The No-So-Enlightened Patriarch of Monticello – Abbeville Institut.

This is another ''Woke'' history of the at and roll your eye's!

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 with Annette Gordon-Reed, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs,” is indicative of a more mature, less bitter, scholar, who with his collaborator, offers subtly a portal into the mind of Jefferson. The notion of the concubinage of Jefferson and Hemings is threaded throughout and ends their narrative, but the “monster of self-deception” of 2007 has been subrogated by Jefferson as the “most blessed of the patriarchs.” The book focuses on Jefferson as patriarchal owner of a Southern plantation. A large theme is that Jefferson, for all of his “Enlightenment” education, was not a particularly enlightened master of his Virginian plantation. It was power, through mastery, that he craved.

As the title indicates, the thesis of the book centers on Jefferson qua patriarch. Onuf and Gordon-Reed draw from a letter of Jefferson to Angela Church Schuyler (27 Nov. 1793) in which Jefferson writes with ebullience, as he has often before done, of his liberation “from the hated occupations of politics” and his return to Monticello, where he can “sink into the bosom” of his family, farm, and books. He states that daughter Martha and son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph—“a man of science, sense, virtue, and competence”—live at Monticello, and Jefferson adds, “If the other [daughter Maria] shall be as fortunate in due process of time, I shall imagine myself as blessed as the most blessed of the patriarchs.” Maria’s hoped-for fortune, the sentiment strongly suggests, concerns success in choice of husband, not removal to Monticello.

As with any other patriarchs, say Onuf and Gordon-Reed, Jefferson ruled unconditionally over his wife, concubine, children, grandchildren, slaves, and perhaps also the general community of Charlottesville. While hostility to tyranny was at the heart of his republicanism, on his slave plantation, Jefferson had “near-absolute power,” for he could “buy and sell human beings.”

Onuf and Gordon-Reed continue the former’s postmodernist historiography. They cite poet Fernando Pessoa, who states that every person is “a profusion of selves,” and Walt Whitman, who says that “I contradict myself; I am large. … I contain multitudes” to ready readers for their approach to “the restless, ever transforming spirit of American democracy”—“a particularly contradictory figure whose shifts and ‘uncertain flickers’ make him harder to capture than other presidents, or other people.” Throughout his life, Jefferson played “numerous and varied roles.” Nothing concerning access to a real Jefferson seems to have changed since Onuf’s 2007 book on Jefferson’s mind. The project seems to be construction of another “possible Jefferson.”

What has changed to prompt another book on Jefferson?

The authors have a ready answer. “Since the 1990s there has been an explosion of new information about slavery at Monticello, revolutionizing our understanding of his role as master of that plantation and of his home away from home, Poplar Forest.” The volumes of Henry Randall and Dumas Malone were forged at a time when the then-prominent cultural biases precluded scholars from seeing Jefferson’s slaves and his views on Blacks as being relevant to assessment and understanding of the person. Hence, their accounts tend to be hagiographical. Their book—what a surprise!—will focus on Jefferson the slave-owner, lusting after power.

Yet there is a procedural point, given in the preface. The authors promise “to do something that we think is absolutely essential [sic]: whenever it is at all reasonable to do so, we take Jefferson at his word about his beliefs, goals, and motivations.” The pledge, though vaguely articulated, is astonishing in that Onuf had been, till the writing of this book with his colleague and given his purchase of postmodernist history, in the habit of deconstruction of Jeffersonian prose. Yet later in the book, they add: “Jefferson’s true feelings about matters cannot be discerned in the pronouncements he made while attempting to convince others, or himself, of his beliefs about a subject. They are much more likely to be found in the offhand comments he made as he discussed other issues, which,” they concede, “is probably the case with all human beings.” Jefferson, it seems, habitually dissimulated, and so those instances in which it is reasonable to take Jefferson at his word are few. Still, we are given no criteria by which to assess reasonable instances and so the prefatory promise is unavailing.

The rest of the book is expiscation and assessment—the book is shockingly more of an expiscation than an assessment—of Jefferson as patriarch that takes the form of a biography, shaped in its details by speculations that build off what they uncritically take as the truth of the 1873 testimony of Madison Hemings.

The prose throughout is light and relatively lively, unlike Onuf’s 2007 book, which is heavy and saturnine. The years at Monticello take center stage so that we can learn more about Jefferson as master of a Southern plantation—Jefferson the owner of human beings.

One thesis iterated throughout is one commonly asserted by revisionist scholars: Jefferson’s aversion to the turpitude of slavery waned over time. Jefferson often early on spoke out loudly against the “degrading submissions” of slavery and corruptive effects on slave owners—e.g., in Query XVIII of Notes on Virginia—but over time, he lost the sense of urgency. He felt “greater comfort in the institution of slavery and with the people he held in bondage.” “His actions, or inaction, by the time he returned home show that the sense of urgency he had originally brought to the reform agenda in the Notes was gone.” He contented himself with mitigation of the conditions of slavery, so he could personally profit from owning slaves.

Onuf and Gordon-Reed return to the 1793 letter to Church in which he promises to “watch for the happiness of those who labor for mine.” They say, “An ‘enlightened’ patriarch could make a difference, could make peace between the master and the enslaved.” Thus, should the relationship between a master and his slaves be relatively amicable or peaceable, then there would be little need to worry about emancipation. Worry about emancipation, they maintain, Jefferson did not do. He instead concerned himself with being a “benevolent patriarch,” who doled out “random acts of leniency as he thought the situation warranted without changing the basic nature of slavery or really weakening his position as a slave owner at all.” Yet that leniency through “random acts”—the terminology of the authors implies Jefferson’s attempt at rationalizing his ownership of slaves instead of caring for them—was shown only to a “very small, easily managed group” the members of which were in the Hemings’ family and were given extraordinary privileges.

There was a change of mind when Jefferson traveled to France with James and Sally Hemings. Not wishing to let on to others that the siblings were slaves, they were paid wages and given substantial freedom of movement, and could even sell their services for pay to others like white French servants.

Yet that changed when Jefferson moved to Washington. No Hemings, not even Sally, was brought to Washington, they note. No longer did he reward favored slaves with travel with him. Why did Jefferson change his behavior, especially given the story of his irrevocable love for Sally? Is this added to parry the objection Jefferson did not take Sally with him to Washington because he had no interest in her?

That takes us to Jefferson’s avowed relationship with Sally Hemings. Here Onuf and Gordon-Reed merely iterate and reiterate the claims found in Madison Hemings’ testimony, which we have seen is prodigiously defective.

In France, the authors state that “James and Sally Hemings lived with him [Jefferson]” at Hôtel Langeac, not at Abbaye Royale de Panthemont with Martha and Maria, and Sally became, upon his pledge to his wife never again to marry, a “substitute for a wife.” As I have remarked in numerous publications, there is little reason to believe that Hemings would not have been with Jefferson’s daughters. The posit is given to make reasonable Madison’s claim that Jefferson impregnated Sally in France. We too have seen the problems with that bit of the testimony.

To make room for Jefferson’s upcoming infatuation with Sally Hemings, the authors downplay Jefferson’s Head and Heart letter to Maria Cosway in October 1786, the year before Hemings’ arrival. The letter is no billet doux, but instead “a ‘Dear Jane’ letter.” She was, Jefferson hoped, to be a sincere friend, never a lover—“at most … just one of a select cast of characters to enliven the scene at Monticello.” That assessment is unique among scholars, and betrays scant grasp of the tortuous debate between Jefferson’s head and heart, and of Jefferson’s torment. The effusiveness and large length of the letter, written with Jefferson’s left hand, as his right hand was recently crippled, argue against Onuf and Gordon-Reed’s assertions.

Once pregnant with Jefferson’s child, so say the authors—there is no confirmatory evidence of such a pregnancy—Hemings refused to return with him to Virginia. “That she would take this stance even after she became pregnant with Jefferson’s child suggests how comfortable she felt in her new surroundings, and how adamant she was about not wishing to return to the status quo in Virginia.” Moreover, her French was adequate. There is nothing said about Hemings’ gross immaturity upon arrival that we find in two letters of Abigail Adams (27 June 1787 and 6 July 1787). Hemings, then 14, was more immature than Mary Jefferson, then eight. Yet Hemings, it seems, meteorically matured once in France. Once again, direct and significant testimony, inconsistent with their patriarchal thesis, is merely overpassed.

They use the patriarchal thesis in some effort to explain certain late-in-life behaviors of Jefferson. Why Jefferson, committed lifelong to emancipation and expatriation, did not join the American Colonization Society like Madison, Monroe, Marshall, Short, and Coles is explained succinctly as having been “too much of a spectacle.” Those knowing and loving him would have said, “Mr. Jefferson, are you actually joining in an effort to have your children and their mother expelled from Virginia and sent to Africa?” The “explanation” is too absurd to merit critical assessment.

Again, the view that Jefferson did not formally free Sally Hemings on his death because she meant nothing to him, Onuf and Gordon-Reed say, is “internally inconsistent, since it leaves unexplained his emancipation of all of her children.” That some explanation, fails to explain something that it perhaps should explain does not make it “internally inconsistent.” (To say that two assertions are inconsistent is to say that both cannot be true at the same time, and inconsistent claims are not contradictory. What “internally” adds is another question!) It merely makes it a poor explanation. Yet is freeing of Sally Hemings children during or after his life proof of undying affection for her? Sally Hemings, I have consistently argued, personally meant nothing to Jefferson. There is nothing in any of his writings, even account books, that offers a whit of evidence of interest in her. The names of her brothers occur with much greater frequency than does her name. All the Hemingses were brought to Monticello when Jefferson married his wife. Hemings and her siblings were fathered by Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. That explains their privileged status at Monticello.

Moreover, add the authors, to free Hemings in his will would have meant leaving her name in a public document, which would have required a formal, legal explanation, because she was over 45 years of age and all slaves over 45 years of age needed a formal explanation. “Any doubts about Sally and Thomas would have been erased with this very public in-contemplation-of-death gesture.” Furthermore, with publication of such a public document, “he would publicly hurt and humiliate the most important person in his life, Martha Randolph.” If hurting and humiliating his daughter were things he would have avoided at all costs, why then, once his relationship with Hemings was presumably disclosed in 1802 by James Callender, did Jefferson continue to risk hurting and humiliating his daughter by continuing concubinage with Hemings till the end of his life? It is strange that the authors do not address Jefferson’s continuance of his “affair” with Hemings after 1802.

Onuf and Gordon-Reed phlegmatically deal with the lack of evidence for the patriarchal thesis, where one would expect to find evidence. They have this to say about lack of any written words on Hemings in Jefferson’s ocean of writings. “For obvious reasons, his private life with Martha’s half sister Sally was left unrecorded.” They are also phlegmatic about lack of any reference to Hemings by any of thousands of visitors to Monticello over the decades. “Although no letters of visitors mentioning encounters with Sally Hemings have yet surfaced,” there is mention of Hemings and Jefferson in the letters of visitors, on account of Callender’s exposé in 1802. Callender, is acknowledged by all historians to have been a blackmailer and a villainous rogue. Yet for Onuf and Gordon-Reed, we are to ignore that and take his testimony as gospel. That, of course, serves their purpose.

The predominant theme—the thread uniting all the prose—is Jefferson’s need of mastery, especially at Monticello, hence their choice of title. “Jefferson dominated the landscape [of Monticello], and the men and women who lived there—and visited there—were most assuredly not created equal.” “Dissenting views were muted, and controversy, if not suppressed altogether, was certainly not encouraged.” “As visitors looked up, Jefferson looked down. The patriarch’s ability to condescend to his many visitors—kin, friends, political allies, admiring countrymen, strangers, and opportunists—was critical to his mastery.” The sense of condescension is not express haughtiness, but merely bringing oneself down to another’s level in an effort to assert one’s superiority. Here a simpler alternative hypothesis is Jefferson’s kindness.

The means of Jefferson’s mastery were subtle, say Onuf and Gordon-Reed. Jefferson would speak to others of things with which they were familiar and of interest to them. He would never contradiction another, when they spoke incautiously or erroneously, but he would merely change the subject. He would speak softly. Thus, “Jefferson managed to dispense lots of information without being particularly informative about himself.”

Jefferson would also structure Monticello to assert in subtle ways his mastery. The physical structure of the mansion, with 33 rooms in the main body, was not built to overwhelm. There was no huge central staircase by which he could descend when greeting visitors. Functionality trumped sublimity. “Monticello was not meant to diminish awestruck visitors, but rather to arouse their interest in what interested Jefferson, preparing them for encounters with the great man.” This depiction of Jefferson as “great man,” unthinkable in Onuf’s earlier writings, is a sea change from that of the “monster of self-deception” in 2007.

The result of Jefferson’s disposition toward visitors and the structure of Monticello was deference to the “great man.” Yet that deference was not undeserved. The authors sum: “The great man deserved deference for many reasons: his knowledge was so comprehensive—‘from the details of the humblest mechanic art, up to the highest summit of science’—that he could, by a process of synecdoche, be identified with nature itself.” That is an incredible claim, for Onuf warned in 2007 that no scholar ought to make Jefferson to be a synecdoche for America. That was the only qualifier concerning his criteria for crafting a “possible Jefferson.”

Why was there such a clamorous need of mastery at Monticello?

Monticello was Jefferson’s self-portrait—“Jefferson’s lifelong effort to represent himself to the world”—and his world, Monticello, was a stage. The chameleon Jefferson was a brilliant, versatile performer—the Lon Chaney of his day. As such, Monticello was his “stage for the performances that constituted his ongoing self-construction project” more than a home. Again, “Monticello was the stage on which Jefferson performed this mastery, modeling ‘natural’ aristocracy and eliciting the deference of equals.”

The notions of Monticello as a stage and Jefferson as a versatile performer are in keeping with what might be dubbed the Bootlessness Thesis in The Mind of Thomas Jefferson. Any search for a “core coherent self” is futile, a “fool’s errand,” hence, scholars should aim at one of numerous “possible Jeffersons.”

What was Jefferson’s preoccupation with performance and why was Monticello—festooned with paintings, artifacts, drawings, sculpture, and other memorabilia—made by Jefferson to be a stage?

Onuf and Gordon-Reed proffer an answer habitually given by biographers: Jefferson’s thin skin. Jefferson was preoccupied, perhaps pathologically, with what others thought of him.

An adept chess player in America, he was beaten quickly in a game at a chess club in France. Jefferson never returned to the club. He was, state Onuf and Gordon-Reed, unwilling to play against “increasingly strong opponents” to improve his game and that was telling. Failure at chess would have been observed by at least one other person, his opponent, and very likely by many others, as Jefferson was no common visitor in France. Failure at chess was inconsistent with the image of master he was constantly constructing. However, it was different with another love: math. Failure at math would be a failure “with no one to witness.” They sum, “The master had to appear to others as ‘master,’ even when he was at play.”

Onuf and Gordon-Reed fail to note what is most obvious. Mastery of chess of the sort possessed by the brewstered members of the chess club was possible only because they were well-to-do and thus could spend, if needed, the daily hours required in mastery of the game. Jefferson doubtless enjoyed chess as an intellectual diversion, but certainly thought that preoccupation with the game, like preoccupation with metaphysical speculations, was a colossal waste of time. Neither did anything to move human affairs in a forward direction. Chess was, like music or a long walk, a diversion from the stressors of everyday living.

Again, Onuf and Gordon-Reed, who have promised to take Jefferson at his word whenever that is reasonable, assert that language for Jefferson was a “self-protective shield.” They add, “Exactly what this great exponent of transparency and ‘natural language’ meant to say was not necessarily self-evident.” It becomes apparent that those instances of taking Jefferson at his word are likely very few. It is difficult to grasp why their promise in the preface was “absolutely necessary.”

Like Socrates before him, Jefferson, I have argued in many publications, was adamant about language being used succinctly, precisely, and with authenticity—hence, his shift to politics from practice of the law—though he did dissemble on controversial subjects like religion, since his public knowledge of his religious views would have negatively influenced his popularity as a public figure. Jefferson, like an analytic philosopher, was cautious about his use of words. He was not wont to dissemble or disguise what he wished to say.

It is strange that the authors include an account of Jefferson’s indifference to current fashions in his dress, given advocacy of the thesis of Jefferson as versatile performer in order to protect his image for posterity. He was, according to granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge, anything but “in conformity with the fashion of the day,” even in his days as president. Onuf and Gordon-Reed conclude that Jefferson, by the time of his presidency, “did what he wanted to do.” He was comfortable with and sure of his position in the world, and so what others thought of his dress was not of his concern.

Yet if Jefferson did what he wanted to do concerning his dress at the time of his presidency because he was comfortable with himself and sure of his position in the world, why would he be overly concerned with what others thought of other aspects of his behavior or being? Onuf and Gordon-Reed have unwittingly offered an argument that Jefferson had grown thicker skin at least by the time of his presidency.

Here the patriarchal thesis sputters. The notion of Jefferson’s need of mastery, by use of callidity, to mold himself and Monticello in such a manner to give others an impression of him as a gentle and gentlemanly patriarch is otiose.

There is a point in time when a person of enormous achievement, if self-reflective and increasingly Stoical in demeanor as Jefferson was, becomes unresponsive to the deluge of external criticisms of persons of little achievement both because they, as persons of little achievement, are unfit critics, and because the self-reflective person of enormous achievement at some point answers only to an internal critic: himself. Monticello was rebuilt and “festooned” with its numerous artworks, artifacts, and curiosities both because Jefferson, at some point, needed to come to grips with the death of wife, Martha, and to move forward with his life—the stuff all over the mansion would have been welcome distractions—and because he wanted to tell the story of story of America’s revolution and his role in it without having to work through the remainder of his unfinished autobiography, which I suspect was painful for him to continue. (See my books Thomas Jefferson on Taste and the Fine Arts and Thomas Jefferson in Paris: The Ministry of a Virginian “Looker-on.”) With the numerous visitors to Monticello, the walls themselves would speak to visitors, as they continue to do today.

There is also another, weightier problem with the patriarchal thesis. There is nothing in the prose of Onuf and Gordon-Reed that shows that Jefferson’s “need” of mastery was greater than that of any other owner of a Southern plantation. No plantation could function without its owner being a patriarch. The South, at least until the period of Reconstruction, was greatly stratified, and that stratification was in play much more on plantations than in Southern cities in which slaves had a greater degree of freedom. Any owner of a plantation to have been successful as an owner would have had to be a patriarch in the sense painted by the authors in their preface: a master of his wife, who according to the Southern ethos had her place on a Southern plantation as matriarch in the house, and a master of his concubines (if any), of his children, and of his slaves, as well as one who vied, in the hierarchy of his “gentlemanly” milieu, for ascendancy over other owners of plantations. Ownership of greater or more valued property, with slaves being perhaps the most visible property, would give one such ascendancy. Consequently, if what Onuf and Gordon-Reed say of Jefferson qua patriarch is roughly applicable to any owner of a Southern plantation, how vital is the book?

In sum, this is just another massively disappointing book by the authors. There is nothing new offered—nothing said here that has not been said by Ellis, Wiencek, Levy, Finkelstein and many other radical revisionists, and nothing said here that cannot be found also in the earlier writings of the authors. We are regrettably never introduced to that “explosion of new information about slavery at Monticello” that motivates the book and forces their “revolutionizing our understanding of his role as master of that plantation and of his home away from home, Poplar Forest.” There is, unfortunately, a large market for unoriginal books, so long as they are woke, and especially if they are pejorative of esteemed Southern figures.