A review of The Jeffersons at Shadwell (Yale University Press, 2010) by Susan Kern

The first question that demands an answer in reviewing a book is this: Why is this book needed? Without straightforwardly answering that question, Susan Kern in The Jeffersons at Shadwell at least implicitly answers that question by allowing discerning readers to craft, through reading her book, the following syllogism:

1) Jefferson was born and lived early on at Shadwell.

2) We know next to nothing of Jefferson’s formative years.

3) So, a book that tells us about life at Shadwell during Jefferson’s formative years will tell us much about Jefferson’s formative years, and thus, much about Jefferson.

That explains Kern’s opening salvo in chapter 8, “This book is about all the people at Shadwell, yet Thomas Jefferson is its start and endpoint” (248). At the end of chapter 6, she states that much has been written about “prominent white men” and more needs to be written about “women, slaves and free blacks, Native Americans, and the nameless multitudes who peopled early America.” With that in mind, she describes her book as a “close reading of a particular place and family” that “brings together the histories of those many groups to make one story” (202). That story is about the various people at Shadwell and Kern’s narrative glue is Peter Jefferson, whom Kern continually reminds us, was a powerful white male, and that seems to be the story’s line.

Peter Jefferson is everywhere in the book, and at book’s end, we never really learn all that much about Thomas Jefferson, who comprises the bookends of the book. However, we do learn over and over that Peter Jefferson died in 1757. She begins five consecutive chapters—chapters 2 through 6—with mention of the death of Peter Jefferson. Chapter 2 begins, “On August 17, 1757, Jane Jefferson became a widow” (41). Kern starts chapter 3, “In the summer of 1575, Sall watched someone she had known all her life [Peter Jefferson] die” (73). “In 1757 Phillis,” she begins chapter 4, “passed from one owner to another for at least the third time in her life. Peter Jefferson, her second owner, died in August that year” (116). Chapter 5 opens: “When Peter Jefferson died, by his own request, his family buried him at Shadwell” (146). Finally, chapter 6 starts, “In 1757 Albemarle County lost one of its prominent citizens [Peter Jefferson]” (170). It is the habit of good writers to set up the prose of each chapter with a catchy, or at least, informative introduction. These “salvos” are certainly not catchy, and they are not particularly informative.

While reading the book, I found myself being drawn in and pushed back, as it were. The factual information was at times highly informative, even unputdownably entertaining, but the prose that pieced together the narrative, usually at the start and end of each chapter, was profusely off-putting. I wanted, at such times, to stop reading the book. Moreover, there were in abundancy grammatical mistakes, which was unexpected from a publisher like Yale.

I begin with bad grammar.

Kern often misuses “comprised.” She says, “Twelve volumes comprised the three titles in folio” (36), which should read, “Three titles in folio comprised twelve volumes.” Again, on page 77, she states, “The thirty-one people who lived on the home quarter in 1757 comprised the largest grouping of slaves,” which should read “The largest grouping of slaves comprised thirty-one people who lived on the home quarter in 1757.”

There are other infelicities of grammar. “The material record at Shadwell presents contradictions” (75). A contradiction is a relationship between two statements, one of which is the denial of the other. Materials cannot contradict each other. At book’s end, she states, “It is entirely possible that…” (112). Does “possible” need the qualifier “entirely”? There are also a few split infinitives—“prompted him to then copy…” (236)—though I suspect that few others notice such things. There are two instances of faulty possessives. “The slaves who accompanied Jefferson children…” (222). There is here a missing apostrophe, but I fault Yale here more than Kern. “Isaac Jefferson, the slave of Thomas’s whose memoirs…” (240). That is redundancy of implied possession, as “of” here implies possession. We see that again on the same page. “Jane was a favorite of Thomas’s.”

There is a large number of arbitrarily placed adverbs, which writers do not seem to know should be placed before or after verbs in the manner of placing adjectives next to nouns (though I admit sometimes to beginning sentences with an adverb). “While none of these words describe health necessarily, none bespeak an ailing or frail person” (49). Also, “none” is the singular subject of both claims in the conjunctive sentence, and so the corresponding verbs should be “describes” and “bespeaks.” Again, “goods … which might have been purchased or earned by slaves directly” (89).

I end with one instance of a misplaced participial phrase, though there are many throughout the book. “Thomas Jefferson wrote to his own daughter when she was thirteen outlining what she should know of the ‘domestic arts’” (46). Instead: “Outlining what she should know of the ‘domestic arts,’ Thomas Jefferson wrote to his own daughter when she was thirteen.” Like adverbs and verbs, like adjectives and nouns, participial phrases need to preceded or follow directly what they modify!  (That is a little known “secret” of grammar that no one seems to know.)

I turn next to the off-putting narrative prose.

First, there are many trite sentiments, nearly tautologously trite. She writes in the introduction, “The house [at Shadwell] was a physical object that both defined and was defined by the social needs of those who lived and worked in it” (5). How singular is this statement if it is true of any house on the planet? “Family mattered to Jane Jefferson,” Kern says on page 46. I suspect that family matters to everyone except pathological solitudinarians. “Jane and her daughters and sons made choices about their wardrobes” (57). Yawn! “Phillis may or may not have known that she was part of an estate that would eventually be divided” (116). Kern here hits the tautological jackpot! This claim is a tautology (necessary truth), and consequently it is vacuously uninformative. “It is nearly impossible to get anything close to individual biographies for any of them [at Shadwell],” says Kern in chapter 4. “The slave population was a growing and changing thing, much like the plantation itself” (119). Is not any population ever changing? Again, “An inventory list … represents a moment in time and does not tell the whole story; the slave population was always changing” (125). And finally—oops, beginning a sentence with an adverb!—“Each generation of a family writes another chapter of the family history”—another highly ineffective claim.

Kern often falls back on empty similarities-differences statements, ever informative. “Although slavery at Shadwell was very much like slavery elsewhere, there were differences within the plantation” (9). “The image of Jefferson as the self-made scholar, epicure, and republican who bursts forth onto the American landscape is at once more complex and simpler” than that of nineteenth and twentieth century historians (12). “In some ways, these Jeffersons reflect the demographic averages from midcentury Piedmont; in other ways they do not” (47). “Enslaved African Americans experienced the consumer revolution in ways both similar to and abruptly different from their white owners” (74). When I was teaching, I used to warn my students to absquatulate from the classroom if a teacher ever should ask you to write about how two things are similar and different.

There are many vague claims. I give just one illustration. “Archeological finds illustrate the history of those whose lives we know something of from documents; for those whose history is not written in detail, each artifact, even the tiniest shard, contributes a larger piece to the whole” (42). Better: “Archeological finds offer confirmations of or create problems for the history of those whose lives we know something from documents; for those whose history is not written in detail, each artifact is informative.”

Kern also often employs vague metaphors, which as an analytic philosopher I disdain and seldom use. The reason is that metaphors are umbrellas that keep sun from raining down on the tepid toes of besotted bullfrogs. “The history of these women remains painted with a broad brush, a few details added.” I suspect that Kern is proffering her take on a quote from Henry Adams vis-à-vis Thomas Jefferson. “A few broad strokes of the brush would paint the portraits of all the early Presidents with this exception, and a few more strokes would answer for any member of their many cabinets; but Jefferson could be painted only touch by touch, with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows.”[1]

What is most off-putting is Kern’s amaranthine use of the notions of white dominance and entitlement and black enfeeblement and subjugation—a tiresomely overdone Woke tactic. I offer these examples with scant commentary. “The role of these [white] parents in shaping their children is implicit … in the constant presence of enslaved African Americans to ensure that each and every Jefferson understood the entitlements of being born white and wealthy in colonial Virginia” (5). “The Jeffersons’ riches and power rode on the backs of African or African-American slaves” (9). “The material world of the Jeffersons at Shadwell illustrates the pervasive reach of the gentry and how their world of goods extended their political and social dominance across Virginia” (15). “In this frontier [at Shadwell] there was plenty of room to grow, but there was no room for mistaking whose world [Whites only] would grow there” (40). “Perhaps one test for a young Virginia gentleman was sorting out his strategies for domination over men like [the slave] Sawney, who were both older and probably wiser but not fortunate enough to have been born free, white, and wealthy in colonial Virginia” (111).  The notion of Peter Jefferson being a white man “brandishing” his power is pervasive (148, 149, 180, and 247). “Sawney was among the steady adult hands that taught him [Thomas] personal grooming and comportment necessary to a man of his station. Sawneys’s job was the detail work that made the young Jefferson appear competent” (252). Hmm, without Sawney, Jefferson might have amounted to nothing. “Jefferson was unyielding in his defense of an agrarian republican new nation, yet Jefferson the slaveholder undermined the very ideal” (258). “Jefferson … embodied something unimaginable for us today—an exploiter of enslaved humans, both those laboring in distinct fields and also those dressing, washing, and caressing him” (249).

Kern’s final claim is frighteningly naïve. The history of humans is a history of exploitation—an exploitation that continues today, and so, is unthinkable from someone with little acquaintancy of human history. Some methods of exploitation not so long ago—Stalin’s imposition of famine on Ukrainians in 1932 and 1932 and Hitler’s extermination of Jews in World War I—make slavery in Early America seem a very mild form of exploitation. Moreover, slavery—the forced imposition of one’s will on another such that the other loses personal autonomy—is widely practiced, both subtly and unsubtly, today. Wokeism, for those many practicing it as a religion, is a subtle form of slavery, as it asks for uncritical acceptance of adherents.

I end with this vacuous, and laughably so, claim. “The slaves who washed porcelain plates or silver forks under the eye of the plantation mistress needed fine motor skills and knowledge about these materials to perform their jobs” (114). Does my stint as dishwasher while a teen at Sveden Haus qualify me as a skilled laborer? I had to do more than distinguish between porcelain and silver.

In summation, for anyone who wishes to learn about the climate of Shadwell while Peter Jefferson lived, Kern’s book is must-read, as it contains much data of assistance to a researcher on the Jeffersons. Yet anyone expects insightful comments on that data will be ponderously disappointed: e.g., the artifact therein discovered tell us precious little about Thomas Jefferson. Furthermore, the narrative glue of the data is Woke and readers are lectured time and again about white privilege and black penury. That is annoying.

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[1] Henry Adams, History of the United States during the First Administration of America, during the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 1 (New York: Scribners, 1889), 277.


M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]

9 Comments

  • Matt C. says:

    Thank you, Mr. Holowchak.

    It would be interesting to know the percentage between how many men are reading the book and how many women are reading it.

    • Dr. Mark A. Holowchak says:

      Explain, though I think I grasp our sentiment….

      • Matt C. says:

        I wonder how many women have read Kern’s book and how many men have read the book. I would think it’s mainly women who have read it. And I grant it’s probably mainly women who read women authors anyway. But, based on the reading I’ve done and from observation, I think it’s been primarily women who have gotten the most excited with woke teaching and woke doctrine and have been propagating it. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think few men are picking up this book after taking a glance at it. After all, men are getting brutalized by the woke doctrine dominating the West. Another example and book is “Christian Supremacy,” by Magda Teter. The majority of college students and college graduates are women, aren’t they? So, we must be seeing and experiencing that influence. Do I appreciate women? Well, I’ve been a loyal reader of Diana West for over 20 years. I have read the majority of her columns, and read her book, “The Death of the Grownup.” I was an avid reader of Michelle Malkin’s columns. Sometimes I read Ann Coulter. I read Laura Hollis here and there. I have the book, “Kate, The Journal of a Confederate Nurse,” by Kate Cumming. My wife read it. I will when I can. I’ve read Bible studies by Hazel I. Brown. I have read and appreciate, a lot, Valerie Protopapas and her writing. I’ve read Mary Luke’s books on 16th century England: “Catherine the Queen,” “A Crown for Elizabeth (twice),” “Gloriana,” and “The Nine Days Queen.” So, I think I appreciate the value of women. And all that said is not directed at you, Mr. Holowchak. But at anyone who might think I undervalue women.

        • Dr. Mark A. Holowchak says:

          That is roughly what I thought you meant. Thanks for elaboration. There are, however, important details–e.g., concerning artefacts–that should appeal to any Jeffersonian scholar. The wokeist thread however only to Progressivists–and what a misnomer that is!

          • Matt C. says:

            Thank you, sir.

          • Matt C. says:

            “Disney Exec. Admits It Discriminates Against White Male Applicants.” This was one of the headlines in Townhall today. I’m guessing most here don’t care much about Disney, I dont; except that a great many folks go there. However, it seems Kern’s book, Teter’s, and other’s over the past several years, have had their effect.

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    “So, a book that tells us about life at Shadwell during Jefferson’s formative years will tell us much about Jefferson’s formative years, and thus, much about Jefferson.”
    So, you see!

  • THOMAS H HUBERT says:

    While I have little or no interest in this book, the question as to why she wrote it is mildly interesting. One thought is that it is the result of a doctoral dissertation, for which the candidate must write about something as distinct from nothing. Relatedly, the scholar who makes his/her way in academe must publish something, again as opposed to nothing, and much of the Jeffersonian ground has been covered by this late date. So why not a book about Shadwell.
    But for my money and time, what Dumas Malone had to say about Jefferson and Shadwell is really quite enough.
    The above said, the book appears to be one more occasion–or at least an attempt from the left–to set the record straight: “white privilege” is bad (i.e., pure unmitigated evil). Its consequence, black suffering, is bad also and it goes on and on and on and must continually be addressed and remedied no matter the cost in money or the pursuit of peace, unity, and comity among ALL of the citizens of the Republic.

    • Dr. Mark A. Holowchak says:

      Thank you. YOu are correct about the wokeism. There has, however, been much new archeological evidence that needs discussion. Your thoughts on DM are spot on. He is still the go-to author for study of TJ.

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