What’s Left To Say about Thomas Jefferson? Everything.

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed at the Auditorium Speaker Series

January 22, 2017

Annette Gordon-Reed
Annette Gordon-Reed during her Auditorium Speaker Series presentation Sunday.

At her Auditorium Speaker Series presentation Sunday morning, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard University Law Professor Annette Gordon-Reed discussed her recently published book, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.

Gordon-Reed and her co-author, Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, each focused on different aspects of Jefferson’s life as they worked together to produce this volume. Gordon-Reed focused on slavery at Monticello and politics, while Onuf covered more social aspects. “We tried to blend together so that we had one voice for this particular book,” she said. Gordon-Reed went on to say that she is often asked why they wrote this book and what could be left to say about Jefferson. Her answer is: “Everything.”

Part of the “everything” comes in the volume’s title, half of which is taken from a letter that Jefferson wrote to Angelica Schuyler Church. In that letter, Jefferson referred to himself as the “most blessed of the patriarchs.” Gordon-Reed explained that she and Onuf found this self-description odd—particularly as Jefferson was thought of as an apostle of liberty during his lifetime because of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Because of that, and Jefferson’s status as a contentious figure today, Gordon-Reed said, “I wanted to be sure this was in quotes in the title.”

However, the authors’ choice to include “Empire of the Imagination” in the title is a nod to what a visionary Jefferson was. The phrase describes what he thought American society would be.

Gordon-Reed said that Jefferson’s participation in the American Revolution “made him who he was.” That includes how he saw African American people. He described them as a captive people, and many of them fought with the British during the Revolutionary War, seeing the British as potential allies in their fight for freedom. It was then that Virginians saw the individuals that they had enslaved as a threat and recognized their capacity to affect their own lives. Black men could act as soldiers, and even Jefferson’s own slaves became a threat to him in a way that they had not been before.

The concept of freedom for African Americans was not a simple one for Jefferson. Gordon-Reed said he believed in emancipation, but also that black and white people could not live together in harmony and that expatriation must happen.

She continued, “It has been a struggle to be a truly multiracial society where people have mutual respect for one another.” She noted that only recently have commercials started to represent all races and asked how we can expect things to have been any different in Jefferson’s time if it’s taken us this long. Jefferson believed that white people would never accept black people, and that black people would never forgive white people for what they’d done. But, Gordon-Reed said, Jefferson believed that things would get better as we grew as human beings.

Jefferson “lives in our understanding, through the Declaration of Independence,” said Gordon-Reed. All people have looked to this document when searching for acceptance and their place in the United States. “Belief in democracy, and belief in the separation of church and state” are Jeffersonian ideals we can hold on to today.


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