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More Founders and Late Colonial History – Part 3

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Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Lantana Public Library has other excellent works in its collection on Founders and also on Colonial history, including recent studies and classics related to Thomas Jefferson.  Here are some brief reviews and reflections on some of them.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham [Hardback] Random House, 2012. 759 pp. Call No: B Jef
“Where some saw hypocrisy, others saw political agility.  As long as a political leader has some core strategic belief — and Jefferson did, in his defense of republicanism — then tactical flexibility can be a virtue” (p. 254).

Jon Meacham’s recent biography of Jefferson focuses more on Jefferson’s politics.  He views Jefferson as a “creatively flexible,” “transformative leader” who championed the individual American’s liberty and rights and also exercised executive powers pragmatically when required.  Jefferson was a brilliant dinner table politician who carefully listened and brilliantly conversed to both opponents and friends, always avoiding direct confrontation  Jefferson by turn seeking to charm,  fascinate, discern, enlighten, or indoctrinate.

Meacham offers that Jefferson came to view the acts of his compatriots for representation and self-determination as justified by Britain’s own Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, which had deposed the absolute monarch James II and passed a Bill of Rights that protected liberty and free elections and limited the power of monarchs. Paul de Rapin-Thoyras’s history of England and Henry St. John Lord Bolingbroke’s political writings, as well as other classics such as Tacitus’ Germania, likely led Jefferson to view Britain’s authority to tax colonial Englishmen and limit their representation as monarchical tyranny reminiscent of the mother country’s Civil War and the Restoration periods.

Meacham observes that Jefferson never governed with blind self-interest or rigid ideology but with tactical maneuvering or expansion wherever possible.  Some examples: Jefferson’s infamous abandonment of Richmond during the raiding British and Gen. Benedict Arnold in Jan. 1781 was understandable and defensible as intelligence at the time was unreliable and the Virginia militia defense uncoordinated.  Also, Jefferson’s secret, divisive acts of plotting while serving as Vice-President under the Adams’ Presidency were arguably artful politics to survive and prevail in the toxic political climate of  the Alien and Sedition Acts.  Lastly, Jefferson expanded Executive authority quickly and decisively by upholding Madison and Livingstone’s negotiations with France for the Louisiana Purchase, and by overseeing its retroactive ratification by the U.S. Senate, as well as in imposing the Embargo Act of 1807.

Meacham’s biography has also been critically reviewed.  See Eric Herschthal’s Atlantic Monthly article of Nov. 1, 2012.

Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History by Fawn Brodie [Hardback] W.W. Norton, 1974, 1998. 571 pp.  Call No. : B  Jef

Brodie’s is the first ground-breaking academic biography ever to claim Jefferson fathered children by a slave woman, Sally Hemings, and that Jefferson may have even likened his life-long relationship with her to the Biblical tale of Abraham and Abraham’s slave concubine Hagar.  Brodie weighs Jefferson’s upbringing and privately charming and sensual, conflicted, tightly controlled psychological/inner psyche, alongside a carefully calculated and cultivated public life of partisan leadership and democratic simplicity.

Jefferson’s privileged upbringing and adult life in colonial Virginia and the newly independent republic were certainly not trouble-free, as Brodie documents. After losing his father prematurely and finishing his education, Jefferson came to head a large family while forced to assume and manage its inherited debts.  He then began a turbulent political career in the Virginia legislature while continuing in demanding family relationships with a mother (and possibly his wife Martha Wayles Skelton) who likely held conservative/Tory sympathies.  Throughout his lifetime Jefferson would sell or mortgage land, his slaves, as well as his famous 7,000 book library to Congress, to maintain social standing and multiple roles of family patriarch, plantation and slave owner, intellectual, politician, diplomat, and President.

Like Meacham, Brodie appraises Jefferson’s presidency mostly positively, as it fortuitously began with the Peace of Amiens and continued with its peaceful diplomacy with Tripoli/the Barbary Pirates, together with the “restoration of freedom of the press and speech and aborting the Hamiltonian trend toward militarism.”

The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed.  [Hardback].  W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.  798 pp. Call No. :  B Hem

“The relationship of the Hemingses to the tragedy of slavery was unique only because they happened to be owned by one who made himself a public man, but wanted to keep private the world he really lived in with this particular African American enslaved family.”

In this somewhat labored, but  well-researched and exhaustive history of the Hemingses, we discover there were many of them in addition to Sally; she and her extensive family lived at the center of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Poplar Forest plantations, as well as in Virginia itself, over several generations.  As one learns, many of them were Jefferson’s unofficial  in-laws, children,  and shadow kin (through his father-in-law and deceased wife).  Readers also learn much about the history of colonial Virginia and how its people lived with slavery (whereby a person’s slave status of a child derived from that of his or her mother, ensuring its perpetuity).

Monticello_Coin_Side_Three-quarter_View by DKStotz — Own work. Licensed under Wikimedia Commons


Written by lantanalister1

July 4, 2015 at 5:47 pm

Founding Fathers and late U.S. colonial history — Part 2

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My previous blog on Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton began what will be a series of blog posts to follow on what enlightenment and wisdom we may still discover in reading on our Founding Fathers and late American colonial history.

For after all, there is so much now that has been re-written and revised, and journalist/critic Barry Gewen urges us in his piece of June 5, 2005, to consider divergent, global perspectives of our history that speak more directly to the needs of our time than do biographies of dead white Founding Fathers.  We are missing, according to Gewen, the  “bigger picture [that ]is in the process of being lost” and we are running out of Founding Fathers to write about.  These concerns I hope to explore in reviewing some relevant historic works readers can find in Lantana Public Library’s collection.

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Written by lantanalister1

May 16, 2015 at 11:56 pm