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Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History

Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History

Hannah Spahn
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History
    Book Description:

    Beginning with the famous opening to the Declaration of Independence ("When in the course of human events..."), almost all of Thomas Jefferson's writings include creative, stylistically and philosophically complex references to time and history. Although best known for his "forward-looking" statements envisioning future progress, Jefferson was in fact deeply concerned with the problem of coming to terms with the impending loss or fragmentation of the past. As Hannah Spahn shows inThomas Jefferson, Time, and History,his efforts to promote an exceptionalist interpretation of the United States as the first nation to escape from the "crimes and calamities" of European history were complicated both by his doubts about the outcome of the American experiment and by his skepticism about the methods and morals of eighteenth-century philosophical history.

    Spahn approaches the conundrum of Jefferson's Janus-faced, equally forward- and backward-oriented thought by discussing it less as a matter of personal contradiction and paradox than as the expression of a late Newtonian Enlightenment, in a period between ancient and modern modes of explaining change in time. She follows Jefferson in his creation of an influential narrative of American and global history over the course of half a century, opening avenues into a temporal and historical imagination that was different from ours, and offering new assessments of the solutions Jefferson and his generation found (or failed to find) to central moral and political problems like slavery.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3204-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    “The documents of your childhood, your letters, correspondencies, notes, books, &c., &c., all gone! And your life cut in two, as it were, and a new one to begin, without any records of the former.” Thus Thomas Jefferson sympathized with his favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, when news came that the ship carrying her baggage had sunk en route to Boston, the home of her new husband. Her belongings had included not only written documents but also a writing desk crafted by the Monticello slave John Hemings. The craftsman, Jefferson wrote, now joined her in grief over its loss: “Virgil...

  5. Part I: Time

    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 21-28)

      Thomas Jefferson’s thinking was characterized by the remnants of an age-old dualism of time and eternity that had begun to disintegrate. In his eighteenth-century universe, secular time tended to expand, at the expense of eternity, both into the past and into the future: on the one hand, the world became older as the date of the Creation was located in an increasingly remote past; on the other hand, the secular future of mankind became the subject of a growing number of literary, philosophical, and political reflections. In the process, the contrast between time and a “timeless” eternity tended to fade,...

    • Chapter 1 Rational Time
      (pp. 29-45)

      When Jefferson’s preoccupation with time is mentioned in scholarly discussions, it is usually associated with a linear, quantifying concept of time, a time that steadily progresses into the future. It is identified with the Jefferson who loved to collect clocks and watches, who kept minute records of the weather, his expenses, or even the vegetables on his table, and who generally liked “the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”¹ This penchant for measuring, recording, and controlling the flow of time in the present in order to achieve happiness in a secular future is usually regarded...

    • Chapter 2 Paternal Punctuality
      (pp. 46-72)

      Thomas Jefferson’s fictional namesake Sir Thomas, English absentee slave owner, member of Parliament, andpaterfamilias, is the character in Jane Austen’sMansfield Park(1814) who is portrayed with the most “correctly punctual habits.”¹ When the novel is read as a reflection on time, the inhabitants of Mansfield Park exemplify how different ways of perceiving and dealing with temporality could characterize social relations in their transatlantic “world of changes.” For instance, at the other end of the social and philosophical spectrum—as far removed from Sir Thomas’s rational punctuality as possible among the protagonists of the novel—the young unmarried visitor...

    • Chapter 3 Sentimental Time
      (pp. 73-100)

      American and European writings from the second half of the eighteenth century abound with expressions of skepticism about the practical and theoretical significance attributed to rational clock time. In particular, late Enlightenment writers questioned the connection men such as Jefferson liked to establish between their privileged access to mechanical time measurement and their identity as forward-looking fathers or masters taking responsibility for others. In a novel that Jefferson included in his book catalog, Diderot’sJacques le fataliste et son maître(written 1773–75),¹ the “maître” is depicted as a foolish creature entirely dependent on “les trois grandes ressources de sa...

  6. Part II: History

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 101-106)

      Jefferson’s Newtonian temporalities provided the structure for a historical consciousness that is far from self-evident in today’s more radically secularized world. As I shall argue in the following chapters, the tensions within his gradualism between a rational and a sentimental mode of time perception shaped his views of the past and his expectations of the future. A passage Jefferson read inTristram Shandydiscusses the connection between Locke’s two temporalities and an enlightened concept ofhistory:

      Pray, Sir, in all the reading which you have ever read, did you ever read such a book asLocke’sEssay Concerning Human Understanding?...

    • Chapter 4 Teaching by Examples
      (pp. 107-138)

      The historical thinking of the young Jefferson was shaped by the philosophical history of the Enlightenment,¹ a conception perhaps best summarized by an aphorism of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, defining history as “philosophy teaching by examples.” In a book that was part of Jefferson’s library,Letters on the Study and Use of History, published in 1752, Bolingbroke recommended the study of history as “the most proper to train us up to private and public virtue.”² Contrary to the supposedly useless pedantry of seventeenth-century antiquarian historians, writers like Bolingbroke tended to see the primary aim of history less in preserving...

    • Chapter 5 Seduction by Example
      (pp. 139-184)

      The final two decades of the eighteenth century were a period of great personal and political turmoil for Jefferson, challenging his enlightened conception of a teleological history. The 1780s began with his troubled wartime governorship of Virginia and Tarleton’s raid on Monticello. They were darkened especially by his wife’s early death in 1782—a catastrophic “single event” that “wiped away” all Jefferson’s plans for “future happiness.”¹ This decade also produced the greatest spatial dislocation in his life: his years as American commissioner and minister to France, from 1784 to 1789, not only brought him into direct contact with the historical...

    • Chapter 6 Beyond Example?
      (pp. 185-214)

      On New Year’s Day, 1812, John Adams wrote to Jefferson and ended a silence that had subsisted between them since the beginning of the century. Their ensuing retirement correspondence offered the two former presidents the possibility not only to discuss a wide range of political, historical, and philosophical problems but also to convey some of the most congenial impressions of their characters. Occasional disclaimers notwithstanding, both elder statesmen also had posterity on their minds when celebrating the renewal of their friendship above party politics. Their correspondence may thus be viewed as their most successful autobiographical construction, one that turned out...

  7. Epilogue: “I leave it, therefore, to time”
    (pp. 215-224)

    Ten days before his death, Jefferson wrote a letter declining an invitation to attend the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Fourth of July at Washington, DC, because he was too ill to make the journey to the capital. Feeble as he was, he did not let the occasion pass without composing an epistolary valediction praising the crucial significance of his generation’s contribution to history. He showed himself convinced that the American Revolution would become

    to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 225-266)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 267-278)
  10. Index
    (pp. 279-290)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-292)