“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter S. Onuf
Let us count the ways in which thou art blessed. For Thomas Jefferson, this injunction could take all night. For the book Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination it is unfortunately a much shorter task.
Thomas Jefferson is a charming and contradictory figure. An ‘American Sphinx’ as one biographer described. I’ve probably read a half dozen books on Jefferson over the years in a bid to understand him; such that this task is ever possible. So I was excited to get a copy of this book, given the reputation of the authors and the advanced praise for this book.
What I find most interesting about Jefferson is clearly not what the authors do. To me, he is a man of philosophy, prose and politics. All three are occasionally illuminated through this book’s lenses of his role as a patriarch. This book brings together the latest research on Jefferson, showing just how much new we have learned in recent years. But less engagingly, most of this has to do with the more mundane aspects of Jefferson’s life.
Personally, I find his relationship with Sally Hemmings, a slave girl and half-sister of his late wife quite uninteresting. I read biographies to learn about the unusual and historic. That an old slave owner found comfort in and had children through a slave he owned is neither. It was common for the time, and such behaviour is common across time.
As such, it was mildly interesting for the first 100 pages or so to see this relationship —if such a word can be used given questions of power and consent— brought into the light. Annette Gordon-Reed won a Pulitzer Prize for her earlier works demonstrating the truth of these ties. This was important for revealing a little bit more of his contradictory nature. But in Most Blessed of the Patriarchs, it seemed like the book’s authors couldn’t find an appropriate balance in trying to discuss Jefferson’s many sides.
The book is nominally about his approach to home life, and the importance of having a domain he was master of, in shaping his world view and life. Thus many topics such as his daily routine, the construction of Monticello and his views on gardening (much more negative than commonly presumed) are discussed.
But few of these topics get the space they deserve, before the subject gets dragged back to his ties to Hemmings and the unwillingness of his white family and white Virginia to recognise them in any way. Often this occurs with little warning, with book jumping around, going back and forth, rather than methodically trying to peel back the layers.
The chapter on Jefferson’s time in France is a welcome exception, giving the period a sustained analysis. They reveal how Jefferson’s embrace of French society, and his role as advocate for America helped him see what was most distinct and valuable about America, its people, environment and culture.
Many of Jefferson’s biographers write huge tomes in the hope that the sheer space they cover will provide a large enough net to snare their slippery catch. Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf make do with just 320 pages, and at times you feel they have indeed brought some of the real Jefferson to the surface.
But just when they do, they let him return to the depths he found of most comfort, with ponderous and repetitive writing. Or rather, overwriting. The authors seem unable to simply state that Jefferson tried to be a good host. Instead they must tie it to the contradictions of human society and his vision of a grand American republic as an inspiration for all mankind.
For those fascinated by Jefferson, there is value in this book. The parts have value, if more than the sum. The authors are masters of their fields, and learning the latest discoveries in the scholarship is engaging. But its gems are hidden by waffly language and a confused focus. The task of trying to fully count Jefferson’s many blessings and oddities therefore continues.