.” And that’s a great phrase because you think of this individual who, at the time that he’s writing this, is thought of as a Jacobin. He is still supporting the French Revolution at that time, and he already knew that they’d sort of gone off the rails—killing people, heads on poles, the whole business—and yet he was still supporting it. So here’s a guy who sees himself, who is seen by other people and still has the air of the revolutionary about him. He reacts with equanimity to the killing of the royal couple; he says basically, “Why should their deaths matter more than the deaths of other people?” So he’s kind of out there, but he describes himself as “the most blessed of patriarchs.” And when you hear the word “patriarch” what do you think? You think of somebody from olden times, a guy with a wife and concubines—well he had the concubine—and the children and all these kinds of things that are Old World, that are retrogressive, that are backwards. But he sees himself as a patriarch. Part of what we’re going to do in this book is to, as historians like to say, unpack what the heck is up with that. You’re this republican patriarch? How does that work? We think we’ve found out how to do that, to talk about that in a way that explicates Jefferson in a way that I don’t think others have done before.
So there’s this issue of Jefferson’s image of himself—that’s the “empire of imagination,” how he constructs his world at Monticello and how that influences the way he sees the world at large. He honestly believed that the experiment that was taking place in the United States, the republican experiment, would spread across the country, would be taken up by people in the country. And he really felt when he was elected in 1800 that that was a renewal that vanquished Hamilton and his forces and that, in fact, this republican revolution would spread all over the world. He was a man of the Enlightenment and for him progress meant republicanism: the will of the people being expressed through their representatives; everybody had a say in government. The empire of the imagination is how he imagines this world coming about. What was the source of all that? What were the forces that went into making him the man that he was and the leader that he was and to have the kind of hopes for the country that he had? That’s what we’re trying to do with this.
One other point that I wanted to talk about is the issue of religion, a subject that Peter has brought to the fore in developing an argument about Jefferson’s religious attitude and how all of this fits into it. There’s this great controversy about Jefferson and religion. I mentioned earlier today that in my home state of Texas there are people who want to take him out of the history books. Can you imagine? The person who wrote the Declaration of Independence for America not in American history books? I mean, if he’s not in American history books then no one should be in American history books. But that’s Texas. I hasten to add that I do love Texas; I love my home state. I’m always explaining it to people: “Now, now, you have to understand that….” But, because of his religious beliefs or people’s understanding about him, he’s a controversial figure. And we’re going to talk about that, how that fits into this picture of his imagination, what he’s imagining for the country as a whole.
So, I’ve been very much heartened by this experiment, this journey that we’ve been on. We’re supposed to deliver this optimistically at the end of December—I’m going to be working like a madwoman to make that happen. But it’s been fun; I can’t imagine people doing this kind of work and doing the kind of work that I’ve done before without actually loving doing the work. It’s more a joy for me than actually a chore. This journey has been very much enlightening to me and the end result will be a book and a launching pad for another book, which is what I am hoping books will always be about for me. We hope that we say something about Jefferson that is new and unique, and I think we have it. He is an understandable person, he is a person who can be known, and it’s important to understand him. It’s not just the famous Parton quote, “If America is right Jefferson was right, if America is wrong, Jefferson was wrong.” We’re not collapsing him into that formulation, but there is something to the notion that we can know something about ourselves by looking at his life. And that’s what propelled me to this subject. It’s sort of an odd interest—people wonder how an African American woman becomes a Jefferson scholar; I don’t think there are any others that I know of. But Jefferson is not the story of white people, Jefferson is the story of all Americans. And that’s what I’ve tried to show with my work and that’s what it’s been my privilege to do. I think we’re running behind, so I should get to talking with Peter about what we’re doing and take your questions. Thank you very much.
WILLIAM THOMAS: Thank you, Annette. I’m Will Thomas and I’m going to moderate a little discussion with Peter and Annette. I’m actually going to, in the interest of time, not introduce Peter elaborately. He’s most well-known as “18th Century Guy” on the “Backstory” radio show from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. If you’ve not heard of it, I would encourage you to listen to “Backstory” on podcasts or online. But, we’re going to go right to questions and answers.
To start, Peter, I want to ask you about Jefferson’s world. If you could just talk with us about how the world of Jefferson was changing in the late 18th century. You’ve written a lot about this. What are the big changes in Jefferson’s life?
PETER ONUF: Well, Will, it’s a wonderful question; have you got an hour or so? One word says it all, and that’s “revolution.” The thing that changes is, as Will’s question suggests, his world, and that world is the world of the British Empire. There’s a big debate among scholars about whether America is an empire, and it’s really about how, collectively, we use our power in the world today, and it’s usually deployed in a pejorative sense—empire is bad. But Jefferson was an imperialist—and this is the thing to keep in mind—because he saw, as a loyal subject of King George III, the British Empire was the greatest empire in world history to that time and it was an empire for liberty. It wasn’t the empire that emerged in the imagination of American revolutionaries which is the epitome of despotism, now known as Washington D.C.! I don’t believe that, but that’s what he said.
I think a lot of Jefferson’s life has to do with his trying to explain to himself and to his colleagues and to his countrymen what had happened and what had changed. Why did we suddenly find ourselves an independent country? Where did that idea of equality come from when everybody knows that all men are created unequal? That’s the very nature of traditional society. I think that moment is a galvanizing, transformative moment for Jefferson. Many historians, including social historians like Annette, are going to tell you, “Well, look at this from the perspective of enslaved people. What changed? Not much.” But for Jefferson, everything changed. And I think that, in a way, describes our project of trying to connect the conception of a world-changing moment—the American Revolution, independence, when everything seemed different—with the reality of life in post- provincial America.
One of my favorite things about the American Revolution—I’ll shut up because you’ve got a lot of great questions—is it was a tax revolt. Now, I’m happy to know that you people in Nebraska pay your taxes—the governor just assured me of this—and it’s why you have a great university system; there’s wonderful support in your non-partisan Legislature for education. But here’s the news, folks, and I’m glad I’m talking to you, because we’re friends: the Revolution was designed by patriots who wanted to escape the burdens of taxation which they thought would lead to slavery—that’s the word they used. Well, guess what: they fought a war to escape taxes and they increased the tax level on themselves tenfold, so that the American economy was wrecked for a quarter century and Americans paid the highest taxes they’d ever paid in their history. That’s what you get for starting a revolution. Let that be a word of warning to you!
WILL: I want to follow that up. Jefferson was young in the Revolution, you know?
WILL: And I think we often think of Jefferson as shaping the Revolution: Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson shapes the Revolution. If you both could talk about this—how does the Revolution shape Jefferson?
ANNETTE: Well, it was the galvanizing thing in his life. It became his whole raison d’être. He saw himself always as a revolutionary, even when he’s President. I think that’s his self-image; it’s fundamental to his self-image that he’s a revolutionary. He never got over it, and as a revolutionary he was constantly worried about the counter-revolution and saw enemies everywhere; anything that he thought would jeopardize it, he went after it. I mentioned before, that’s what he thought Hamilton was: a counter-revolutionary—Hamilton had been a soldier! He’d been in battle, and to see him as someone, because he had some regard for the British constitution, as someone who was counter-revolutionary—but you understand what Jefferson was responding to. We think of the American nation at that time, but it was fragile; it was a union that was fragile. So it was central to his image.
Peter: I think the key thing for Jefferson can be summarized in one word and that is “mobilization.” How do you get people committed to a common cause—which is what revolutionaries called their revolution? The terms of that negotiation between elites and their followers was essentially: we share in a common identity. Equality comes out of that—it’s not just something that Jefferson read in John Locke or other philosophers—it came out of the lived reality of confronting people with the need to risk their lives and fortunes for a common cause. Virginians didn’t know they were Virginians until the Revolution began, and many Virginians decided they didn’t want to be revolutionaries and they left. It’s not as if this was a unanimous movement as it’s portrayed in our legend and myth. But that idea of getting people to voluntarily put their lives on the line, that’s the foundational meaning of consent. We take it as modern libertarians, “Oh, it’s all about us and we get to make decisions about our lives.” Well, this was something bigger than anybody’s life; its question was “Would you sign up for the Revolution?” And I think that’s what’s important for Jefferson.
I have a metaphor for this, Will, or a way of thinking about it. Traditional society in the old regime, in provincial America, is hierarchical. Think of it as a vertical axis. The Revolution challenges all hierarchies by starting at the top and killing the king, flipping that axis to the horizontal. Jefferson, more than anyone in his generation, dealt with and conceived of the problem: “How do you imagine a political community based on the premise of equality on that horizontal plane when you are just as good as I am?” Whoever thought that, when I was a professor and you were just a graduate student?
WILL: (Laughter) I know. I still feel like one.
Jefferson and Religion
WILL: I want to shift gears just a little bit and ask you, as two authors collaborating on a book about one of the most mysterious, complicated figures in American history—tell us about an issue that you’ve disagreed on.
PETER: Oh, Will! There goes the common cause.
ANNETTE: What have we disagreed about? He’s probably disagreed about things but not told me.
PETER: Well, you know, we had an interesting conversation about Jefferson at prayer. Annette mentioned our interest in religion. And, when I first drafted this I had come upon something interesting—I thought it was interesting; I’ll throw it out to you folks. I have an explanation for it and I pray that you’ll find it a compelling one. When Jefferson retires from public life he talks for the first time in his correspondence about praying—not just conventional prayer, formulaic prayer in a letter: “I pray for your welfare and wellbeing.” He says, for instance to Edward Coles, his neighbor who wants to do something about slavery: “My prayers are for the success of this great and noble cause.” “I pray for” as an activity separate from simply writing the letter; it’s not just a formula.
And Annette says, “Oh come on!”—this is the Texan in Annette—“You’ve gotta be kidding me. He’s not praying; he’s not a Christian.” That forced me to think harder about what I made of his claim to pray. And I’m willing to defend that claim on this basis, and I’ll try to make it short and sweet, because this is another hour lecture: I talked before about that horizontal axis. One way to think about it is as a generation—the “sons of liberty,” all of us together, fighting, we’re all the living generation; we’re the people who are now making the Revolution and must sustain the Revolution. Jefferson very much has a sense that it’s the responsibility of each generation to govern itself and to pass on to the next generation the common estate. The famous statement that he makes to James Madison in 1789 in a famous letter is “The Earth belongs to the living.”
So here’s my point; I’ll be brief about it: Jefferson sees himself as not quite living anymore when he steps away from public life. He’s no longer responsible for the future of the country. But he prays, and he says this to republicans in the Madison administration, he says, “I pray that you will love one another as I love you and carry on the good work that we began.” It’s his way of reaching out across the generations to inspire, empower, to pray for their success because our republic means nothing, to put it in modern terms, if we don’t make it ours, if we don’t sustain liberty, if we don’t sustain good government. That’s the responsibility of each living generation. We can’t turn back to the founders: they’re dead. And Jefferson was saying, “I’m on my way out, folks. It’s going to be up to you.” If the Revolution means anything, we have to reenact it every generation.
ANNETTE: Well, ok. So my disagreement was—
PETER: That was inspiring, right?
ANNETTE: Well yeah, sorta. My concern was the use of the word “prayer” because I’m thinking about how readers will respond to that, how they’re going to take that, because I know what’s going to happen. This will be David Barton, this will be Jefferson as a Christian in the sense that people mean Christianity. So, I know what Peter is saying, but I also think, as authors, we have a responsibility to use words in ways, when we know how they might be used, we have to explain what we’re talking about. I understand the notion of prayer as like a hope—what he’s saying is “I hope”—and I think in a culturally religious society you used the term “prayer” in a way that people will understand. But I would say for most people who might be reading this, prayer is a request for an intercession by a being who will answer that prayer. There will be an answer to it. His “I pray this…” whatever, is like… “I’m rolling 7 -11”
PETER: No, no!
ANNETTE: It’s not that bad.
PETER: We do have a disagreement!
ANNETTE: His prayer is not asking for any kind of intercession, he’s not asking for somebody to come in or for some being or thing to come in and make this happen. It’s not a request. I think it’s a different sense. So I understand what he’s saying, but I’m thinking that there’s things that I can’t write, or things that I don’t write unless I can write them in a way that will not be misleading.
Peter: And that points to the value of co-authorship and collaboration.
ANNETTE: The concept I get, but I understand the world that we live in. So I think we can talk about that, but we have to explain what it is that we mean so we don’t enter the “culture war.” And we’re going to be in the culture war anyway, but I don’t want to be—
PETER: But we’re going to win.
ANNETTE: (Laughter) But I don’t want to be in the culture war on that question. So that’s a disagreement we had. And the thing is that I came around to his thought about this. I hadn’t taken Jefferson and his religious life, his version of a religious life seriously. I might have persuaded him on some things, but he’s persuaded me about that, and I think that’s the most exciting thing about the book, quite frankly.
WILL: So you both are coming from pretty different intellectual backgrounds—the law and social history and intellectual history—and as co-authors that could lead to a wreck or it could lead to an exciting venture. I guess my question is how have you each been influenced by the other’s background and your work up to this point?
PETER: Well I’ll say very briefly that it’s an enormous privilege to work with Annette, and when she said, “Would you like to write a book?” I said, “Are you kidding? Of course I’ll write the book!” I’ve been confessing this all day long: the only reason I’m doing this—I’m beyond careerism because I’m with Jefferson, I’m retired; this is the dead hand of the past—the opportunity to hang out with Annette Gordon-Reed is a rare privilege.
ANNETTE: Well, obviously I feel the same way. There’s nobody that I would rather talk to about these matters and it’s been wonderful. I think what I’ve learned, just on this question of religion, is to take what Jefferson is writing seriously. I’ve always taken it seriously, but the project has been to try to peel away the Jefferson that has sort of been constructed by so so many writers and to try to make his words matter, to take him at his word about these things, because we’re at a point now where for everything he says there’s sort of second-guessing with people saying, “Oh he doesn’t really mean that,” or, “He can’t really believe that.” But I think what Peter has shown me is that yeah, yeah he does. The Jefferson Bible, the significance of cutting that up and coming up with his own understanding of the Gospels is pretty amazing. I don’t even know if I could cut a Bible, but he’s able to do that.
WILL: It takes a great deal of confidence.
ANNETTE: A great deal of confidence—“You know, I’m going to fix this.” To take him seriously in that particular way, he’s taught me to do that. And I think it’s going to be very helpful to me as I go and try to sort his whole life out.
PETER: We’ve had an argument over the years, or a conversation—I used to accuse Annette that she was weak on Jefferson, that she really liked him too much. And now, just today she charged me with liking him too much. I think the fact is that both of us are, to coin a phrase, deeply conflicted about Jefferson. This is not apologetics that we’re involved in. To take somebody’s ideas seriously and to really interrogate them, to think about them doesn’t mean to say, “Yeah! Jefferson, you’re right!” In many profound, deep ways Jefferson is wrong. I think we both want to emphasize that. It’s just, if you stop with the caricature of Jefferson as a fat, racist pig, which is the way he’s described in a recent manuscript—which will be edited appropriately—that’s a waste of time. That doesn’t get you anywhere. We want to get into this guy, and I think Annette put it beautifully earlier: if we know him better, we know ourselves better. Not because we’re Jefferson writ large or writ old, but he is just a nexus of what are problems for us.
On the other hand, he lived his life; I don’t think he lost a lot of sleep at night, Will. I think he was okay with himself—we’re not necessarily okay with him!
ANNETTE: He was okay with himself, yeah, definitely.
Jefferson and Slavery
WILL: Let me actually ask you to talk about slavery and Jefferson at this point. I’ve often wondered why it is that Jefferson, who’s a lawyer, who follows the international legal changes over the course of his lifetime—why do you think it is that he doesn’t move very much on the issue of slavery? The international legal community, we could argue, might be moving in a completely different direction. It’s even argued in the United States Supreme Court in several cases in the 1820s, that whole legal argument about the international banning of slavery and abolition of the slave trade and the force of law moving in that direction—why does Jefferson not participate in that? Is it a failure of imagination?
PETER: No, I think that’s wrong. I think his problems and our problems all have to do with his being a lawyer—I bet there’s a lawyer or two out there.
ANNETTE: There’s a lawyer sitting next to you too.
PETER: (Laughter) Now I’ve really messed up.
I’ll say two things, and then Annette is the real lawyer and she will say what matters. But when he was a young man—our dear friend David Konig who teaches at Washington University has done some pioneering work on Jefferson’s law practice and slavery-connected issues—Jefferson was trying to do what he could as a common lawyer toward enhancing the condition of mixed-race people and enslaved people—where he could. I’ve had a lot of fights with David about this; we actually did have a big fight for a while and he got very upset with me at Saratoga, but he’s demonstrated to me that Jefferson as a young lawyer was very much an enlightened lawyer, working under the context of the common law.
My second point is that Jefferson did believe, as a common lawyer and also as a student of international law, the Law of Nations, that there was progress on the issue of slavery and you could see it in the Law of Nations. In the seventeenth century, captivity and war were sufficient warrant for enslavement. Look, you want to die or be a slave? That’s your choice. That made a certain amount of sense in the seventeenth century. But he said, “We take great heart in the progress of the Law of Nations”—now that is no longer seen as a legitimate claim, certainly a claim that could be passed through the generations. His mindset is that the law is working forward and, of course, he does take great pride in the abolition of the international slave trade. So, as a lawyer working within the law, he’s doing what he can, he thinks. But remember: the law is all about property. And with that, I give you Annette Gordon-Reed.
ANNETTE: Yes, and that’s the conflict with this notion of republicanism and the notion of community decision-making. I think that Jefferson didn’t believe that this would change when society changed. That’s not a satisfactory answer to us, but in a world where the right to property is paramount, is the center of everything—and we recognize that he’s talking about human property there—there can be no answer to this without a conflict, without a fight, without what actually happened. Historians don’t like this notion of inevitability, but it’s kind of hard to think how people could have been talked out of that. There were efforts made that you could pay your way out of this, and that wasn’t good enough either, for lots of reasons.
I think it was his respect for, his vision of what the community meant. There’s a story about a book peddler who comes to visit Monticello at one point, and he asked Jefferson—this is in 1821-22 when Jefferson is an elderly man—and he asks him about Haiti and whether Haiti should be recognized. And he, who would not do it when he was president, said that if it were left up to me, we would recognize them. But the white people were so prejudiced against blacks—it’s interesting that he doesn’t think he’s prejudiced—it’s those other white people who are so prejudiced against blacks that they would never allow for it. So there’s this notion that this isn’t going to happen until there’s a consensus among the community to do it. As I said, that’s not satisfactory to us; we want him to try something. But I think he was probably right: there was not any way you’re going to legislate slavery away from Virginians. So I think it was this notion of the progress of his community—the white community—that would end it. And I think he was not going to go against that.
PETER: I think “consent” is the key word. A consensus, of course, is the aggregate of consents, and the fundamental republican principle is government by consent. We think of slavery as the denial of consent to 40% of the Virginia population, the enslaved population, and that’s terrible. But if your notion of the civic community, the commonwealth of Virginia, includes only whites—and, unfortunately, that’s the truth in Jefferson’s estimation; he has no doubt about that—well then the real challenge is when will the citizens of the commonwealth consent to do something about the injustice of slavery. That’s the democratic dilemma. We want to think that republican government—and Jefferson wanted to believe—that it’s the engine of moral progress. If we only governed ourselves, we would do the right thing. But, do we always do the right thing? Do we democrats—I mean with a small “d” because there aren’t many of you big “D”s out there—are we democrats in modern America convinced that the people know best? I think that’s the biggest change between then and now; that you could, as a revolutionary having lived under monarchical government, believe that the elimination of government by privilege and power and self-government would lead to progress. It didn’t! Maybe it will?
ANNETTE: All hope is not lost.
WILL: I’d like to ask you about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings and in particular your work as a legal historian—if you could talk about what evidence was most persuasive to you and why. I’m really referring to The Hemingses of Monticello, copies of which are for sale out after the lecture. There’s a lot of evidence of this relationship, but for you, working through this, what was most persuasive about the character of that relationship?
ANNETTE: I guess for me—and all of this is sort of in my first book; The Hemingses of Monticello is more of a narrative—I think there’s never any one thing, as it is very seldom in life one thing. If I were trying to explain why I was in a particular family if I didn’t have a birth certificate, I would have to amass a lot of different things that would send people to that direction.
When I first started writing the book, my first book, I wasn’t really sure about the answer to this. If I had to do it over again, I would go back and rewrite the first part of the book, because if you read it, you see me getting progressively more convinced, because I was writing about historians but, in the process, looking at the topic itself. And I was coming upon things—“What about this? What about that?” If there was one particular moment it was about 2:00 in the morning one morning and I was looking at the names of her children. It struck me—these are really interesting names: Madison, Eston, Harriet, Beverly; these are strange names. Why are they named this? I knew who Madison was—Madison Hemings, whose recollections form the basis of what we know about Jefferson and Hemings—was named for James Madison. He tells the story about Dolly Madison telling Sally Hemings that if she names her next child after Madison he’d give her a present, so that accounts for that.
But these other people, I started looking at who they were and looking at the Randolph family tree. And Eston is Thomas Eston, who was Jefferson’s cousin, his favorite cousin; he described their families as being “as one.” So Sally has a Harriet and the next year Thomas Eston’s wife has a Harriet; Sally Hemings has Thomas Eston and the next year Thomas Eston has a William Eston. That morning at 2:00 am I was thinking about their names and the only one I didn’t know was Beverly—where does that come from? I was looking for the name Beverly and I start looking at a book about Jefferson’s father that talks about Jefferson’s father’s time marking the Fairfax Line, and it turns out that he went on this expedition with a man named William Beverly and they carved their names together on a tree. It just struck me—I’m not a genealogist, but I was really good at this at one point, I could trace what line from the Randolph family somebody came from by looking at their names. And I think, “Why am I not doing that with these people?” It’s usually not some arcane, weird thing; it’s usually something that’s right there in your face. And what’s right there in your face are these children who have names from this family that are all connected to Jefferson. He’s telling you that Thomas Eston and his family are like one and they’re trading names. William Beverly Hemings was the first son; there’s a Jefferson son-in-law that had a sister named Harriet and she had a son named William Beverly; she comes to Monticello to give birth—all of these connections are there, and then adding all the other stuff. But if you talk about one thing—at that moment I said, “You know, this is ridiculous. I have all the stuff here, and if this were any other family and you had names like that, you would know the answer to this,” and I said, “Okay.”
This is about halfway through writing the book, so by then I was convinced of it. It’s looking at them as a family and thinking about the way you constitute family. You would be able to know, if you were to look at a school, for example, a list of kids at Trinity School, you would be able to pick my son and daughter out. If you knew my family names, you’d know who they were. And you can do it the same with this.
WILL: Wow. Peter and Annette, thank you very much. This has just been a wonderful conversation.