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M. Andrew Holowchak

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The Putrid Sink of Today’s Jeffersonian Scholarship

Historians today with interest in historiography—what is often characterized simply and somewhat misleadingly as the history of history—seem to be in general agreement that the aims and methods of “historians” over millennia have changed. Study of history, as the argument goes, unquestionable shows that. There was yesterday’s history, there is today’s history, and there will be tomorrow’s history, and there…
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Jefferson’s Plan for “Healthy” Cities

In a prior essay, “Thomas Jefferson’s Prophetic Anti-City Sentiments” (Abbeville), I wrote about Jefferson’s dislike of cities—the larger, the worse. In this essay, I discuss his plan making cities healthy—viz., if there must be cities, Jefferson’s plan for what we can do keep corruptions from them. Yellow fever, in 1793, struck Philadelphia, then the capitol of the United States. There…
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Thomas Jefferson’s Prophetic Anti-City Sentiments

Thomas Jefferson, it is well known to historians, had marked anticity sentiments. “I am not a friend to placing growing men in populous cities,” writes Jefferson to Dr. Caspar Wistar (21 June 1807), “because they acquire there habits; partialities which do not contribute to the happiness of their after life.” Years earlier (23 Sept. 1800), he says to Dr. Benjamin…
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Monticello as a Southern Pleasure Garden

(A selection from Thomas Jefferson and the Fine Arts) Jefferson did not consider husbandry to be a fine art, certainly because husbandry did not aim at beauty, but yield. Nonetheless, the gentleman farmer could make his entire estate a garden. As Philip Southcote, designer of an estate at Woburn in Surrey, England, said, “Why may not a whole estate be…
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The Moral Underpinning of Jeffersonian Republicanism

Liberty for Jefferson is a concept readily grasped, but one, he learns throughout the decades, of great difficulty in application. It is easy to understand what it means for government to be only minimally involved in the affairs of its citizens—to be involved in directing its foreign affairs and in protecting citizens’ liberties—but difficult to put into praxis such thin…
M. Andrew Holowchak
April 26, 2023
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When Civil Rights Activism Runs Afoul

In recent years, Thomas Jefferson, father of University of Virginia and first citizen of Charlottesville, has been the target of vitriolic assaults from countless persons, scholars among them, and groups in America. What is most surprising is that many of the assaults today come from persons or groups in or around his hometown, Charlottesville, where, one might expect, the citizens…
M. Andrew Holowchak
April 18, 2023
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Could Jefferson Have Done More to End Slavery?

It is today all too customarily asserted that anyone who owned slaves in the pageantry of American history was racist. The argument goes something like this: Slave-owning is a racist practice, so, anyone owning slaves is racist. There is, of course, much to unpack in the argument. First, it wrongly assumes that all slavery comprised Whites owning Blacks. Second, it…
M. Andrew Holowchak
April 6, 2023
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The Establishment Love of “Racism” in Southern History

It is the task of historians to create what might be dubbed useful “fictions”—the “isms” of history, like colonialism, imperialism, liberalism, stadialism, and medialism. What is an ism? Philosopher and psychologist William James is noted for stating that an infant’s first experiences with the world are essentially “a blooming buzzing confusion.” As the infant matures and interacts with adults, he…
M. Andrew Holowchak
March 30, 2023
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The University of Virginia

Circumstantially Southern, Scientifically American (A Story Told in the Present Tense) When Thomas Jefferson retires from the presidency after his second term and following the example of George Washington, he cannot merely withdraw to his residence at Monticello and oversee his plantation. Retirement and withdrawal are not in his DNA, as it were. He does what he can do, while…
M. Andrew Holowchak
March 15, 2023
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Was Randolph Jefferson Just a “Muddy Boots Farmer”?

In 2011, Bernard Mayo edited the collection of letters between Thomas Jefferson and younger brother Randolph in Thomas Jefferson and His Unknown Brother Randolph. In the short book, Mayo proffers a four-page introduction to the thin correspondence. The letters exchanged, says Mayo, “are primarily interesting because they reveal Thomas Jefferson’s solicitousness: his “affection, patient kindness, and desire to help a…
M. Andrew Holowchak
March 6, 2023
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The No-So-Enlightened Patriarch of Monticello

A Review of Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf’s Most Blessed of the Patriarchs (Liveright, 2016) by M. Andrew Holowchak While Pete Onuf’s somewhat incoherent 2007 book on Jefferson, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson—it is mere a rag-tag collection of his thoughts on various topics related to Jefferson—betrays unsubtly a bitter, even angry, Onuf, intent in belittling Jefferson, his 2016 collaboration…
M. Andrew Holowchak
March 2, 2023
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A Jefferson Styled Love Letter

Thomas Jefferson was never comfortable in allowing direct expression of his emotions. When he did, the results were general catastrophic—e.g., his tongue-tied attempts at expressing his love as a youth to Rebecca Burwell and his seeming inability emotionally to recover himself after the passing of his wife Martha on September 6, 1782. Jefferson eventually accepted a post as delegate to…
M. Andrew Holowchak
February 14, 2023
BlogReview Posts

Can Jefferson’s America Return?

A review of Chaining down Leviathan: The American Dream of Self-Government, 1776–1865 (Abbeville Institute Press, 2021) by Luigi Marco Bassani Bassani begins his book with a sockdolager. “This book is not part of the 1619 project. It is an intellectual history that barely mentions the problem of slavery. If you believe that American history is nothing but a cover up…
M. Andrew Holowchak
February 7, 2023
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“The Thinking Power Called an Idea”

As the duties of the various members of a president’s cabinet in Jefferson’s day were much less fixed than they are now, Jefferson was often asked by President Washington to do many tasks that that would seem strange for today’s Secretary of State to do. One such task was to oversee an office directing the granting of patents for new…
M. Andrew Holowchak
February 2, 2023
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Did Thomas Jefferson Have a Sexual Relationship with Bob Hemings?

The children of Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings—a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, a white English sea captain—occupied a special place at Jefferson’s Monticello. That might be because six of Betty’s 10 children—Robert, James, Thenia, Critta, Peter, and Sally—were said to be fathered by John Wayles. Yet we do not know about paternity in either case. Much depends on…
M. Andrew Holowchak
January 17, 2023
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The Glory Days of the Kanawha Canal

Southern essayist and former Lynchburger Dr. George W. Bagby (1828–1883) described departure of one of the bateaux on a trip from Richmond to Lynchburg on the Kanawha Canal, while he was then a lad, in a short piece titled “Canal Reminiscences”: At last we were off, slowly pushed along under the bridge on Seventh Street; then the horses were hitched…
M. Andrew Holowchak
January 9, 2023
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Thomas Jefferson and the Proper End of a Good Life

After giving a talk on Jefferson's conceptions of reason and the moral sense at UVa (11 Apr. 2015), a gentleman brought up the issue of slavery and mentioned how he found unpalatable Jefferson’s repeated claim, especially later in life, that he refused to do more to eliminate the heinous institution because the time was not yet right. The gentleman, of…
M. Andrew Holowchak
January 2, 2023
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Jefferson’s “Textured Republicanism”

Both parties, says Jefferson to Abigail Adams (11 Sept. 1804), agree that the proper object of governing is the public good, yet they disagree concerning how it is best to promote that good. One fears most the ignorance of the people; the other, the selfishness of rulers independent of them. Which is right, time and experience will prove. We think…
M. Andrew Holowchak
December 13, 2022
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A “Cretinous” Construal of Jefferson’s “Diffusion Argument”

While attending a talk at Poplar Forest on Thomas Jefferson and the Missouri Crisis in the summer of 2019, the speaker, a historian at one of the local universities in Lynchburg, broached Jefferson’s letter to Congressman John Holmes (22 Apr. 1820) about eradication of the institution of slavery by diffusion. This historian called the argument, without further commentary, pure poppycock.…
M. Andrew Holowchak
December 6, 2022
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Suppression of Free Speech at Poplar Forest

On November 3, 2022, in response to an invitation of group of Thomas Jefferson mavens, I went to Jefferson’s get-away residence at Poplar Forest. I was asked to join their tour, to begin at 12:30 p.m., and to field questions after the tour. I was asked also to bring any books on Jefferson that I wished to sign and to…
M. Andrew Holowchak
November 14, 2022
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Indentured Servitude in Early America

French politician and author Jean-Nicholas Démeunier, in 1786, published his Essai sur les États-Unis. Prior to its publication, the essay, intended for Encyclopédie Méthodique, was in the words of Jefferson’s secretary William Short in a letter to William Nelson (25 Oct. 1786), “as false as might be expected from a man who had made the Abbe Raynal his model, and…
M. Andrew Holowchak
April 8, 2022
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“Moral the Question Certainly is Not”

Filmmaker Arlen Parsa has recently undertaken a project that blots out the faces of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence in John Trumbull’s famous painting “The Declaration of Independence.” The stunt has unsurprisingly gained the filmmaker much notoriety. While the project might seem to have been a frivolous undertaking for Parsa—something to pass the time in these Coronavirus…
M. Andrew Holowchak
March 3, 2022
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Is the Public Getting a Skewed Idea of Thomas Jefferson?

This article was originally published by History News Network. In a recent article on Thomas Jefferson’s mythic and contradictory legacy for Time, Joseph Ellis begins with an account of an encounter during a book tour with an outraged woman. She snaps: “Mr. Ellis, you are a mere pigeon on the great statue of Thomas Jefferson.” Ellis has a decisive retort.…
M. Andrew Holowchak
October 2, 2015
Review Posts

Was Jefferson a “Scientific Racist”?

Originally published by the History News Network, 11 November 2014. “In one of my seminar discussions,” writes UVA professor Peter Onuf (now emeritus) in The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, “one young woman described suddenly feeling the she ‘did not belong here,’ that Jefferson was telling her that there was no place for her in his ‘academical village.’ ” He continues,…
M. Andrew Holowchak
April 14, 2015
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Searching for Jefferson and Finding Ourselves

Why Historians Cannot Readily Situate Jefferson Finding Jefferson’s Shadow In his watershed work The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1961), Merrill D. Peterson argues that our task as Jeffersonian historians is in some sense Sisyphean. Aiming to situate Jefferson—to find the real Jefferson—we merely wind up with an image, a shad-ow, which is as obfuscatory as it is disconcerting.…
M. Andrew Holowchak
January 13, 2015
Review Posts

“Monster of Self-Deception” or “Sentimental Traveller”?

A Critique of Onufian Revisionism and Jefferson’s “Contradictions” Robert Booth Fowler writes: “The monuments to Stalin that have come down in recent years in Eastern Europe mark the fall of a former hero and the fall of the values the hero supposedly embodied. The situation with Jefferson, however, is different. The values celebrated by the Jefferson Memorial have not lost…
M. Andrew Holowchak
December 9, 2014
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An Easy Moral Superiority over Our Dead Heroes

This article was originally published by the History News Network and is reprinted here by permission. Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain (2012), which depicted Jefferson as a greedy and racist slave-owner, sold well but was given an ambivalent reception. Though the book has been fairly well received by the general public,its author has been censured severely by Jeffersonian scholars…
M. Andrew Holowchak
December 2, 2014