Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Contributing Editor: Frank Shuffelton
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Jefferson does not write in traditionally conceived literary genres, i.e., fiction, poetry, etc., but his best writing is in the form of public addresses, letters, and a political and scientific account of his home state. One can persuade students to see the cultural significance of these forms and then lead them to see the artful construction of image and idea to move readers and to recognize that the texts work (perform) as literature.
Students are particularly interested in discussing the notion of equality, and most people in general want to talk about Sally Hemings. The contradiction between Jefferson's egalitarianism and his racism (real or apparent) also provokes discussion.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
For Jefferson, the values of political and moral equality, the scientific interest in variety and complexity in nature and culture, and a kind of skepticism, a doubt that absolute truth can be unequivocally attained in any generation, put him in the line of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. At the same time, the fact that he seems to represent the voiceless and the marginal as a political leader even while his own interests and social position put him among the white male elite of his time points to certain tensions in his positions, of which he was not himself always aware.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Jefferson published only one full-length book, his Notes on the State of Virginia, but the Declaration of Independence and his letters are also significant literary achievements. The Declaration matters because of its significance for our national culture, the letters because of their frequent power to express Jefferson's public ideals and commitments, the importance of the many ideas and issues that fall under his consideration, and the clarity of his consideration. We should remember that Jefferson's sense of the historical moment conditioned practically everything he wrote.
The distinction between private audience, as for personal letters, and public audience, as for the Declaration, is interesting to pursue because Jefferson blurred them in interesting ways. Some of his letters were published, usually against his will but not without his recognition that personal letters could always become public, and yet he was somewhat reluctant to publish Notes on the State of Virginia.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Comparisons are effective; for example, the Declaration to Puritan sermons, Notes on the State of Virginia to Crèvecoeur's Letters or to Bartram's Travels. It is also helpful to get students to think about the importance of history and politics as central matrices for eighteenth-century thought, the move toward science and natural history as the nineteenth century approached, and the different ways we in the late twentieth century have for ordering our knowledge of the world.
The Declaration is a kind of jeremiad in Sacvan Bercovitch's sense of the term, which involves an ironically affirmative catalog of catastrophes, an admission of sins to cast them out. Notes on the State of Virginia, Crèvecoeur's Letters, and Bartram's Travels can be seen as different ways of defining the American landscape, as well as the place of America.
Useful essays on a variety of topics appear in Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Scribner's, 1986). See also its bibliographical essay.
Cunningham, Noble E, Jr. In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1987. A convenient one-volume biography.
Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Knopf, 1997. Suggestive study by an eminent biographer of John Adams, who influences the author's perspective.
Miller, John C. The Wolf By the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. New York: Free Press, 1977. A thorough and balanced view of Jefferson's changing views on race and slavery.
Onuf, Peter, ed. Jeffersonian Legacies. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Informed essays by younger scholars on most aspects of Jefferson's life and thought. Particularly interesting is Lucia Stanton's essay on the slave community at Monticello.
Peterson, Merrill. Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography. New York: Scribner's, 1986. Contains authoritative essays on Jefferson's interests and the issues in which he found himself involved. Has a useful bibliographical essay.