Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Mind of Thomas Jefferson

The Mind of Thomas Jefferson

Peter S. Onuf
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 288
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Mind of Thomas Jefferson
    Book Description:

    In The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, one of the foremost historians of Jefferson and his time, Peter S. Onuf, offers a collection of essays that seeks to historicize one of our nation's founding fathers. Challenging current attempts to appropriate Jefferson to serve all manner of contemporary political agendas, Onuf argues that historians must look at Jefferson's language and life within the context of his own place and time. In this effort to restore Jefferson to his own world, Onuf reconnects that world to ours, providing a fresh look at the distinction between private and public aspects of his character that Jefferson himself took such pains to cultivate. Breaking through Jefferson's alleged opacity as a person by collapsing the contemporary interpretive frameworks often used to diagnose his psychological and moral states, Onuf raises new questions about what was on Jefferson's mind as he looked toward an uncertain future. Particularly striking is his argument that Jefferson's character as a moralist is nowhere more evident, ironically, than in his engagement with the institution of slavery. At once reinvigorating the tension between past and present and offering a new way to view our connection to one of our nation's founders, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson helps redefine both Jefferson and his time and American nationhood.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3423-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Notwithstanding the assaults of generations of iconoclastic critics, Thomas Jefferson remains an American icon. A touchstone for partisans of all persuasions, the author of the Declaration of Independence has risen above partisanship as America’s “inventor,” the great apostle of democracy and national self-determination. His eloquent formulations of “self-evident . . . truths” constitute the American creed: “all men are created equal”; “they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable Rights,” including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”; and the governments men institute to secure these rights derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”¹



      (pp. 19-49)

      In 1960 Merrill Peterson concluded in his bookThe Jefferson Image in the American Mindthat Thomas Jefferson had finally, belatedly, ascended to a crucial “place in the symbolical architecture of this nation.” It was now possible for scholars to take the measure of the man. “The scholarly wish to possess Jefferson for himself might never be realized,” Peterson wrote, “but a Jefferson about whom politicians cease to contend, whose ideas suffer drastic erosion from all sides, and whose own history proves to be a rewarding field of study in itself—this figure invites the true scholar and begs the...

    • AMERICAN SYNECDOCHE: Thomas Jefferson as Image, Icon, Character, Self
      (pp. 50-64)
      Jan Ellen Lewis

      For generations of Americans, Thomas Jefferson’s relation to their nation has been essential, bordering on identity. As the historian James Parton put it in 1874, and Jefferson biographers have repeated ever since, “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.”¹ More recently the filmmaker Ken Burns has said that “one approaches Thomas Jefferson with the sense that he is, in a biographical sense, the Holy Grail of American History.”² Pauline Maier has suggested that it is not so much Jefferson as the Declaration of Independence that has been sacralized, “remade into a sacred text,...

      (pp. 65-80)

      As Thomas Jefferson insisted in 1825, the Declaration of Independence was “the fundamental act of union of these States.”¹ According to the text of the Declaration, this union claimed “the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them. “Now that the old “political bands” with Britain had been “dissolve[d],” the new nation was entitled by the law of nations to negotiate new “political” (that is, diplomatic) ties with other European powers. Independence was clearly a means toward higher ends: far from leaving the American states in their natural, anarchic condition with respect...


      (pp. 83-98)

      We are all republicans, we are all federalists, “Thomas Jefferson told the American people in his first inaugural address. A “President above Parties” who believed factionalism jeopardized the safety and security of republican government, Jefferson was here setting forth the common principles shared by all patriotic Americans. Jefferson’s election—the “Revolution of 1800”—would, he confidently predicted, put an end to the frenzied, hysterical, party struggles of the 1790s. Moderate Federalists who had voted for John Adams would soon see the errors of their ways. But “if there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or...

      (pp. 99-108)

      If there was one thing the United States did not seem to need in 1803, it was more land. The federal government had plenty of acreage to sell settlers in the new state of Ohio and throughout the Old Northwest, as did New York, Pennsylvania, and other states. New Englanders were already complaining that the western exodus was driving up wages and depressing real estate prices in the East.

      The United States then consisted of sixteen states: the original thirteen, strung along the Atlantic seaboard, and three recent additions on the frontier: Vermont, which had declared its independence from New...

      (pp. 109-120)

      Thomas Jefferson exulted in prospects for western exploration, settlement, and economic development. Although he never traveled west himself, he was a voracious reader of travel accounts and an armchair natural philosopher with an insatiable thirst for new knowledge. For Jefferson the West was not a howling, dangerous wilderness but was instead what he called in his first inaugural address a “chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.”¹ Near the end of his life, Jefferson reaffirmed his faith in America’s future. The progress of civilization was inscribed on the western landscape:

      I have observed...

      (pp. 121-136)

      The United States began as a loose union of thirteen Anglo-American colonies that declared their independence in 1776. This first union was a kind of diplomatic and military alliance, as suggested by the use of the term “congress” to describe successive assemblies of delegates from the colony-states. Revolutionary Americans understood the crucial importance of sustaining and perfecting that union in order to make good on their claims to independence. Effective interstate cooperation was predicated on an “energetic” central government that could take the place of the former imperial government, mobilizing the resources of the continent on behalf of the common...


    • JEFFERSON’S RELIGION: Priestcraft, Enlightenment, and the Republican Revolution
      (pp. 139-168)

      Although Thomas Jefferson counted many devout Christians among his friends, allies, and followers, he hated and feared the organized clergy.¹ Where religion was established—and that was everywhere in the young Jefferson’s world—”priests” upheld the hierarchy, unequal privilege, and despotic rule that in return supported and enriched them. The character of the church was defined by the unholy alliance the clergy formed with a corrupt state. During the “darker centuries,” it had been mankind’s “misfortune,” Jefferson lamented when he launched his crusade against the Virginia establishment in 1776, that ambitious and avaricious “Xn priests” should combine “with the magistrates...

      (pp. 169-178)

      Public education was a central concern of Thomas Jefferson’s public career. Jefferson understood the American Revolution in generational terms, as the liberation of the “living generation” from the despotic rule of its predecessors.¹ Aristocracy, the dominion of privileged families whose estates were preserved across the generations through the legal devices of primogeniture and entail, had to be uprooted and destroyed if republican citizens were to enjoy the genuine equality that made government by consent possible.

      It was natural for parents to provide for their children, passing on property they had inherited and enlarged through their own productive efforts. But when...

      (pp. 179-202)

      As draftsman of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson helped define the meaning of America. Unlike George Washington, the “father of his country,” the civilian Jefferson was not an “indispensable” military man; nor was he a great law giver, like James Madison, author of the federal Constitution, or a great state builder, like his brilliant adversary Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson is instead remembered for the memorable language of the second paragraph of the Declaration—”all men are created equal . . . endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson’s...


      (pp. 205-212)

      Getting to know Jefferson better can be a demoralizing experience. For many Americans today, a first exposure to his commentary on race in Query 14 of theNotes on the State of Virginiais sufficient to subvert his iconic standing in the pantheon of founding fathers.¹ Jefferson “suspected” that people of African ancestry were “inferior” to Europeans in their mental capacities and therefore not fit for citizenship in the new Revolutionary republics. The racial boundary he charted in hisNotesbetween whites and blacks—a line that denied kinship ties and divided many Virginia families, including his own—strikes us...

    • EVERY GENERATION IS AN “INDEPENDANT NATION”: Colonization, Miscegenation, and the Fate of Jefferson’s Children
      (pp. 213-235)

      Thomas Jefferson never acknowledged his mixed race children with Sally Hemings. There is little evidence of any kind about how he might have thought or felt about these children. But Jefferson did have a great deal to say about the demoralizing implications of mixed-race relationships for Virginia’s master class. His well-known concern, bordering on obsession, with generational sovereignty also suggests that he would be sensitive to the fate of his unacknowledged children with Hemings.

      Knowing what we now know, it is time to take a fresh look at familiar themes in the Jefferson archive. I propose to reconsider Jefferson’s lifelong...

      (pp. 236-270)
      Ari Helo

      How could Thomas Jefferson, advocate of equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, have justified his ownership of human beings in moral terms? How, in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, could he have accused King George III and the British nation of imposing slavery on the American colonies?

      Jefferson never thought that slavery was morally justifiable. In order to grasp his understanding of the issue of personal guilt, we need to historicize Jefferson’s moral thought. Much of modern moral understanding begins with the autonomous individual and his “inalienable rights.” We consider all people first and...

  9. Index
    (pp. 271-282)