Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh

Image of Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh
Release Date: 
February 7, 2023
Yale University Press
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Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh explores Jefferson’s great contradictions and ideas, especially around religion and slavery, yet the view is not of Jefferson as the ‘Sage of Monticello’ but of a real human being.”

Thomas S. Kidd begins Thomas Jefferson: A Biography with the very problem of any study of the third President of the United States, he “was a brilliant but troubled man,” “among the founding Fathers he is the greatest enigma—and the greatest source of controversy.” Kidd illustrates this problem by integrating Jefferson’s life with liberty, religion, and slavery.

The issue, the author argues, is not hypocrisy but “Jefferson held a host of beliefs and inclinations that were unreconciled, and maybe irreconcilable.” The author discusses many factors that influenced Jefferson’s enigmatic decision-making including “Anglican learning,” books, death, debt, house fires, migraines, Joseph Priestley, and science. “Jefferson’s eclectic influences led to an unstable mix in his sense of direction.”

Thomas Jefferson: A Biography discusses “the dissonant beliefs and actions” of Jefferson. Many of his greatest achievements came from arbitrary decisions against his advocated principles such as the Louisiana Purchase, out of practicality tied to the moment.

Jefferson claimed he had a “hankering for private tranquility” but he never turned down the chance to be in the middle of the big decisions in the new nation after every time he officially retired. As contradictory as his decisions and thoughts, he always acted for the future.

The list of his accomplishments is long but many are misrepresented. His administration projected “the image of republican modesty” but he also had the White House remodeled and with “massive expenditures on hospitality.” Jefferson proposed many impractical ideas such as his anti-slavery views despite not accepting opportunities to emancipate his own enslaved workers. His obsession with rebuilding his famed home Monticello and building Poplar Forest, despite the cost, reflected his lack of control over his desires. “Jefferson consistently praised frugality, though that idea contradicted how he lived, or he felt he was forced to live.”

From his time in France as an American ambassador, Jefferson brought considerable goods back to America but also culture and ideas. At Monticello, he strived to keep much of what he enjoyed in Paris for the rest of his life, especially with wine. Yet he “expressed concern about the corrupting manner of Europe” on American youth.

Jefferson had all of the beginnings of a revolutionary by 1774, but history would have to find and drag him along to write the Declaration of Independence, “the most influential document in American history.” The final draft contains so many contributions of others, reflecting the pragmatist Jefferson.

The relationship between Jefferson and John Dickinson, who refused to support independence but co-authored with him a pamphlet on bearing arms against the king, likewise reflects Jefferson’s complexities. In his famous relationships with James Madison and James Monroe he had collaboration out of mutual respect.

Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh explores Jefferson’s great contradictions and ideas, especially around religion and slavery, yet the view is not of Jefferson as the “Sage of Monticello” but of a real human being. Though not indecisive, he made his decisions through ways, sometimes, surely even a mystery to himself.

Jefferson left a record of greatness but also controversy including his failures as governor of Virginia, his racist attitudes, and the Sally Hemings scandal. His compromise and differences with Alexander Hamilton became famous but not the problems with Jefferson’s endorsement of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. He was a master of the derision of others, but as president he called for political unity.

A master whose declining fortunes depended upon slavery would attack internationally recognized Black poet Phillis Wheatley wrote other racist comments in Notes on the State of Virginia and his defense of the French Revolution, drawing criticism to the present. Jefferson, however, also argued for emancipation and racial equality and criticized the infamous French Ambassador Edmond-Charles Genèt. He fell out with George Washington and John Adams, but owed his presidency to his enemy Alexander Hamilton.

Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh has simple, easy, engaging prose that carries the reader along with only limited digression and sidebars. The reader might wish for more on some subjects such as the relationship with Patrick Henry, but other works can answer that need.

This work also makes a good first book on Thomas Jefferson. This solid scholarship has annotation.