A review of Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Palladian Models, Democratic Principles, and the Conflict of Ideals (Yale, 2019) by Lloyd Dewitt, ed.

Excluding the foreword and introduction, there are seven essays on Jefferson qua architect and a large number of plates at the book’s end.

The book begins with Howard Burns’ “Thomas Jefferson, the Making of an Architect.” Burns aims at rehashing Jefferson’s architectural education—e.g., his earliest experiences in his days at Shadwell; exposure to architects like Andreas Palladio, Robert Morris, and James Gibbs; his experiences in Europe with British, Italian/Roman, and French architecture; and his own projects such as Monticello, the Virginian Capitol, and University of Virginia—and largely succeeds. One of the hefty lessons is that Jefferson was no slavish disciple of Palladio—“Palladio did not inhibit Jeffer-son’s inventiveness”—but was an innovator as well as a disciple.

Guido Beltramini in “The Palladians” writes of Jefferson as a Palladian, and he proffers much discussion of others such as Vincenzo Scamozzi, Inigo Jones, as well as lesser figures or non-architects like Henry Wotton, Constantin Huygens, John Webb, Lord Burlington, William Kent, Charles Cameron, Giacomo Quarenghi, Francesco Mutton, and Ottavio Bertotti Scamozzi. Beltramini’s contribution is the claim that Jefferson brought Palladio to America. “Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the Unit-ed States and an ingenious amateur architect, was to make Palladio the foundation of New World architecture.”

In the third essay, Richard Guy Wilson writes of what Jeffer-son learned while he thrice visited England during his stint as minister plenipotentiary to France. Wilson talks of the buildings that Jefferson certainly saw such as Moor Park House, West Wycombe House, Chiswick House, and the Temple of Venus in the gardens at Stowe. “At the center of the temples two extended wings [there] stood a pedimented structure with a large recessed niche, and a row
of columns across the front.” It is a design Jefferson used for Pavilion VII at University of Virginia.

Lloyd DeWitt’s essay concerns Jefferson’s 1787 tour of Eu-rope, which included a trip to Italy without any inspection of any of Palladian buildings—“one of the enduring mysteries about his trip to Europe.” DeWitt offers the following explanation. “Jeffer-son’s own Grand Tour was utilitarian, intended to be restorative as well as useful to him in his role as statesman, and therefore was consciously devoid of the tourism and pilgrimage typical of a gentleman’s grand tour.” The reasons are unconvincing, given that he quotes Jefferson’s sentiment in “Hints to Americans Travelling in Europe”: “When you are doubting whether a things is worth the trouble of going to see, recollect that you will never again be so near to it, that you may repent the not having seen it, but can never repent having not seen it.” He does rightly note that “Jefferson’s eye was as much on models of government, and their improvement, as on architecture.”

Next, Barry Bergdoll writes of the influence of books and buildings on Jefferson’s thoughts on “the spaces of democracy.” The architecture of Pierre Rousseau’s Hotel de Salm, which Jeffer-son observed being built during his stay in France, had a profound effect on Jefferson, especially on his reimaging Monticello. Halle aux Blés, with its impressive wooden dome, also impressed Jeffer-son. Moreover, French public spaces reinforced the notion, already acquired, that “spatial arrangements could influence not only hu-man taste and thought but also behavior.”

In “Race, Reason, and the Architecture of Jefferson’s Virginia Statehouse,” Mabel Wilson retraces the steps of the building of Virginia’s Capitol in Richmond. The essay winds up being more of a critique of Jefferson’s views of the inferiority of Blacks and it has several misstatements. “One central tenet” of all Enlightenment thinkers, she says, was the equality of all human races. That statement is untrue, as many polygenesis thinkers in the late Enlightenment period posited separate creations for different races to accommodate racial differences and the often-held view of the inferiority of certain races such as Native Americans and Blacks. Not all Enlightenment thinkers, Immanuel Kant and David Hume are illustrations, thought Blacks were equal to non-Blacks. The same could be said for Native Americans and Asians. When castigating Jefferson for disdaining blackness, she says, “he verified this by suggesting that even Native Americans had a preference for whites, much like ‘the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.’” Jefferson in the passage says nothing about Native Americans’ preferences, and it is unclear how a statement can be verified by a suggestion. The essay at day’s end tells us too little about Jefferson and the Virginian Capitol.

The final essay by Louis Nelson concerns the design and construction of University of Virginia “in a landscape of slavery.” While he notes that “exploring Jefferson’s complicated relation-ship with slavery is not the charge of this essay,” he adds that he does wish to show how “UVA’s architecture of democracy de-pended explicitly on a landscape of slavery.” Nelson offers key insights into the making of the 10 pavilions. He notes how slaves’ quarters, living and working (e.g., kitchens) were constructed in such a manner to keep them from being seen. “He … hid both the people and the work to be done there,” as his did at Monticello. The intimation is that Jefferson was trying to keep servants from sight because they were black, not because they were servants, and that is a non sequitur.

The numerous plates which complete the book which include works of art as well as depictions of buildings are of superb quality.

The book overall disappoints because of the unevenness of its scholarship and its moralizing tone throughout. It begins with several strong essays that offer much information on Jefferson’s architectural education, his views on buildings and public spaces as beacons of his republican ideals, and ends with excellent plates, but the overall tendency to denigrate Jefferson for owning slaves and for his comments on the nature of Blacks in Query XIV of Notes on Virginia makes the book tedious. It is apposite to have some discussion of the role of slaves in Jefferson’s architectural projects, but the moralizing tone of much of the prose is tiresome and beyond the scope of the book. It has been done, overdone, and even over-overdone by others. Even Burns’ fine first essay is marred by one sentence in its final paragraph—“Jefferson is easy to criticize … for the fact that he never moved, publicly or privately, against slavery, an institution he knew to be in conflict with his own moral and political principles”—which just does not fit into the paragraph. Because of its lack of fit, it is likely he was forced by editors to add the sentiment. The divagation is not only discursive, but also manifestly false. A critique of Jefferson’s views on slavery and race cannot be done in a few sentences or paragraphs, and certainly not by scholars who are trained in architectural history, and it must be done by squarely placing Jefferson within the confines of his time and within the circumstances that defined the man. I have tried to do that in my Rethinking Thomas Jefferson’s Views on Slavery and Race.

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]


  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    “…and it must be done by squarely placing Jefferson within the confines of his time and within the circumstances that defined the man.”
    There have been many comments and even essays on the concept of “presentism.” To certain writers and/or editors (and, of course, news media) one might as well tell them that if they came in out of the rain, they wouldn’t get wet! They would still, like the dumbest animal in the barnyard, the turkey, look upward and have their face splashed.

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