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Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  536 ratings  ·  112 reviews
Thomas Jefferson is often portrayed as a hopelessly enigmatic figure—a riddle—a man so riven with contradictions that he is almost impossible to know. Lauded as the most articulate voice of American freedom and equality, even as he held people—including his own family—in bondage, Jefferson is variably described as a hypocrite, an atheist, or a simple-minded proponent of li ...more
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published April 13th 2016 by Liveright
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Hallie Southard I'm about half way through it and must say it's a bit disjointed. It doesn't flow as well as Gordon-Reed's previous work: 'The Hemingses of Monticello…moreI'm about half way through it and must say it's a bit disjointed. It doesn't flow as well as Gordon-Reed's previous work: 'The Hemingses of Monticello', which leads me to believe they must have intertwined or overlapped their thoughts on each chapter.
I also don't like the layout of the book. It doesn't flow well.
I'll write a full review when I've completed the book.(less)

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In 1776 when Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” he owned over 200 slaves. Later, as a widower and US Minister to France, he began his relationship with Sally Hemings, his wife’s half-sister, who was enslaved by him. With his wife he had 2 children who lived to adulthood and with Hemings he had 6 children, 4 who lived to adulthood. Members of the two families lived together at Monticello at various times over many years. How did he feel about his families and these contradictions? ...more
Brian Willis
Jul 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Unlike most books about Jefferson, this book is not a straightforward biography of the man and the set of circumstances that led to his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the events of his presidency, nor does it intend to indict Jefferson for his inconsistencies over slavery. In fact, Gordon-Reed, who won a Pulitzer for her definitive case uncovering the children fathered by Jefferson with Sally Hemings, and Onuf, a leading Jeffersonian scholar, have written a book that analyzes ...more
John Daly
Jan 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Book 13 of 40 for 2016

Thomas Jefferson is our Founding Father who is and will always be to history a riddle wrapped in enigma. The slave owner who proclaimed "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In Most Blessed of Patriarchs Gordon-Reed and Onuf attempt to unwrap the enigma that is Thomas Jefferson. Be warned if your looking
My god was this dull! This had the potential to be a great read but the co-authors writing styles made it tedious! Instead of being direct, the authors ran in circles around each point they were trying to make. I could not get out of the introduction (and this was after the prologue!). I had some issues with Jon Meacham's patronizing writing style on his study of Thomas Jefferson but at least his book was interesting. Meacham made Thomas Jefferson interesting. The authors of this book made Jeffe ...more
Colleen Browne
Feb 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, biography
Gordon-Reed and Onuf have crafted a book on Jefferson that adds a tremendous amount to our knowledge about one of our most enigmatic Forefathers. Written from the perspective of what Jefferson's world would have looked to him, it is a fascinating book divided into chapters about the different aspects of his life. It is not a biography but certainly complements our knowledge of the subject. Very well written and valuable to anyone interested in learning more about Jefferson. ...more
Andrew Carr
Oct 02, 2016 rated it it was ok
Let us count the ways in which thou art blessed. For Thomas Jefferson, this injunction could take all night. For the book Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination it is unfortunately a much shorter task.

Thomas Jefferson is a charming and contradictory figure. An ‘American Sphinx’ as one biographer described. I’ve probably read a half dozen books on Jefferson over the years in a bid to understand him; such that this task is ever possible. So I was excited
Feb 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
I won a copy of this from Goodreads First Reads program.

Interesting engaging read about Thomas Jefferson. I wouldn't really class this as a biography, more a personality sketch well researched. This is not chronological or comprehensive, but rather categorical portraits of Jefferson. If you are not well versed in the basics of Jefferson you will not get them here. Instead you find chapters on Jefferson away from home and Jefferson and music. You get a sense of the man using a wide array of paper
Ivor Armistead
Apr 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
Actually, 4 1/2 stars. This is a must read for everyone interested in understanding the most gifted and most complex of the founding fathers. The contradictions in the life of this son of the Enlightenment have always been apparent. How can a man who believed that all are created equal and who acknowledged the inherent evil and injustice of slavery, continue to live off of the forced labor of the fellow humans (including his progeny) who he purported to "own?"

This is the conundrum that this well
Oct 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, history
A 3.5, but I rounded up, because I think it's an important book.

This isn't a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Instead, Gordon-Reed and Onuf dive deep into how Jefferson thought--about himself, about slavery, about the United States, about politics, about religion and women and visitors and music. The authors do a good job of placing Jefferson firmly in his time period; they don't apologize for his beliefs and attitudes, but they contextualize them. As expected, Sally Hemings and her family, as wel
Anita Lynch-Cooper
Nov 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is avery readable history, though not a strictly chonological history of his achievements. Jefferson was an enigma. He early on wrote about the evils of slavery and prayed for an orderly emancipation of the slaves . He owned slaves, including 6 half siblings of his wife Martha. He idealized home life, yet spent many years separated from his daughters while in France and later in Washington . He prided himself on his hospitality , yet had a separate building for his own use away from Montice ...more
Apr 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I’m rating the book 4 stars but rate Jefferson with 2. Must have been a common trait with the patriarchs, but WOW what an ego. It’s like he had mental problems and lived half of his life in his head... and portrayed it as reality to himself. What he Failed to do is just as lasting to our country’s posterity as what he accomplished.

Good book, but why do the authors give him the benefit of the doubt so often? Quit justifying his actions with potential intentions.

Jun 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Perhaps the best book I have ever read about Mr. Jefferson. I am a product of the University of Virginia, which Gordon-Reed and her co-author Peter Onuf argue was the practical expression of his vision of the Republic. It was to provide citizens who were educated in the American ideals of liberty and community membership. Gordon-Reed argues convincingly that Thomas Jefferson viewed the family as the foundation for the Republic. The book's title comes from a self-description used by Jefferson him ...more
Mar 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
Read a pre-release copy shared by Sara. Librarians get to go to the coolest conferences.
Janette Singleton
Jul 27, 2016 rated it liked it
An audio book, a lot of good information but seemed to be repetitious and got boring. The reader had a voice that to me made it more so.
Nov 10, 2016 rated it really liked it
Very well written and insightful. I got a much clearer picture of Jefferson the man, as opposed to Jefferson the icon.
Jan 13, 2021 rated it liked it
This book took me forever to finish! Gordon-Reed is an eloquent writer but DENSE. I found the quotes from his relatives, close friends, and visitors to Monticello really interesting and revealing about how complex and sometimes conflicted the founding patriarch was. His ideal vision of a founding patriarch differed from his reality in that he suffered heartbreak and lived a life that diverged from his ideals.
Again, however, I found it long, dense, but full of interesting anecdotes and stories.
Mar 11, 2018 rated it liked it
The book gives a good insight into Jefferson’s contradictions, especially with his views on slavery. You also get a good feeling as to how important family was to him. My complaint is that the book seemed to meander everywhere, so at times it was a bit hard to follow the point the author was making. Overall, good, but not a must read on Jefferson.
May 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Watching the depiction of Jefferson in the play "Hamilton", and reading articles on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship since the discovery of DNA, made me want to understand the man. How does one resolve the contradiction of the champion of liberty image with the slaveholder image? This book gives the social context needed to see more clearly not only his private life and personal development, but also how his very position as a Founding Father constricted his ability to abolish slavery, which h ...more
Oct 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Jefferson was a brilliant and talented individual, one of the "founding fathers", writer of the Declaration of Independence, our third president, and deserves as much credit as anyone for the success of the fledgling American republic. You'd think by now that after millions of words have been written about him, there'd be little left to say.

But there's always more. Henry Adams famous comment explains why, "The contradictions in Jefferson's character have always rendered it a fascinating study.
Aug 14, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
In the case of a subject like Thomas Jefferson, biographies of whom abound on any library or bookstore shelf, any new contender for space on those shelves should make a plausible case for doing something different, for increasing and improving our understanding of the man and not just pouring old wine into an new bottle (something of which Jefferson, a noted oenophile, would certainly not have approved). "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" makes such a case by not following the life and work of Jef ...more
Andy Miller
Nov 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
Annette Gordon-Reed, one of the two c0-authors, is my favorite historian. I started " Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy" and its thesis that they had a sexual relationship with some skepticism. I had always dismissed that allegation as vicious attacks by Jefferson's political enemies. But as I read her careful scholarship that correlated the birth of all her children to Jefferson's presence at Monticello nine months earlier during times when Jefferson was usually in Ne ...more
Feb 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What I just emailed to Annette Gordon-Reed, referencing this podcast interview:


Hello Professor Gordon-Reed -

I'm a member of a book discussion group that will be discussing "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" this Friday evening. We only meet in alternate months, so I've been obsessing about the book and Jefferson for weeks now, including listening to every podcast interview I could find, of yourself and Professor Onuf.

I just now heard your "Ben Frankli
Nick Smith
Sep 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
I loved this book because it enabled me to see the way Jefferson wanted himself to be portrayed. It also allowed me to see how he viewed himself. One of the things about bringing his name up in conversation, is that people will very quickly mention that he was a slaveholder. In this book, as in others of hers, Annette Gordon-Reed, an African-American law professor and Jefferson scholar, lets us into the world of home at Monticello. We see the liaison between Jefferson himself and Sally Hemings, ...more
Lynn Pribus
Aug 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
I confess I didn't read every word in this book which I dutifully checked out of the librrary. (Not only do I live about 2 miles from Monticello, the book was co-authored by a woman who won the Pulitzer Prize for writing about the Hemings family and the husband of woman I played racquetball with before she and her NPR "Back Story" husband moved to Maine. )

Very highly detailed with new information for me, but, as I said HIGHLY detailed. It reveals how conflicted TJ was about slavery in Virginia,
Feb 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I discovered this book long after my own, MONTICELLO: A DAUGHTER AND HER FATHER, went off to the publisher and only just got around to reading it. We come from the same place and go to the same place -- no devils or angels here.
Rosemary Clark
Oct 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Biographies of this caliber are essential to the study of American philosophers and statesmen.
Biographies of America’s founders are abundant, most emphasize a theme of contemporary interest in the social or political spheres and fail to realistically portray the sentiments of times and places past. Here, the authors elucidate on what has been too often ignored but was undoubtedly the center and true passion of Thomas Jefferson’s life: his forebears, family, and his land.
Thankfully, this book is a departure from the usual psychoanalytic scrutiny of our first American philosopher. Gordon-R
May 07, 2016 rated it liked it
Two historians I respect wrote a book about Thomas Jefferson. In some ways it didn't tread particularly new ground but did attempt to reveal a Jefferson from his own words and actions that is complicated and in some ways undefinable. They are attempting to transcend the modern labeling of a founding father from the 18th century and tease apart why Jefferson didn't act in ways we would have wanted him to.

The book doesn't excuse his actions as a slave holder but acknowledges his inconsistencies w
Apr 06, 2016 rated it liked it
I did not get a lot out of this book. A previous reviewer mentioned that if one did not know much about Jefferson, they probably still wouldn't after reading it. I think I am one of those people. Particularly towards the end I flipped over a number of pages just because it seemed as if there was a lot of repetition going on. I give it 3 stars just because I'm sure a good bit of effort went into writing it. ...more
Dec 19, 2016 rated it did not like it
Shelves: lame
I started reading this, but the narrative push was too much. Its obvious the "historians" are more interested in painting a racial picture than telling something accurate. There's many of historical documents that were overlooked I feel to paint a specific picture.

Suffice to say, I didn't finish this bc its garbage.
David  Cook
I friend shared with me an NPR podcast with the author Annette Gordon-Reed. I was so intrigued by the podcast that I immediately purchased the book, co-authored by Reed and Peter S. Onuf. Despite having read 5 other Jefferson biographies this was a worthy addition and plowed some new ground. In an era when a reawakening of the evils of slavery and the participation and perpetuation by many otherwise great men of history it is a challenging topic. The Reed is a Harvard law professor, yet her writ ...more
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Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers University. She is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. She lives in New York City.

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