Jefferson peale

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 their cultural credibility. What has changed is the confidence that Jefferson is a fitting representative of them.”[i]

Fowler’s concern about Jefferson’s character—the comparison with Stalin is unconscionable—typifies concerns of numerous scholars today. He consistently advocated abolition of slavery, yet he owned slaves. He preached a strict constructionist approach to interpreting the constitution, yet he contravened that approach to suit his own purposes—e.g., the Louisiana Purchase. He spoke of Jesus as the greatest moral reformer, yet he lived high on the hog. He wrote of the taint of white blood when mixed with black blood, yet he had a lengthy sexual affair with one of his own black slaves. The word “contradiction” (or some form of it) is superabundant in both scholarly and non-scholarly discussions of Jefferson. The website Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest has this to say about Jefferson’s views on slavery: “Jefferson’s life and words reflect the moral contradictions and practical concerns facing the architects of the new democracy that extolled freedom and equality.”[ii] Aaron Schwabach writes, “It is worth reminding ourselves that Jefferson was perfectly capable of holding contradictory beliefs and acting in contradictory ways on a wide variety of subjects.”[iii] Consider also Orlando Patterson’s paper, titled “Jefferson the Contradiction,”[iv] as well as Joseph Ellis’s paper, titled “American Sphinx: The Contradictions of Thomas Jefferson.”[v] So prevalent is the use of the term that Jefferson is today perhaps much better known for being a hypocrite than a liberal.

I have not the space to address much, or even a representative portion, of the critical literature—so abundant is it—so I limit myself to a scholar of renown—Peter Onuf. I focus on critical discussion of the “contradictions” Onuf finds in his The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, but also include some discussion of the motivation behind his collection of essays in Jeffersonian Legacies many years earlier.

Onuf states plainly that Jefferson was a man of questionable character due to his numerous “contradictions.” Yet close analysis of Onuf’s writings create an impasse for Jeffersonian scholars. Jefferson, we find, was a man of profound secrecy, and his writings reveal an indescribably protean figure, about whom scholars can know nothing. Yet public clamor for books on Jefferson forces scholars to write about the figure. Thus, it seems, anything goes, or just about. For Onuf, the only guiding principle to the best scholarship is that writers aim to construct “possible Jeffersons”—Jeffersons that are human, not superhuman. At day’s end, following his own guiding principle, we find that Onuf’s man of contradictions is merely another possible Jefferson, and we are left, given Onuf’s “epistemology” of historiography, with no reasons to prefer Onuf’s Jefferson to, say, that of Dumas Malone or any other biographer.

Crambe Repetita: The Mind of Peter Onuf

Onuf’s Modus Operandi

In The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, Onuf begins with reference to the debilitating works of Conor Cruise O’Brien, Joseph Ellis, and Pauline Maier in an effort to show there is great reason to question “whether Jefferson really deserves his exalted position among the Revolutionary founders.” The question is even more urgent … in the wake of DNA tests suggesting the strong possibility [sic] that he conducted a long-standing sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings.”[vi]

Onuf immediately calls into question Jefferson’s moral standing in chapter 1’s first section—“The Character Issue.” He references the works of Joseph Ellis, Andrew Burstein, Annette Gordon-Reed, Lance Banning, Drew McCoy, Joyce Appleby, Gordon Wood, Herbert Sloan, Lucia Stanton, Jay Fliegelman, Paul Conkin, Eugene Sheridan, Douglas Wilson, Kenneth Lockridge, Rhys Isaac, Jan Lewis, Jack McLaughlin, Harold Hellenbrand, Leonard Levy, John Larson, Robert Tucker, David Hendrickson, James Sterling Young, and Michael Lienesch, and uses such references to create misleadingly the impression of foursquare consensus on the depravity of Jefferson. Literature inconsistent with the points he indirectly makes is merely overpassed.

The approach is subtle and effective, but, I maintain, duplicitous. Onuf selects only literature that that is consistent with his depiction of Jefferson—and it is almost exclusively literature of a highly derogatory nature—and uses other scholars to do his work—viz., to defame Thomas Jefferson. In that capacity, he can always state that others are, and he is not, out to get Jefferson, and that he is merely a disinterested compiler of the rife anti-Jefferson sentiment, the result of Jefferson’s numerous enormities.[vii]

The Noncognition Argument

Here as in other Onufian writings that treat of Jefferson’s character, it is the same crambe repetita.[viii] The issue of Jefferson’s character always and inevasibly reverts to the alleged liaison between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. “Denial of the possibility of Jefferson’s relationship—and of the centrality of slaveholding in all aspects of his life—has been the major obstacle to understanding. This obstacle has now been removed,”[ix] and the prime removers Fawn Brodie, Andrew Burstein, and Annette Gordon-Reed.[x] Two points are worth making. First, no serious scholar today can or would deny the possibility of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings because the DNA evidence is consistent with Thomas Jefferson being the father of Eston Hemings. Possibility, however, is not the issue; probability is, and probability has not been established. Yet Burstein and Gordon-Reed, as I have elsewhere shown, are guilty of a greater scholarly offense: They often, if not customarily, go beyond assessment of probability and treat the putative relationship as fact.[xi] Second, Onuf admits that Jefferson was, in Freudian terms, anal when it came to parsing out his daily regimen. That is a claim, I suspect, that most Jeffersonian scholars would concede. Onuf himself writes of Jefferson’s “almost monastic regimen” at Albermarle County.[xii] A near monastic regimen—and I agree completely that Jefferson was just that sort of person—does not allow for the sort of spontaneity that decades-long clandestine relationships seem to demand.

For Onuf, if we can implicate Jefferson on the paternity of Hemings’s children, then it becomes easy to question his character on other issues, and Jefferson is shown to be a man of “contradictions.” Yet the DNA evidence does nothing to implicate Jefferson. It does not even show it probable that Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings. One needs decisive historical evidence to show not just that Jefferson is the leading candidate—one can concede that as I have—but that it is probable that Jefferson was the father of Eston. The two are not the same. In one role of a pair of dice, the number “7” is the most probable of all other possible outcomes, but the probability of it coming up is merely 0.167. The DNA evidence shows merely that Jefferson is one of numerous possible candidates. Therefore, it is impossible to grasp how Onuf argues for “strong possibility” (taken non-literally as “high likelihood,” for otherwise it is unclear what it might mean[xiii]). The DNA evidence for a liaison shows mere possibility, the historical evidence for a liaison is exiguous, and the DNA evidence is in no way straightforwardly addable to the scrimpy historical evidence, as certain scholars claim state it is, to create an argument less scrimpy.[xiv]

Recall that the various “tensions” in Jefferson’s writings are for Onuf substratally reducible to a “contradiction” in Jefferson’s character, recognizable on account of an express avowal of the abomination of slavery and of the inferiority of blacks, and yet a 38-year on-the-quiet relationship as master to slave with Sally Hemings. Does the “contradiction” in Jefferson still exist, if there is good reason to believe Jefferson had no relationship with Hemings?

The depiction Onuf wishes us to have is a man, riven by amaranthine tension between self-constructed dichotomies—e.g., white versus black, private versus public worlds, male versus female, his republicanism on paper versus his behavior as president—and the product of “adolescent conflicts.” He draws selectively from the prodigious and ever-growing literature on Jefferson’s private life to reveal a Protean Jefferson—a Jefferson that is everything to everyone and ever inaccessible because, he says, the numerous and inconsistent images were carefully constructed by Jefferson himself through his correspondence. “Letter writing defined the parameters of Jefferson’s world. He assumed different voices in performing different roles as a correspondent…. Historians who look for disclosures of an authentic self behind these many voices and roles will be frustrated. Jefferson’s self is in his writing, and his fundamental commitments to equality, consent, and civility inform all his varied self-representations.”[xv]

Let us take a closer look at Onuf’s argument—what might be called the noncognition argument. He argues thus (brackets indicative of what is implicit):

  1. “Jefferson’s self is [only] in his writing.”
  2. “[Jefferson] assumed different voices in performing different roles as a correspondent.”
  3. [Each of these different voices is a “genuine” voice of Jefferson—a possible Jefferson.]
  4. [There is no authentic self behind the varied voices, or at least none that is accessible.]
  5. So, “historians who look for disclosures of an authentic self behind these many voices and roles will be frustrated” (noncognition thesis, 1-4).

If the reconstruction is correct or roughly so—one cannot be sure, for Onuf is certainly more Protean than the Jefferson he creates—when we penetrate beyond the different voices of Jefferson and look for an authentic self, there is none. Yet one wonders about the warrant for what I take to be the implicit claims 3 and 4, which must be assumed to generate the conclusion and which are the warrant for adding “only” to the first premise.

Yet why should anyone believe claim 3 and especially claim 4? All correspondents assume different roles and different voices in letters with different persons. That is merely epistolary decorum—i.e., engaging with each correspondent in pursuance of that correspondent’s needs. That is no warrant for claiming either that there is no authentic self behind the varied voices or that no authentic voice is accessible (claim 4). Jefferson wrote many thousands of letters. So, if there is good reason to doubt the veridicality of claim 4, the conclusion does not obtain. The argument is a paralogism.

Onuf himself recognizes that claim 4, implicit in the argument, is false, for he speaks of the equality, consent, and civility as informing “all [Jefferson’s] varied self-representations.” If they inform his varied self-representations, might that not be because they are an essential part of the authentic Jefferson?

Onuf next turns to a discussion of Jeffersonian statecraft, where he brings home the point of Jefferson’s hypocrisy by references to his “contradictions.” Here again his choice of word is unfortunate. A contradiction is a relationship between two sentences or two claims within a sentence. Two declarative sentences are contradictory if one is the denial of the other (e.g., All limes are green and Not all limes are green), or one declarative sentence is self-contradictory if it contains as conjunctive parts a claim and its contradictory (e.g., While it is true that all wolves are carnivores, it is also true that some wolves are not carnivores). For Onuf, Jefferson is a contradictory figure because he stated all slaves ought to be emancipated, but failed to free his own slaves (for whatever reasons). That shows a sort of inconsistency between Jefferson’s words and deeds, but there is no contradiction. At one point, Onuf adds that “Jefferson invites wildly contradictory characterizations of his political thought.”[xvi] Here I merely ask this: How does a contradiction become wild? If the contradictory of any claim c is its denial ~c, how then does one capture a “wild” contradiction?

Apropos of statecraft, Onuf lists the following “contradiction”: his “idealized vision of the republic and his performances in office.” Onuf offers as illustrations Jefferson’s “strict constructionist constitutionalism born of fear of power” versus his actions leading to the Louisiana Purchase and Jefferson’s “pernicious … foreign policy”—the “conflation of a vaulting idealism” and “willingness to employ any means, however devious, to promote American interests” (italics added). Onuf sums Jefferson’s statescraft: “The theme that runs through all such attacks on Jefferson’s record is that inflated, idealistic rhetoric was at odds with realistic assessments of policy alternatives, authorized massive disregard for the rights of others at home and abroad, and precluded the development of the kind of civic life that could alone secure the promise of republican self-government to future generations.”[xvii]

There likely was no distinction of inflated, idealistic rhetoric and realistic assessments of policy alternatives. For Jefferson, there were no steadfast moral rules to guide moral decision making—the moral sense merely knew what to do in moral scenarios—and, thus, there could not have been any steadfast political rules.[xviii] Moreover, Jefferson did privilege American interests in foreign policy. Yet that is merely in keeping with the sort naturalistic (Stoic) morality he embraced: first, regard for self; second, family; third townfolk; fourth, fellow Virginians; fifth, countrymen; and last, all men as part of a community of nations.[xix] That he was willing to promote “any means, however devious,” on behalf of American interests is a gross hyperbole in an effort to make a point.

Again, Onuf, by citing the critical work of James Sterling Young and Michael Lienesch, indirectly blames Jefferson for largely creating the sort of party animosities against which he railed all his life. While it is true that the liberalism which Jefferson championed and the filiopiety against which he was fighting led to party differences, Onuf  fails to recognize that Jefferson’s argument was moral, not political. Study of history showed him the corrosive effects of aristocracies founded on heredity or wealth, and that lesson was hammered home in his peregrinations through the French countryside. Furthermore, he believed in the intelligence of the general citizenry and their right to be represented by morally sensitive politicians, not autocrats.  We recognize today that his lifelong fight against aristocracies of heredity and wealth—the artificial aristoi[xx]—ultimately resulted in political partisanship and the ills that accompany it. Still, it nowise follows that Jefferson’s opposition to Federalism ought to be castigated. His intentions were toward social betterment through alignment of politics with science and morality. Thus, the argument from political partisanship is unavailing. Also along the lines of partisanship, Onuf castigates Jefferson and Jeffersonians for their “imaginary network of conspirators against liberty,” as if the gripes Jefferson had with Adams, for instance, apropos of the Alien and Sedition Acts were phantasmagoric.

Overall, Jefferson and Jeffersonians “traded in empty words; self-effacement disguised vaulting (or sordid) ambitions.” Onuf sums, “If Jefferson could not acknowledge his true motives or moral lapses, most conspicuously as a slave owner, that simply makes him more of a monster of self-deception.”[xxi] It is certain that Onuf assumes the antecedent of the conditional claim is true, and so we may conclude the consequent—i.e., that Jefferson is a monster of self-deception as well as a greater monster, a true lusus naturae, for having no awareness of his monstrosity. The words are harsh and bold, and undeserved.[xxii]

“Possible Jeffersons”

Thus far, we have found that the real Jefferson is only to be found in the various roles he willfully undertook as letter writer, and there is no Jefferson beyond such roles, or so it seems. In his own day, Jefferson became what every correspondent wanted him to become—neither out of regard for epistolary decorum, nor because of a desire to dissemble or beguile—but because he was a self-deceptive chameleon. He was massively out of touch with any kind of true self. It follows that the approaches to Jeffersonian scholarship today can be as Protean as was Jefferson. He is literally a man for all times and for all persons, and so anyone, it seems, can have something substantive to say about such a plastic, inaccessible figure.

The real issue for Onuf is sanctimonious reverence for Jefferson on the part of certain scholars. Jefferson has become a synecdoche for America. “Treatments of Jefferson that make him a god, standing or fallen, or ask him to stand for the entire nation, necessarily distort his human qualities,” writes Onuf. “Only in fiction should a person’s character and emotional attributes be asked to bear the whole weight of the narrative. The most successful of the recent studies of Jefferson are those that have best uncoupled not Jefferson and his pedestal but the man and the nation. Jefferson’s proper contest is not the array of gods and demigods in the American pantheon, but, rather, the social and intellectual milieu that shaped him—and within which he acted.”[xxiii]

Who are the most successful recent scholars? It comes as no surprise to find Burstein and Gordon-Reed as the most prominent scholars. Onuf refers to the early books of Burstein, a former student, and Gordon-Reed, a close friend. He adds, “Each give us what might be called ‘possible’ Jeffersons.” In The Inner Jefferson, Burstein gives a depiction of Jefferson in “a mental and felt world of books and correspondents,” while Gordon-Reed gives a depiction of “an embodied world of masters and slaves.”[xxiv] Why are these possible Jeffersons? The answer is that the depictions are accessible; they are Jeffersons constructed like the rest of us.

Thus far, Onuf’s agenda seems plausible. Historians ought not to hyperbolize. Yet we must ask: Who are the god-makers? From his comment on the most successful recent studies, we can only assume they wrote prior to the writings of Burstein and Gordon-Reed. It seems impossible not to assume that Onuf chiefly has in mind Claude Bowers, Gilbert Chinard, Dumas Malone, and possibly even Merrill Peterson—the last two perhaps the two foremost Jeffersonian scholars, as each was Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History before Onuf. Do those historians embellish and sanctify Jefferson? If implicating Malone and Peterson, Onuf—like Socrates, who recognized that he was wiser than the most prominent politicians, poets, and craftsmen of his day inasmuch as he recognized his profound ignorance[xxv]—would implicitly be placing himself ahead of those two great scholars, at least insofar as he recognizes the many flaws of Jefferson that they failed to recognize. If Onuf does not have Malone and Peterson among the scholars he castigates, then one would like to know to whom he refers, for his criticism is sharp.[xxvi]

There is a second imbroglio. To create possible Jeffersons is merely to create not-impossible Jeffersons, and that allows for a wild array of depictions. Burstein’s Jefferson differs profoundly from Gordon-Reed’s. Is that inconsistency a matter for scholarly remorse? Onuf thinks it is not. “The proliferation of possible Jeffersons does not constitute the failure of the biographical enterprise. We would suggest [why the subjunctive?], rather, the opposite. The search for a single definitive, ‘real’ Jefferson is a fool’s errand, setting us off on a hopeless search for the kind of ‘knowledge’ that even (or especially) eludes sophisticated moderns in their encounters with each other—and themselves.”[xxvii]

Onuf continues. “If, in this age of full disclosure and true confessions, we are increasingly reluctant to rush to judgment on questions of character [recall Onuf’s inference that Jefferson is a “monster of self-deception”!], how can we expect historians and biographers to explain to us an intensely private man who has been dead more than a century and a half?” We cannot, he asserts, but the public’s clamoring for the character of Jefferson and a moral assessment of it is a “form of compensation for the dim recognition that we are doomed to cluelessness in our own world, like Plato’s cave, a domain of shadows and hand-me-down light.”[xxviii] In short, the search for an authentic Jefferson is a cul-de-sac—iteration of the noncognition thesis—yet public clamor for and moral assessment of an authentic Jefferson requires historians to travel down the cul-de-sac.

The depictions of Jefferson with which Onuf opens his book—e.g., O’Brien and Ellis—are debilitating, and prodigiously so. O’Brien depicts Jefferson during his years in France as a blood-thirsty villain, who embraced liberty at any cost—even extraordinary loss of human life. Ellis says, “Jefferson is a thinking man’s racist, but he’s a racist.”[xxix] Jefferson is made to be less-than-human, not like the rest of us. While such depictions are consistent with Onuf’s criterion, which demands only that Jefferson is never made out to be a god or even a fallen god, it is disingenuous and, I add, morally suspect.

Yet Onuf is at least forbearing of positive depictions of Jefferson—e.g., Burstein in The Inner Jefferson, because Burstein does not canonize Jefferson. Still he does mention, in an endnote, Burstein’s volte-face on the issue of Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’s slave children in Burstein’s “brilliant” exposition in Jefferson’s Secrets.[xxx] The old thesis is that Jefferson had too great of regard for morality and for his family to have exposed them to the ridicule associated with an affair. Burstein crawfishes. The new thesis is that Jefferson, placing aside scandal, undertook a lengthy 38-year affair for reasons of health—i.e., he needed seminal release in a handsome, younger woman, and his slave was a no-strings-attached option. Since the DNA evidence is inconclusive and nothing significant has been added to the historical literature to decide Jefferson’s paternity one way or the other, one wonders what makes the new thesis so brilliant. Jefferson had too much regard for the wellbeing of his family to have begun and sustained a 38-year affair with a slave is a possible Jefferson just as much as Jefferson had more regard for his own health than for the wellbeing of his family so that he began and sustained a 38-year affair with a slave, for neither thesis depicts Jefferson as a god. Yet if constructing a possible Jefferson is the sole criterion for above-board Jeffersonian scholarship, then it seems that almost anything goes, and Jeffersonian scholarship turns out to be as veridically rewarding as Dickinsonian poetry is uplifting.

Overall, Onuf’s claim that public clamor prompts historians, such as himself, to create depictions of Jefferson’s character and to assess him morally is horsefeathers. Historians are not in the business of creating ex nihilo. Historians are interested in Thomas Jefferson, because they believe the man behind the writings is, at least to some extent, accessible.

First Cut Is the Deepest

Worth some critical discussion is also Onuf’s treatment of Ken Burns’s Thomas Jefferson. Onuf expresses some dissatisfaction at being interviewed, but ending up “on the cutting-room floor.” Lightheartedly sloughing off the dismissal, with peripe’teian quickness, he sharply turns to castigation of Burns and his fellow documentarians for dismissing “by and large … with professional historians” and “with the fetish of authenticity.” The line between “Burns’s ‘fact’” and “Oliver Stone’s ‘fiction,’” he adds with obvious rancor, is not very distinct. Yet were we not told that disclosure of an authentic Jefferson is impossible? Why, then, should we concern ourselves with facts?

Onuf gets comeuppance for not making the final cut by slamming “children’s book author Natalie Bober,” who did make the cut with Burns. She is asked about Jefferson and Sally Hemings and she replies, “I think we must consider who Thomas Jefferson was.” Onuf derisively adds, “as if the question could be answered by reference to character rather than evidence.”[xxxi] In response to Onuf’s jab, I merely wish to know why he thinks the two are exclusive—viz., why questions of character are independent of evidence.

Onuf again goes on to reference and discuss the negative works of O’Brien, Ellis, and Maier as well as his protégés Burstein and Gordon-Reed. Crambe repetita.

Jefferson’s “Legacies”

The possible-Jefferson’s approach to history seems inexplicable without further explication. In The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, Onuf lauds O’Brien for his “cultural power,” but softly reproaches him for his “pseudopositivism,” which “clearly signals his alienation from fashionable humanities scholarship” that is relativistic, constructivist, and involves “invented traditions.”[xxxii] Like a good Kuhnian, Onuf also speaks of collapsing “paradigms” and the emergence of new ones. He writes, consistent with Kuhn’s view of paradigms, that Jefferson and his contemporaries, “thought, wrote, spoke, and acted in an entirely different world from ours.”[xxxiii] As we cannot disclose the real Jefferson—the Jefferson of his day, since his time is incommensurate with ours—we create a Jefferson for our day, a possible Jefferson.

Paradigm relativism is also the modus operandi behind the watershed six-day 1992 conference at UVA titled “Jefferson’s Legacies.” Note here inclusion of “legacies,” not “legacy,” in keeping with Onuf’s depiction of Jefferson as Proteus. The conference, described by Joseph Ellis as an “intellectual free-for-all,” featured many merciless attacks of Jefferson. Prominent Jeffersonian scholars—e.g., Garrett Ward Sheldon—were uninvited.[xxxiv]

The gloves-off conference resulted in Onuf’s anthology also titled Jefferson’s Legacies. Onuf begins in the opening paragraph of the foreword:

The fifteen essays in this volume are an outgrowth of a remarkable conference on “Jeffersonian Legacies,” held at the University of Virginia in October 1992 as the opening event in the University’s commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Thomas Jefferson. Revisionist in spirit, innovative in format, the conference sought new perspectives on the Jefferson legacy by measuring Jefferson’s life and values against major concerns of the 1990s.

Onuf’s opening salvo makes it clear that he is aiming at a break with past scholarship and its cannons of historical rigor. No longer will it be a matter of trying to know the real Jefferson through amassing and evaluating evidence, reading and responding to alternative views, and accommodating, altering, or changing one’s view in light of newly disclosed evidence, but, as his choice of “legacies” suggests, painting varied pictures of the Protean statesman, irrespective of avowed cannons of history and rationality by filiopietistic scholars.[xxxv]

The tensions disappear once we acknowledge that they are the result of Onuf’s approach to Jeffersonian history. Onuf’s depiction of Jefferson as Proteus is, in psychoanalytic terms, mere projection. There is a Jefferson behind the letter writer—an authentic person—I have elsewhere argued, pace Onuf.[xxxvi] To hide a true self behind thousands of letters is a Herculean labor, which, if done successfully, would prove Jefferson to be superhuman.[xxxvii] If so, then Onuf’s modus operandi, the criterion that Jeffersonian scholarship must be guided by construction of a possible Jefferson, and his noncognition thesis, that search for an authentic Jefferson behind his voluminous writings is a Sisyphean task, are at loggerheads. We are asked to construct a possible Jefferson from a figure with at least one superhuman quality.

It is, I suspect, Onuf, not Jefferson, as Proteus that requires explication. Public clamor has forced historians to write about Jefferson, though nothing can be known of an authentic Jefferson, and so we are left with the modus operandi of constructing a possible Jefferson. Yet in Onuf’s writings, Jefferson always seems to come out to be a much despicable character, as if a character, worth emulating and respecting, is not a possible Jefferson.

Peterson on Jefferson’s Image in the American Mind

Onuf’s paradigm-relativist approach to history can be explained by appropriation (or, better yet, misappropriation) of a thesis proposed by prior TJFPH Merrill Peterson in The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. In that significant and brilliant work, Peterson offers a plausible explanation for the perplexities and inconsistencies among Jeffersonian scholars. He too calls Jefferson—qua philosopher and politician, aristocrat and democrat, and cosmopolitan and American—a “baffling series of contradictions.”[xxxviii]

The difficulty is that Jefferson—a man of great intellectual breadth and depth, and a man of uncommon ideals—wrote voluminously and appealed to everyone at some cognitive or visceral level.

In his life and in his vision, Jefferson transcended politics. He stood for a cultural heritage Americans could admire, cherish, perhaps be elevated by, but could not hope to possess in its fullness. Its remnants lay everywhere—in what Americans thought, in how they were educated and governed, in the way they worshipped, in the sciences they professed, in the houses they built, the words they used, the foods they ate. Jefferson stood for a life planned and executed in full human scale, for thought down to the last detain, for a mind that related every fact to every other fact in the universe, for a life … given “wholeness and mental order.”[xxxix]

Because he appeals to everyone at some level, scholars give numerous depictions of him. “In his letters, account books, and other memoranda, Jefferson left ample records of his personal tastes and habits; yet, as with his public record, it was possible to draw from these almost any picture the writer wished.”[xl] Furthermore, Jefferson often dissimulated. “More ardent in his imagination than his affections, he did not always speak exactly as he felt towards either friends or enemies. As a consequence, he has left hanging over a part of his public life a vapor of duplicity, or, to say the least, of indirection, the presence of which is generally felt more than it is seen.”[xli] Moreover, Jefferson was fundamentally a curious immixture of everyday citizen and philosopher. “It was precisely because Jefferson combined, or seemed to combine, the traits of the man-of-the-people and the man-of-vision that he was capable of being mythicized as the Father of Democracy.”[xlii]

Yet Peterson does not believe that Jefferson was a “monster of self-deception,” as does Onuf. The perplexity is in the scholars, not in Jefferson. Peterson writes: “Historians could not fairly plead the lack of information on Jefferson. If still fragmentary, it was constantly on the increase. The difficulty was less one of the scholars’ knowledge than of the uses they made of it. The image of Jefferson shattered when they came through the doors of partisan, and perhaps hereditary, prejudice to the interpretation of the facts.”[xliii] Jefferson was, in his estimation, a man of “fundamental harmony” and “clarity of purpose.” He adds, “If Madison was right [in asserting an early and uniform devotion to liberty and the equal rights of man], as I think he was, the apparent ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions in Jefferson’s life and thought, so much dwelled upon by latter-day scholars, mattered little in the light of this fundamental harmony and clarity of purpose.”[xliv]

It is no surprise that Onuf begins his The Mind of Jefferson with a discussion of Peterson’s book. He recognizes that Peterson looked forward to a time when scholars could agree on a “nonpartisan Jefferson image.” Still, while Peterson’s thesis might be “superb cultural history,” it is also “poor prophecy.” He underestimated the “capacity of scholars to divide into hostile ‘parties.’” Consequently, “Jefferson’s image is as controversial now as it ever has been.”[xlv]

The controversy over Jefferson’s image, I concede, is great. I also concede a goodly amount of hostility between pro-Jefferson and anti-Jefferson scholars. That scholarship has taken such a vicious, bipartisan turn is disconcerting and bewildering.[xlvi]

Jefferson ought not to be hated—especially not by scholars—even if it should turn out through future scholarship aimed at the real Jefferson, not possible Jeffersons, that he was far from the plaster saint early scholars made him out to be. Even Joseph Stalin—a vicious and cruel man, and an extreme example—ought not to be hated. Hatred, I suspect, tells us more about the one hating than about the one hated. Furthermore, scholarship ought not to be driven by hatred (or any strong emotional impulse), but by an impartial (or nearly so) desire to know. Unfortunately the sort of paradigm relativism Onuf seems to practice allows for a desire to know, but not knowing.

Why is Jefferson so roundly hated by numerous other scholars? Malone offers viable psychological insight, as he addresses Hamilton’s detestation of Jefferson. “[Hamilton] may have been particularly annoyed with his colleague … because of the difficulty of getting at him and grappling with him. The distinctive combination, which Jefferson had effected, of scrupulous propriety and politeness on the one hand, and fervid devotion to abstract principles on the other, may have been peculiarly irritating to a man of Hamilton’s aggressiveness, impatience, and lack of subtlety. Men sometimes hate those opponents most whom they find most incomprehensible.”[xlvii] In short, it is because Jefferson was in the main the sort of person his writings reveal—self-possessed, orderly, meticulous, just, verecund, greatly intelligent, broadly curious, benevolent, and discerning—that he is hated. He is hated because he was the sort of person, understood by the mores of his time, who ought to have been emulated. He is, in the words of Laurence Sterne in his novel of the same name, a “sentimental traveller”—i.e., one who goes through life placing concerns of the head (intellect) behind those of heart (morality).

I end with a quote of Jefferson from a letter to Isaac McPherson (13 Aug. 1813) on eschewal of patents. It sums neatly his character.

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.



[i] Robert Booth Fowler, “Mythologies of a Founder,” Thomas Jefferson and the Politics of Nature, ed. Thomas S. Engeman (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 124.


[iii] Aaron Schwabach, “Thomas Jefferson, Slavery, and Slaves,” Thomas Jefferson Law Review, Vol. 33, 2010, 50.



[vi] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 21.

[vii] When reading Onuf on Jefferson’s character, one gets the impressions that his modus operandi is not to destroy Jefferson by cutting him to pieces. That would be too decisive, and would leave no room for future scholarship. He is more subtle, cagey, and indirect. His medium is use of pinpricks, jabbed callously and relentlessly into Jefferson, and he wishes to create the impression that he is not, and others are, responsible for the profusion of blood at day’s end. The aim is not to make a corpse of Jefferson, but to keep him, a pitiable pilgarlic, barely alive to be the recipient of future pinpricks. The method bespeaks a sort of sad ardency for scholarly sadism.

[viii] “Cabbage reheated,” with the sense of a stale repetition of something.

[ix] Again, he writes with catachresis and incautiously. No one, when pushed, would deny the possibility of a relationship. Defenders of Jefferson’s character merely deny the likelihood.

[x] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 21-2.

[xi] The arguments of each of the three, as I show in Framing a Legend, do not stand up to critical assessment. See M. Andrew Holowchak, Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2013).

[xii] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 28.

[xiii] The term “strong possibility” is clearly a malaproprism. If by “possibility” we mean something like “Statement s is possibly true when and only when it is not necessarily the case that s is false, or equivalently, it is not impossible s is true”—i.e., there is no contradiction in assuming the truth of s, then possibility claims commit us to so little that they are almost vapid. Stated simply, possibility does not admit of degrees.

[xiv] See M. Andrew Holowchak, Framing a Legend; “Little Plus Little Equals Much: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Fallacy of Artful Addition,”; and “The Historical Pillorying of Thomas Jefferson: The ‘Seismic Effect’ of a DNA Study Gone Wrong”, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society,

[xv] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 32-3.

[xvi] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 27.

[xvii] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 33-7.

[xviii] Cf. Pierre Charron, On Wisdom, Vol. 3, trans. George Stanhope (London, 1729), 1110.

[xix] M. Andrew Holowchak, Dutiful Correspondent: Philosophical Essays on Thomas Jefferson (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 20-1.

[xx] E.g., TJ to James Madison, 6 Sept. 1789, and TJ to John Adams, 28 Oct. 1813.

[xxi] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 38.

[xxii] One wonders what places Onuf and other professional scholars in such a lofty moral perch that they can, with clean conscience, readily and freely pass moral judgment on one of the most prominent figures of world history at the time and a man who has given politically and scientifically so much of himself to others. See M. Andrew Holowchak, Framing a Legend, chap. 4.

[xxiii] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 57-8.

[xxiv] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 58.

[xxv] Plato, Apology, Five Dialogues, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), 20d-23c.

[xxvi] Failure to identify the scholars at whom it is directed seems cowardly.

[xxvii] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 58-9.

[xxviii] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 59.

[xxix] Ellis, more than Onuf, is responsible for the jargon of “Jefferson’s contradictions.” “Interview with Joseph Ellis,” Frontline,, accessed 18 Dec. 2012.

[xxx] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 64n19.

[xxxi] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 50-3.

[xxxii] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 54.

[xxxiii] Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 85.

[xxxiv] Joseph J. Ellis, “American Sphinx: The Contradictions of Thomas Jefferson,”, accessed 18 Aug. 2012.

[xxxv] Friend and frequent collaborator, Ari Helo, writes that the proper course for historians is to situate historically each and every act in its “so-called ‘proper’ political or historical context.” The advantages of such a view are its atheoreticality and non-normativity. Ari Helo, “Is There a Moral Point to Republicanism? Jefferson’s Ethics of Virtue and the Modern Notion of History,”, accessed 3 Oct. 2013, 17-8.

[xxxvi] M. Andrew Holowchak, Dutiful Correspondent, 17-8.

[xxxvii] So too is carrying out successfully a 38-year relationship with Sally Hemings, without anyone catching on.

[xxxviii] Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 9.

[xxxix] Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, 409-10.

[xl] Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, 246.

[xli] Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951), 369.

[xlii] Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, 68.

[xliii] Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, 278.

[xliv] Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, x.

[xlv] Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, 19-20.

[xlvi] At least some of the blame ought to be place squarely on Onuf’s shoulders. Not shy about his antipathy for Jefferson, it is not difficult to estimate how that antipathy, if only subtly, has infiltrated the minds of students and readers over the years and the insidious effect it has had.

[xlvii] Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man, 455.



Pierre Charron, On Wisdom, Vol. 3, trans. George Stanhope (London, 1729).

Joseph J. Ellis, “American Sphinx: The Contradictions of Thomas Jefferson,”, accessed 18 Aug. 2012.

Robert Booth Fowler, “Mythologies of a Founder,” Thomas Jefferson and the Politics of Nature, ed. Thomas S. Engeman (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000),

Andrew Holowchak, Dutiful Correspondent: Philosophical Essays on Thomas Jefferson (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

Andrew Holowchak, Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2013).

Andrew Holowchak, “The Historical Pillorying of Thomas Jefferson: The ‘Seismic Effect’ of a DNA Study Gone Wrong”, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society,

Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951).

Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007).

Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998).

Plato, Apology, Five Dialogues, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981).

Aaron Schwabach, “Thomas Jefferson, Slavery, and Slaves,” Thomas Jefferson Law Review, Vol. 33, 2010.

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]

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