A Day on Jefferson with Professors Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf


Kicking off the national book tour for their co-authored Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination in Columbia, the Kinder Institute brought Harvard’s Annette Gordon-Reed and University of Virginia’s Peter S. Onuf to campus on April 4, 2016, to present their research into one of American history’s most complicated figures. In addition to having lunch with current and former members of the Institute’s undergraduate Society of Fellows, during which they discussed topics ranging from their collaborative process to contemporary re-interpretations of the meaning and significance of the term ‘empire,’ Professors Gordon-Reed and Onuf participated in the following events during their stay at MU:

“Where Do We Put Jefferson Today?” A Public Forum

In what we hope will become a staple of our campus and community programming, the Institute hosted an open forum on the afternoon of April 4 to discuss approaches to interpreting Thomas Jefferson in contemporary context, with a particular focus on recent debates concerning public memorials to the nation’s third president. University of Missouri graduate student Maxwell Little, whose petition to remove the Jefferson statue from the MU quad has been covered in publications ranging from The Washington Post to Inside Higher Ed, provided opening remarks for the forum, using Frederick Douglass’ 1852 “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” as a starting point for crafting an argument regarding the relationship between Jefferson’s legacy and the forms of inequality, exclusion, and violence that endure in and continue to plague today’s society. Specifically, Little argued that the sexist and white supremacist ideologies inherent in Jefferson’s status as a Virginia slaveholder are inconsistent not only with the founding ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence but also with the University of Missouri’s own core values. To remove the statue, Little concluded, would mark an important step in establishing a university-wide commitment to creating inclusive, anti-racist spaces on campus.

In continuing the conversation, Prof. Onuf noted that Jefferson is one of many figures whose legacies should discomfit us, because they underscore both the nation’s historical failure and its current struggles to materially realize the social and political ideals on which the United States was founded. It’s thus important, Prof. Onuf went on to explain, that in recent decades, discourse about Jefferson has shifted away from blind veneration. At the same time, as dangerous as “Founders worship” is, both he and Prof. Gordon-Reed agreed that it would be equally dangerous to avoid discussing Jefferson, because we consider many of his behaviors loathsome. As Prof. Gordon-Reed pointed out, the fact that African-American leaders from Douglass to the present have grappled with the Declaration of Independence and drawn on its language in the course of advancing civil rights speaks to how Jefferson provides us with an opportunity to talk about, analyze, and work towards eradicating the causes and current manifestations of non- and second class-citizenship. We can, Prof. Onuf added, learn from Jefferson’s achievements and his shortcomings equally. Though he often failed to live them out or fully commit to making them a reality, his ideas about justice and his vision of a republic more enlightened than the one he was a part of can still contribute to the nation’s continued progress toward greater equality. More, not less, history, Prof. Onuf concluded, is the answer.

“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs?” Town & Gown Dinner Lecture

In providing an overview of some of the lines of inquiry at the heart of he and Prof. Gordon-Reed’s collaborative work, Prof. Onuf began Monday evening’s Town & Gown Dinner Lecture by noting how many of the tensions that Jefferson presents us with are captured in the book’s main title: “Most blessed of the patriarchs,” which is how Jefferson described himself in a 1793 letter to Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Angelica Skylar Church. On the one hand, Jefferson’s self-applied moniker reflects both his deep commitment to fostering the growth of the United States in the decades following the Revolution as well as his faith that the next generations of citizens would work to refine and would be even more capable of broadening the scope of the government and the ideals for which he served as a contributing, paternal architect. At the same time, Jefferson’s almost wistful use of the term ‘patriarch’ brings with it a difficult, and one might argue impossible, task: reconciling his participation in chattel slavery with his belief that the perfection of American democracy required a proliferation of voices and a prolific respect of liberty from the national to the county to the familial level. For Jefferson, Prof. Onuf noted in concluding his opening remarks, the majority was thus indispensible to the health of democracy up until the gates of the plantation.

Complicating matters even further, Prof. Onuf later explained, is having to square Jefferson’s abiding faith in majority rule not only with his participation in chattel slavery but also with his being a proponent of emancipation (on the grounds that it be coupled with repatriation). In addressing this inconsistency, Prof. Gordon-Reed traced it back on the one hand to a lack of economic foresight and on the other, to the obstruction of political expedience. She noted, for example, how Jefferson’s belief that the expansion and subsequent diffusion of slavery might foster social conditions hospitable to emancipation was woefully, almost willfully, ignorant to how achieving this outcome was made virtually impossible by the degree to which the profitability of the institution had permeated and warped society. Pragmatically aware that his hope of abolishing slavery in Virginia was a legislative non-starter, Prof. Gordon-Reed went on to describe how Jefferson responded to the political reality of his home state with a similar ineffectualness. While it may be viewed as a problematic act of benevolence in historical context, his policy of treating his own slaves more fairly than his neighbors did theirs did nothing to publicly advance and inculcate Virginians in the moral importance of the cause of emancipation. That he ultimately saw slavery as problem that future generations would have to resolve reflects, Prof. Gordon-Reed argued, a recurring emotional inability to act on his intellectual beliefs. Though he prayed for the enlightenment of society on the issue of slavery, and though he wrote extensively of enlightened conceptions of justice and equality, he understood not only how entrenched the culture of slavery had become but also that it would take an act of force—for him, an unthinkable threat to the fabric of the union—to displace it.

The public forum and lecture were made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, conducted in partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council, that supports programs geared toward examining questions concerning the causes and consequences of–as well as ideas about the remedies for–social and political fracture in contemporary America. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed during these events do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Video of the talk can be found here.

Annette Gordon-Reed is the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, and a Professor of History at Harvard University. She received the 2008 National Book Award and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton, 2008). Prof. Gordon-Reed also is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University of Virginia Press, 1997) and Andrew Johnson (Times Books, 2010), the co-author, with Vernon Jordan, Jr., of Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir (PublicAffairs, 2001), and editor of Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History (Oxford University Press, 2002). Her honors include the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship in the humanities, a fellowship from the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the National Organization for Women in New York City’s Woman of Power and Influence Award. Prof. Gordon-Reed was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011 and is a member of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Peter S. Onuf received his A.B. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and currently serves as Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Virginia. Prof. Onuf is the author of The Mind of Thomas Jefferson (University of Virginia Press, 2007); Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (University of Virginia Press, 2001), Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance (Indiana University Press, 1987), Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775-1787 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983). He also is the co-author of numerous books, including Nations, Markets, and War: Modern History and the Civil War, with Nicholas G. Onuf (UVA Press, 2006) and Jeffersonian America, with Leonard Sadosky (Basil Blackwell’s, 2001), and editor of a number of scholarly collections, most recently The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic, with James Horn and Jan Ellen Lewis (University of Virginia Press, 2002). Prof. Onuf is known for his role as “the 18th Century Guy” on the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ award-winning public radio program and podcast, “Backstory…with the American History Guys.”