Book Notes

Books on Jefferson continue at such a pace it is difficult for the average reader to keep up. The following titles are suggested reading as they either bring new scholarship, or cover an important area of Jefferson’s life.

Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment: Paris 1785

James C. Thompson

Commonwealth Book Publishers of Virginia 2013

Why Jefferson left Monticello in 1784 and went to Paris is somewhat of an unanswered mystery. His wife had died several years before, and he was left with three young daughters, and the continued responsibility for a working plantation. He suggests that he still needed a “change of scene” from his wife’s death. This book does not attempt to answer that question, but it does present a unique and intriguing account of what the experience meant in the development of Jefferson’s political and social concepts.

Leaving the largely rural expanse of Virginia, he was suddenly in the largest metropolitan center of the western world and in the midst of social turmoil. He stayed five years leaving on the eve of the French Revolution. During that time he was exposed to the philosophes and their debates of social equality in the salons of Paris. James Thompson takes us on the walks where Jefferson explored Paris, introduces us to the intelligentsia that wished to reform the monarchy, and discusses how the rights of man would change the relationship of all classes of citizens.

An interesting aspect of this examination is the influence of Freemasonry on Jefferson. Many of the leading intellectuals in France were Masons, as were many of the Founding Fathers. Thompson suggests that the principles of Freemasonry were influential in asserting the rights of the individual in the American Revolution.

Dutiful Correspondent: Philosophical Essays on Thomas Jefferson

M. Andrew Holowchak

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2013

Thomas Jefferson is mostly remembered for the words he gave to the spirit of revolution that exploded within colonial America. Those early documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—were only the beginning of Jefferson’s impact on the American mind. For another forty years, his philosophy of social order would be a challenge for the young country he helped found.

Today, the real Thomas Jefferson is being slowly erased from for the public consciousness by the conventional historian’s model that Jefferson’s personality was complicated, ambiguous, and contradictory.

Andrew Holowchak paints a different picture. With a unique command of the thousands of letters written by Jefferson, Holowchak is able to understand his moral and progressive intellect. Jefferson is a realist and his observations on social and political equality are the result of his empirical studies., but it is his heart that is the higher guide.

This type of examination of Jefferson is unique and marks Holowchak as one of the most important writers in today’s Jefferson literature. While not an exhaustive examination of Jefferson’s philosophy, Holowchak manages to range through such aspects of Jefferson as a philologist, his liberal eudaimonism, and his admiration for the doctrines of Epicurus.

Holowchak reestablishes for us the virtuous Jefferson, the moralist who challenges himself and his correspondents to let conscience lead to a truthful and virtuous life. Jefferson’s philosophy of man and his place in society runs through all of his correspondence with consistent themes of individual responsibility, honesty and familial obligations. 

Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War

Michael Kranish

Oxford University Press 2010

After the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson returned to Monticello and remained there for the greater part of the Revolutionary War. He was elected governor in 1779 and served for two years. He faced great difficulties in exercising control over the Virginia state militias and merging them into the national army.

The burning of Norfolk and other military movements within Virginia are well documented in this excellent treatment by Michael Kranish. He also suggests that Jefferson’s flight to Poplar Forest may have contributed to the death of Martha Jefferson following the birth of her sixth child. Most accounts of this period do not go beyond the incident where Banastre Tarleton attempted to trap him and the General Assembly in Charlottesville.

Criticism by his fellow Virginians of his efforts to avoid capture brought Jefferson much pain. When his second term expired, he immediately returned to Monticello, leaving Virginia without a governor. His wartime experience led to a lasting disdain for Patrick Henry. It probably contributed to his quick acceptance of an appointment to the peace commission in Paris, which was offered shortly after the death of his wife.

“Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Lucia Stanton

University of Virginia Press 2012 Review by Vivienne Kelley

The title is in quotation marks, as if Jefferson actually wrote such a thing, but in fact he did not. The title completely changes the meaning of what Jefferson actually wrote to the very opposite of what Jefferson meant. In a personal letter, Jefferson wrote the following sentence: “I have my house to build, my fields to farm, and to watch for the happiness of those who labor for mine" (Jefferson letter dated November 27, 1793 to Angelica Church).

“I have … to watch for the happiness of those who labor for mine” is a thoughtful and important statement whose meaning is clear. But this phrase has been cut and twisted to what Stanton uses as her title: “Those Who Labor for My Happiness.” Now enclosed by Stanton in quotation marks— the heart, the central thought that Jefferson sought to convey is removed and an entirely different meaning is substituted by Stanton.

Is this fair scholarship? To Jefferson, to the public, and perhaps in a unique way to the descendants of those who did labor to whom Jefferson’s words might be very welcomed and hold a special meaning?

Stanton’s manipulation of Jefferson’s phrase proved valuable to Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf in their Introduction, as they deviate from the focus on the lives of the slaves and instead use these words to highlight their idea of Jefferson as a “master” and “an alien and alienating figure.” 

Imagine what a different first impression this book might have made on thousands of minds today and down through the years had Stanton chosen to correctly use Jefferson’s phrase, and entitled her book, “To watch for the happiness of those who labor for mine."

Martha Jefferson: An Intimate Life with Thomas Jefferson

William G. Hyland Jr.

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2014

To be released in November 2014 Martha Jefferson is the first and only biography of Thomas Jefferson’s greatest love and true kindred spirit, who died an untimely death at the young age of 33 in 1782.

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