Review of Kevin Gutzman’s "Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary"

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M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D. is the author of many books about Thomas Jefferson including "Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" (2013).

Kevin Gutzman’s new book on Jefferson is another attempt to construct a short biography of the former president. It separates itself from other short biographies by the author’s choice of subject-matter, his own dexterous use of prose, and the (generally) sober-sided conclusions he draws from the evidence.

The book comprises a brief introduction and five chapters: Federalism, Freedom of Conscience, Colonization, Assimilation, and Mr. Jefferson’s University. The first chapter, lengthy, sets the stage for the remainder of the book. Gutzman aims to explicate the relationship of the tasks of the federal government and the tasks of the subsidiary governments, especially the states’. The gist is decentralization. A point iterated is the federal government for Jefferson having only those enumerated powers explicitly expressed in the Constitution. Chapter 2 is an examination of the significance of freedom of thinking—especially religious thinking and its varied expressions. Chapter 3 concerns Jefferson’s views on race and slavery. Here Gutzman shows himself to be one of the few authors who does not ignore Jefferson’s several cautionary remarks about his conclusions, concerning the several inferiorities of Blacks in his Notes on the State of Virginia, being provisionalGutzman contrasts Jefferson’s views on Blacks with Native Americans in the fourth chapter, which does justice to Jefferson’s ambivalence to Native Americans. Last, Gutzman covers Jefferson’s views on education, with a focus on Jefferson’s birthing of the University of Virginia near the end of his life. By ending the book on education, Gutzman is also one of the few scholars who recognize the need of systemic educational reforms for implementation and sustainment of Jeffersonian “federalism.”

The book is concise, and eminently readable. Upon completion, readers will have a familiarity with Thomas Jefferson that they will not have after completion of numerous other short biographies. Gutzman wants readers to know Jefferson, not to judge him. Also charming is Gutzman’s (I presume) Jefferson-like contravention of grammatical conventions in the telling of his story.—e.g., ending a sentence with “but” (66); ending a sentence thus, “…very broad claim of congressional authority, then” (71); use of an ellipsis (77) when no words are omitted; treating “Just as in 1776” as a sentence (96); and so on.

There are a few difficulties.

First, there is the difficulty of motivation. Why do we need another biography of Jefferson? What is Gutzman offering us that others have not? We are never told at the beginning of the book. One could essay to tease out an answer by examining the contents for a thread, but none readily stands out. Finally, in the conclusion, we get the motivation for the book. “What Jefferson did as a constructive statesman is far more important than is generally recognized. He was the most significant statesman in American history.” Gutzman then tells us that the chapters are summaries of “the most significant reform programs” that Jefferson implemented (241). Those are powerful statements, which would surely today draw fire from many of the Jefferson revisionists, some of whom (e.g., Finkelman) Gutzman tackles. We need to hear them in the introduction, so we know what we are to keep at the back of our mind when reading the book in order to judge whether Gutzman has defended adequately his very strong thesis.

The second difficulty is redundancy. There are several occasions where Gutzman gives an account of some event in some detail in one chapter only to return to that event in a later chapter with similar detail, unneeded. One illustration of that concerns his story of the revisal of the laws of Virginia by Jefferson, Wythe, and Pendleton. The story of the eight professorships at William and Mary College (105) is nearly the same as the account given later (208). It is the same with the story of Jefferson eradicating the Brafferton at William and Mary College during his governorship (183 and 209). Those redundancies will become evident to readers, once past the initial chapter, and they give the impression that the chapters were initially distinct essays that were made, perhaps forced, into a book.

Third, there are some scattered, unsupported comments. Referring to the strange passage in Notes on Virginia concerning the chain-of-being argument for the male “Oran-ootan” lusting after black females so that the offspring might be improved, Gutzman merely states that the chain-of-being argument had long been exploded (143). It had not. Gutzman also tells us that Jefferson believed Joseph Priestley to be of like mind on education “primarily because he misunderstood Priestley’s religious views” (213). He did? Not at all. Jefferson knew quite well that Priestley’s religious views differed in significant ways from his own, but still respected Priestley as a significant authority on religious matters. Again, there is Gutzman’s conclusion concerning why Jefferson later in life did not do more to eradicate slavery. He cites Jefferson’s letter to Coles, who asked Jefferson to do something to help free Blacks. Says Gutzman: “In sum: not my job; not my fault; good luck to you” (168). A better grasp of Jefferson on generational responsibility (Gr. eukairia), which Jefferson covers in his 1789 letter to Madison (Sept. 6) and elsewhere (TJ to George Washington, 7 Nov. 1792; TJ to Benjamin Rush, 17 Aug. 1811; TJ to John Adams, 1 Aug. 1816; and TJ to Henry Dearborn, 17 Aug. 1821) would clear up the difficulty.

Still the book, as a short biography of Jefferson, is recommended, because Gutzman is doing history the right way. He is not out to sensationalize. He has no interest in scandalous gossip presented as historical fact in an effort to sell books. He is an honest, intelligent scholar, whose views on Jefferson, though perhaps not always correct, are worth considering, pondering, because there is no hidden agenda. He is interested in a portrait of the historical Jefferson—an aim for many historians that has gone out of vogue decades ago. Disingenuousness, intelligence, and regard for evidence-based scholarship make him a relevant Jeffersonian historian, and make the book recommended reading.



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