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

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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 limited government who expected all Americans to be farmers forever.

Now, Annette Gordon-Reed teams up with America's leading Jefferson scholar, Peter S. Onuf, to present an absorbing and revealing character study that dispels the many clichés that have accrued over the years about our third president. Challenging the widely prevalent belief that Jefferson remains so opaque as to be unknowable, the authors—through their careful analysis, painstaking research, and vivid prose—create a portrait of Jefferson, as he might have painted himself, one "comprised of equal parts sun and shadow" (Jane Kamensky).

Tracing Jefferson's philosophical development from youth to old age, the authors explore what they call the "empire" of Jefferson's imagination—an expansive state of mind born of his origins in a slave society, his intellectual influences, and the vaulting ambition that propelled him into public life as a modern avatar of the Enlightenment who, at the same time, likened himself to a figure of old—"the most blessed of the patriarchs." Indeed, Jefferson saw himself as a "patriarch," not just to his country and mountain-like home at Monticello but also to his family, the white half that he loved so publicly, as well as to the black side that he claimed to love, a contradiction of extraordinary historical magnitude.

Divided into three sections, "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" reveals a striking personal dimension to his life. Part I, "Patriarch," explores Jeffersons's origins in Virgina; Part II, " 'Traveller,' " covers his five-year sojourn to Paris; and Part III, "Enthusiast," delves insightfully into the Virginian's views on Christianity, slavery, and race. We see not just his ideas and vision of America but come to know him in an almost familial way, such as through the importance of music in his life.

"Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" fundamentally challenges much of what we’ve come to accept about Jefferson, neither hypocrite nor saint, atheist nor fundamentalist. Gordon-Reed and Onuf, through a close reading of Jefferson’s own words, reintroduce us all to our most influential founding father: a man more gifted than most, but complicated in just the ways we all are.

400 pages, Hardcover

First published April 13, 2016

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About the author

Annette Gordon-Reed

20 books542 followers
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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Displaying 1 - 30 of 124 reviews
Profile Image for Louise.
1,631 reviews285 followers
July 12, 2017
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?

In this book, Annette Gordon-Reed extends her research on the Hemings family, and along with Peter Onuf discusses the factors that went into Jefferson’s character: his early life, his relationship with the other patriots, his time in Paris and experience in governing. They draw heavily of his own writings, particularly “Notes on the State of Virginia”. They weigh his public and private lives from letters and narratives of those who knew him.

Jefferson saw himself a “patriarch” a father/leader. He similarly viewed each family in a republic, free under its own patriarch, each state and finally the country as one family with a patriarch at its head. Other planters did not live on hill tops: hauling water and the long upward access were impractical, but at Monticello he was free to pursue his happiness. That this pursuit depended on the work of those with limited or no choices: women (whom he saw as natural helpmates to men) and slaves (whom he felt would be freed from their unjust condition by later generations) was not acknowledged by him.

The authors work is far beyond the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, but I could not help but focus on it as key to understanding Jefferson. While a social person with refined tastes, he regularly retreated to a very private life. Was the need for privacy a way to control what people knew of him as a slave owner and partner to a woman who was his slave? Did he pay his slaves in Paris because knew the opinion of slavery held by those he respected? Why is it that none of the many guests at Monticello (a few of whom saw children who looked like Jefferson) reported any engagement with his children? Did Jefferson not free Sally Hemings in his will because it would call attention to their relationship? The authors describe Jefferson’s manners and the way he steered conversations; was he avoiding unpleasant notices of his situation? His appreciation of the opera, the symphony and folk music of Scotland, Ireland and Virginia is well documented, but did he hide an appreciation for the music of those living closest to him? Did he leave incomplete, and perhaps obfuscated, records in order to hide his private life?

There was a huge backlash in the 1970’s when Fawn Brodie introduced the Sally Hemings to the general public. It’s taken two generations, DNA testing and black and female scholars crossing the glass ceiling to have a book like this received with minimal reaction of it as an attack on Jefferson. I recommend it for those with some background on Jefferson (this is not a bio) and an interest in the issue of slavery.
Profile Image for Brian Willis.
574 reviews30 followers
August 13, 2016
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 and rescues the terms "patriarchy" and "empire" from their pejorative senses within feminist and postcolonial lenses and restores them to the sense that Jefferson himself corroborated within his imagination to establish his own world view.

Focusing on how Jefferson organized his home Monticello and how he perceived himself as the beneficent font of prosperity at the head of that household, we see Jefferson's domestic sphere in a whole new light. Yes, he owned slaves, and yes, he wished that slavery could be wiped out of existence though he did little to further that cause, but he also say himself as the person from whom both family and slaves received positive benefits to their lives. No, this argument is not an apology for slavery or as harsh as modern moralistic perspectives would rightfully condemn the institution of slavery, but it does place us within the mind of Jefferson to understand how he could claim freedom for white men but not enable it for all within his own household. We also see Jefferson's relationship with his own land, that of Monticello as well as Virginia. The authors trace the evolution of Jefferson's views based on his extensive residency in France, as well as the minutiae of Jefferson's personality within the domestic boundaries of the interior of Monticello itself, the entertainment there, dining, the treatment of visitors, Jefferson's need for privacy, as well as his complicated religious views (he disavowed the supernatural aspect of the Bible and only absorbed the more rational teachings located there).

A noble book with a unique perspective, I would place it alongside Joseph J. Ellis's American Sphinx as the two best books available about Jefferson's mind and thoughts as opposed to straightforward biographies. I would have appreciated a little more variation in prose style for the book, but the content is exemplary.
Profile Image for Valerie.
499 reviews
June 6, 2017
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 Jefferson look dull when he was most certainly not.
Profile Image for Colleen Browne.
276 reviews63 followers
February 24, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Andrew Carr.
471 reviews90 followers
October 3, 2016
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 to get a copy of this book, given the reputation of the authors and the advanced praise for this book.

What I find most interesting about Jefferson is clearly not what the authors do. To me, he is a man of philosophy, prose and politics. All three are occasionally illuminated through this book’s lenses as his role as a patriarch. This book brings together the latest research on Jefferson, showing just how much new we have learned in recent years. But less engagingly, most of this has to do with the more mundane aspects of Jefferson’s life.

Personally, I find his relationship with Sally Hemmings, a slave girl and half-sister of his late wife quite uninteresting. I read biographies to learn about the unusual and historic. That an old slave owner found comfort in and had children through a slave he owned is neither. It was common for the time, and such behaviour is common across time.

As such, it was mildly interesting for the first 100 pages or so to see this relationship —if such a word can be used given questions of power and consent— brought into the light. Annette Gordon-Reed won a Pulitzer Prize for her earlier works demonstrating the truth of these ties. This was important for revealing a little bit more of his contradictory nature. But in Most Blessed of the Patriarchs, it seemed like the book’s authors couldn’t find an appropriate balance in trying to discuss Jefferson's many sides.

The book is nominally about his approach to home life, and the importance of having a domain he was master of, in shaping his world view and life. Thus many topics such as his daily routine, the construction of Monticello and his views on gardening (much more negative than commonly presumed) are discussed.

But few of these topics get the space they deserve, before the subject gets dragged back to his ties to Hemmings and the unwillingness of his white family and white Virginia to recognise them in any way. Often this occurs with little warning, with book jumping around, going back and forth, rather than methodically trying to peel back the layers.

The chapter on Jefferson’s time in France is a welcome exception, giving the period a sustained analysis. They reveal how Jefferson’s embrace of French society, and his role as advocate for America helped him see what was most distinct and valuable about America, its people, environment and culture.

Many of Jefferson’s biographers write huge tomes in the hope that the sheer space they cover will provide a large enough net to snare their slippery catch. Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf make do with just 320 pages, and at times you feel they have indeed brought some of the real Jefferson to the surface.

But just when they do, they let him return to the depths he found of most comfort, with ponderous and repetitive writing. Or rather, overwriting. The authors seem unable to simply state that Jefferson tried to be a good host. Instead they must tie it to the contradictions of human society and his vision of a grand American republic as an inspiration for all mankind.

For those fascinated by Jefferson, there is value in this book. The parts have value, if more than the sum. The authors are masters of their fields, and learning the latest discoveries in the scholarship is engaging. But its gems are hidden by waffly language and a confused focus. The task of trying to count Jefferson’s many blessings and oddities therefore continues.
Profile Image for John Daly.
94 reviews5 followers
June 28, 2016
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 for a biography of Jefferson this is not it go pickup Meecham's Thomas Jefferson The Art of Power or Joseph Ellis' American Sphinx.

Jefferson wanted control of his world and left records of only what he wanted to share with history as such we don't know the full scope of his relationship with the Hemming's but we do know that Sally and her family had a special status in the life on the hilltop.

Jefferson had several opportunities to speak out about the cancer that was slavery on the country he helped to create. Even during his long retirement he never used his clout and status to move the debate over slavery forward just depending on the next generation to take care of the problem that was left behind by the Southern Founders.

Jefferson also gut sucked into the French Revolution and then when it turned ugly and heads began to roll down the streets of Paris his ego refused to allow him to admit that the Revolution went to far.

It's clear that we are in a period of historical scholarship where Jefferson is being reexamined and reevaluated. With Hamilton, Adams, and Washington being reexamined the Southern Republican faction may be loosing some of their luster.

Gordon-Reed and Onuf provide a great examination of Jefferson's motivations and actions and it gives the reader a chance to go deeper into Jefferson and his actions and motivations. Defiantly pick it up after you've read Meecham or Ellis and you will enjoy the deeper dive into this complex man.
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,703 reviews129 followers
March 21, 2022
My review of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” disappeared???

A good book that is both precise on some topics and confusing on others, especially the topic of slavery.
1,353 reviews5 followers
February 27, 2016
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 papers, first hand accounts, and previous scholarship. One big piece focused on how Jefferson could be a slave holder with slave family and still truly believe that slavery was abhorrent. I feel I know Thomas Jefferson better than before, but couldnt say I learned anything specific.
Profile Image for Ivor Armistead.
358 reviews8 followers
May 5, 2016
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 researched, written and reasoned book so artfully seek to unravel.

As a result, readers will come away with a fuller understanding of a humanized Jefferson, who we can admire and admonish.
Profile Image for Barb.
428 reviews2 followers
October 18, 2020
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 well as other enslaved people at Monticello, are mentioned frequently throughout the book; the authors don't forget what Jefferson did.

Jefferson remains one of the more elusive historical figures in American history; he looms large, but is so full of contradictions. Gordon-Reed and Onuf do a good job of explaining him; after reading this, I felt I knew a lot more about Jefferson as a person. I also felt I learned about changing attitudes toward slavery as well as Jefferson's thoughts on the best forms of government.

I did knock some points off because the language is pretty academic. I had a harder time with it in the beginning than later in the book; I'm not sure if that's because I just got used to it, whether the writing changed a bit, or maybe just some subjects further into the book were less formal (the chapter on music was fascinating!). It was also somewhat repetitive, which tends to happen when authors cover things by topics, rather than chronologically.

Still, would highly recommend for anyone interested in Jefferson and this period of history.
November 26, 2018
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 Monticello where no friends or family were allowed and where he could escape too. He was not a fan of organized religion, but believed in god and the power of prayer . He was a man of his times regarding his opinion of women and slaves. Yet he corresponded with several educated women incldung Angelica Schuyler Church, who was Alexander Hamilton's sister in law.
Profile Image for Daniel.
186 reviews
April 7, 2019
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.

Profile Image for Simon.
803 reviews101 followers
June 12, 2020
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 himself in a letter setting out his retirement aims at Monticello. There he hoped to function at the apex of his family, both legal (his surviving children by Martha Wayles), illegal (his children by Martha's half-sister, the enslaved Sally Hemings) and slaves. Jefferson wrote the letter after his resignation as Secretary of State in Washington's administration. For a brief time he was in residence at Monticello, but after less than two years he was back as Vice President to John Adams, followed by two terms as President. It wasn't until 1809 that Jefferson was able to withdraw fully from public life. He spent the last 17 years of his life managing his plantation (poorly), hosting hundreds if not thousands of visitors (very well indeed) and enjoying the love of his surviving daughter Martha and her family, who came to live at Monticello after financial reverses. His grandchildren by both Martha and Maria, who died in childbirth in 1804, were sources of delight and interest. After an abortive attempt to end the estrangement with John and Abigail Adams following Maria's death and a sympathy note from Abigail, the two old comrades mended fences in 1813, beginning an epistolary relationship that is one of the glories of American political theory.

Gordon-Reed and Onuf attempted to deal with Jefferson in a novel way. How did he see himself, as opposed to how he was viewed by others? Thus the book is structured in terms of fundamental questions as opposed to linear biography. Jefferson's love of music, for example, illustrates a fundamental aspect of how he viewed relationships. The extended period in Paris changed his concept of self-presentation in terms of the affect of his manners. While he was robustly insular in terms of his nation vis a vis European society, Jefferson used the manners of the ancien regime to distance people from his inner life through a display of courtliness and self-control remarked upon by all who encountered him. Jefferson's sensual appetites for food and wine were also notable, and while his clothes became somewhat eccentric in old age (he dressed for comfort and not to be modish), his clothing materials were always fine. The quintessential man of the people was also a lifelong aristocrat.

Gordon-Reed is the chief proponent of Jefferson's second family, denied by historians as late as Joseph Ellis until she demonstrated 25 years ago that he was the only possible candidate as the father of Sally Hemings' children. The Monticello site itself accepted it 20 years ago after tests confirmed male Jefferson DNA in the Eston Hemings line. The claim is still disputed by outliers, one can only imagine why, but the fact that Jefferson maintained a not unusual master/slave relationship with Hemings for 37 years is the central dichotomy after his role as a slaveholder in the paradox that was Jefferson the man. We cannot know the emotional relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, but of course she was not technically free to refuse him. One doubts, however, that his temperament was that of a rapist. His son Madison, who wrote a memoir in 1873, describes a semi-remote figure but certainly not an abusive one to his mother, sister and brothers. Harriet and Beverly, the oldest, were allowed to leave Monticello in their late teens and sent north to freedom. Eston and Madison were freed at Jefferson's death, along with Sally's brother --- the only slave who escaped the wholesale dispersal as the Randolphs attempted to clear Monticello's debt. Martha Randolp gave her aunt Sally "her time", a notion that functionally translated to freedom for her father's companion. She was certainly regarded as such by the resident of Charlottesville, where she and her sons lived until Sally's own death in 1836. Again, Gordon-Reed and Onuf make a convincing argument that Jefferson needed to feel loved. Make of that what you will.

What are we to make of a man who decried slavery in the Declaration of Independence and Notes on the State of Virginia and yet kept them for the rest of his life? How can we forgive a man who kept his own children in servitude? Gordon-Reed are less interested in that than trying to understand how he reconciled these things internally, and they propose a way in which Jefferson could convince himself that his world view was consistent. It is the major achievement of the book that they succeed. By doing so they enable us to retain Jefferson as a Founding Father par excellence, but also a recognizable, flawed human being.

Race is the central issue in American history. As I write this review the United States is in agony after the murder of George Floyd. Such brutality toward African Americans dates back to 1619 when they were forcibly brought to Virginia. We have not yet solved the systemic racism problem that besets American society, and Jefferson certainly has nothing to offer from his personal life that will assist. And yet . . . Jefferson himself wished to be remembered for the University of Virginia and the Declaration of Independence. In the summer of 2017, UVA students and alumni --- and the better part of our nation --- were horrified by the tiki torch Nazis who descended upon Mr. Jefferson's university to bleat hate, engage in murderous violence and defile the Grounds by their presence. Students linked arms around the statue of Jefferson in front of the Rotunda to protect it from the mob. Faculty, staff and students staged a peaceful counter-protest on the Lawn itself to repudiate white supremacists. The University, his legacy, has evolved over its life to represent the ideals of Jefferson articulated in the Declaration. It has embodied them in ways that he personally could not. If Jefferson survives, he does so in the same way that his University and the United States launched by the Declaration do . . . as a work in progress, with emphasis on the word "progress."

Highly recommend.
96 reviews2 followers
January 14, 2021
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.
9 reviews
June 1, 2016
Read a pre-release copy shared by Sara. Librarians get to go to the coolest conferences.
July 27, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Claire .
223 reviews17 followers
November 10, 2016
Very well written and insightful. I got a much clearer picture of Jefferson the man, as opposed to Jefferson the icon.
Profile Image for Jenny.
691 reviews1 follower
March 12, 2018
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.
711 reviews
July 24, 2016
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 he knew was unjust and immoral.

Re. slavery, he tried, as other men of his time did, to abolish it, e.g., the American Colonization Society which would expel slaves to Africa--including his own family--which he did not sign onto; various proposals for gradual, compensatory emancipation he did propose; the idea to import Germans to marry the Africans, etc. These and other schemes were floated and some were even proposed to the Virginia legislature, but none succeeded. The give-up of free labor, the mistaken belief in white superiority, the awesome fear of freed black males --re-inforced by the revolt in Haiti, for instance--encouraged Jefferson to project emancipation as a job for future generations to accomplish.
Besides, other political and private matters took priority. Jefferson was very much a man of his time, (as we all are).

Jefferson was a true believer in the Enlightenment. Man would come to progressive understanding of the laws of nature through science. America was "Exceptional": we could have the best of the Old World (culture, civilization) and the best of a New Order, based on Natural Law and our closeness to Nature. He believed that Reason would prevail. He re-wrote the Bible, deleting any appearance of the miraculous or any claim of divine intervention. His God was detached from the world; it was for reasonable man to govern. Accordingly, he espoused free public education for citizens and helped design the secular university omitting any courses in theology. Participatory, small scale democracy--ward republics--were the answer for governance. Every man's home is his castle. His greatest fear was rule of force by another man, especially a king, or a priest.
(Of course, the place of enslaved people and of women of that time cannot be reconciled to that belief. but he was apparently blind to that contradictory fact.)

Jefferson was born on carved-out Iroquois land that was worked by slaves. He was sent to boarding school at age nine, and went on to College. He was an American version of aristocracy. But when he went as ambassador to France, he was by far no longer the smartest man in the room. He came to love French aristocratic culture, the salons, the sophistication, the wines, the furnishings, the style. All, except the equality of aristocratic women, who offended his sense of domesticity, of the man as ruler of the home.
He taught self-discipline and self control, but he made Sally Heming his concubine when she was sixteen (the age of his eldest daughter) and he was forty-two in France. She could not be his wife back in America, though she could have been under French law. He made allowances when he had to: in France he paid wages to his maid, Sally Hemings, and her brother, his chef, though they were still his slaves. Under French law, they were free persons. Was this to keep peace, his reputation among his French servants? He promised Sally that if she returned to America with him, he would not sell her or their children, and the children would be freed as adults. He kept that promise.

Jefferson was a visionary. But he had to live in reality.
He died in debt, having made some bad financial decisions. He freed five men in his will. But many people were sold to settle his accounts. Anyway, he could not afford to free anyone over 45 or under 21 since the law demanded that one ensure the care of such people. Besides, there was propriety to consider as regards Saly Helming. So she was never legally freed.
After his death, slavery became not less, as he believed it would, but more entrenched, partly due to his Louisiana Purchase. That bailed out Napoleon, but ironically it increased demand and so the price of slaves. So much for his "generational sovereignty principle" of steady progress toward liberty.

In its Preface, this book promised to show how this PROGRESSIVE patriarch came to rest easy in the confines of a life that he believed to be RETROGRESSIVE. It is about Jefferson's philosophy of life: how it developed; how it evolved; how it shaped his actions and the course of American history.

It delivered.
For me, the contradiction is not so much a contradiction any longer. Jefferson was human. He did not have the control he would have liked to have , reason notwithstanding. Progress is inevitable? America is Exceptional? I would think twice on that.
The strains so evident in our Founding are evident today. Choice, not always reasonable, is very much in play.

930 reviews53 followers
October 3, 2017
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. Excepting his rival, Alexander Hamilton, no American has been the object of so estimates so widely differing and so difficult to reconcile." From this starting point the authors try to explain and reconcile some of these differences.

After an introduction pointing out some of the contrasts between the colonial north and south (Jefferson was firmly rooted in the southern plantation society, one of class and privilege), the authors stake out three areas where Jefferson's "empire of the imagination" was at play. They are: "Patriarch", "Traveller", and "Enthusiast", tied together by Jefferson's often changing views as he aged, dying in l826 at age 83.

For Jefferson the idea of "home" and family was an ideal, and part of this was his lifelong project was to construct his mansion at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. He wrote of himself, "in the due process of time I shall imagine myself as blessed as the most blessed of the patriarchs. Ironically, and this concern comes up in one form or another throughout the book, Jefferson's wife died after bearing three children, and he never remarried, However, it has been established that Sally Hemings, his wife's half sister and a colored woman, Jefferson's slave throughout his life, had at five or six children fathered by Jefferfson (four growing to adulthood) none of whom were ever publicly acknowledged as his offspring. A 21st century reader may have a hard time putting a favorable slant on Jefferson as a "patriarch"

Particularly as Jefferson always claimed he was opposed to slavery, and in the only book he ever published, NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA, he adamantly wrote that slavery always corrupted the slave owner. He was young when he wrote that, and as he grew older, he realized he needed slaves to operate his plantation,. He began to feel lt that one individual freeing his slaves would make little difference. The South as a whole, had to come to this realization for slavery to end. And perhaps to justify himself, Jefferson always treated his slaves very well, as if he felt an obligation as a responsible slave holder.

Jefferson spent a good deal of his life away from Monticello, the lengthiest periods being eight years as president (1801-1809) and five years (1784-1789) as Minister to France. He was favorably impressed by France, its sophisticated and educated society in which he moved. He loved French wine, French architecture, its language (although he never was very comfortable speaking French) and literature. He could simultaneously, though, in theory condemn the artificiality of European social life, even as he emulated it in practice. How ro reconcile European culture with the crude realities of America? For Jefferson it was a tradeoff - Americans had more individual freedom from the state to achieve their goals, even though reaching them might be well in the future. The contrast with the miserable conditions of pre-revolutionary peasants in Europe did not escape his notice.

Jefferson was a man of many interests, music being one of them. He was an accomplished violinist until he broke his wrist. He was a prolific correspondent, had a meticulously planned house atop a mountain, using European designs, kept an enormous library, and oversaw a 5000 acre plantation with close to 200 slaves. Despite its potential, it was poorly managed, and Jefferson was constantly in debt. No wonder, as he was an obsessive collector of all kinds of objects. Jefferson loved having guests and was an excellent conversationalist, discussion of ideas being his priority. He deflected most conversation about his personal matters and in this one respect was a very private individual.

Jefferson, of course, knew that he would be a historically famous person, and he wanted to shape how history would view him. He went so far as to arrange his letters in the way he wanted them read, but at his death, his grandchildren sold them in random batches to help pay off his debts . So much for his "letter system".

In a sense, that anecdote suggests a key dimension of Jefferson - a man whose vision often didn't quite match the reality he lived in. The book , of course, doesn't diminish Jefferson's public accomplishments, but provides a selected glimpse at some aspects of the private man.

Profile Image for Ben.
155 reviews15 followers
March 10, 2019
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 Jefferson in chronological order, examining instead several of the major themes that exercised an influence on his thinking and actions from youth to death. The result of this organizing principle is, I think, a clearer picture of Jefferson the man than a traditional biography can produce. Particularly with a man like Jefferson, a man of deep learning and contemplation who was willing (for better or worse) to change his opinion when evidence warranted, a man who often held views inconsistent with those held by the majority of his peers and who was viewed by those peers as a walking contradiction, following the evolution of his ideas and beliefs reveals more of the man as he truly was.

So what kind of man was he? This book highlights the difficulty of answering that question. Was he vocally pro-slavery? No, quite the opposite. Did he hold slaves? Yes, for all of this life. Was a decent and generous friend? Absolutely. Did he seek to undermine the presidency and destroy the legacy of a former comrade-in-arms with whom he shared a deep and lasting affection? With gusto. Did he believe in a highly circumscribed federal government with clearly delineated powers? Very much so. Except for when he was the president.

In the end, everyone will evaluate Jefferson for themselves and decide whether his undeniable influence on the early history of the United States balances toward the better or worse. Of course, we can only judge him on what we have available to us today and so can only go so far. There are certainly things that we simply can never know about him at this remove of time, but this book, perhaps in an attempt to make him more relatable as a more fully fleshed out character, includes frequent mentions of what Jefferson "must have felt" or thought, or to the fact that "no one had ever said such things to him" and other such statements that are patently impossible to verify. These are small things, certainly, but when taken as a whole give the reader pause to wonder what else the authors are assuming or taking for granted. He was, after all, a politician who was conscious that much of what he wrote would be read by a great many people, not reflections for his and his friends' eyes only. Even if an underlying thought or feeling can be inferred from a statement in a letter or line from a document, how can we be sure that his words accurately represent what was in his heart? It seems clear to me that we can't and there is little compelling reason for a good historian to pretend otherwise.

All that said, I did enjoy the book. I would recommend it to anyone with the simple caveat that it shouldn't be the only book about Thomas Jefferson that they read.
Profile Image for Andy Miller.
812 reviews50 followers
November 11, 2016
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 New York, Philadelphia or Washington, the accounts of Jefferson's friends of the physical similarities between Jefferson and Hemmings' children, and his different treatment of her children from his other slaves, I slowly changed my mind.
Gordon-Reed wrote "The Hemings of Monticello: An American Family" after DNA tests confirmed that Jefferson was their father. I was impressed with Gordon-Reed's nuance and even handed consideration of their lives. She did not dismiss Jefferson as a monster for having sexual relations with someone he enslaved, she noted his devastation when his wife died and his promise to her that he would never remarry and Gordon-Reed noted evidence of true affection but Gordon-Reed also rejected any notion that theirs was a true romantic, consensual relationship noting the lack of real choices for Hemings.
So I read "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" with great anticipation, even with the authors' disclaimer that it was not a biography. However, while this was a good read, I did not find it as compelling as her earlier books. This was due partly to the book's structure, it was more of a collection of essays about different parts of Jefferson's life which often emphasized the differences between Jefferson's vision of an egalitarian country of farmers with own life that assumed his role of a patriarch in family and society. As I said there were good discussions; letters between Jefferson and his grandaughter who moved to New England reveal Jefferson's admission that his beloved Virginia and fallen behind the values of his old foe, New England, due to the effects of slavery on the souls and economy of Virginia. Another letter from Jefferson describes his trip to a chess club in Paris where he was soundly defeated at his passion and his decision to give up playing chess while in France, the authors discuss how most committed chess players know that playing against better chess players is the way to improve, but that Jefferson's position as the all knowing patriarch would not allow for playing with superior players. There are examples of great insights like this scattered throughout the book and as I said, it is worth the read even if it does not match the earlier works of one of its co-authors
72 reviews1 follower
February 13, 2017
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 Franklin's World" (Jan 17, 2017) interview, in which you said your next book might be something else about Jefferson, or maybe something about Texas.

I'm eager to hear about either of these - if I may be so bold, about Jefferson, I would *love* to know more about what was in Jefferson's mind & heart viz. foreign relations, and viz. John Marshall. So many issues in play today have roots traceable to both of these areas, and I've found very little about either in my local public library or online. And Texas, well, I'd be happy to read/hear anything you have to say about Texas, especially East Texas - I see you started out in Livingston -

Thank you so much for your book - I love the approach you and Dr. Onuf took, although I have to admit it took some getting used to (I knew next to nothing about Jefferson and his times when I started the book, and had a very hard time at first, figuring out who was who and what happened when and where; I made a lot of use of Wikipedia, to get oriented in time and space). After awhile I started appreciating the book as poetic and symphonic, and it has motivated me to learn a lot more about the entire founding generation.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, I loved the biblical and etymological allusions -- patriarch(s), patriarchy, patriotism; nation, native, nationality, innate; and the extended metaphor of family-neighbors-country.... Wonderful!

Thank you so much for your book, and your generosity with interviews online, available to the likes of me :-)
Profile Image for Nick Smith.
155 reviews4 followers
September 17, 2016
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, as well as how he treated his own boys and girls through this relationship. One of the truths of "back then" is that on plantations in the South, this was a common occurrence - in fact, Martha Wayles Jefferson's father John Wayles did the exact same thing.

This does not excuse some of what Jefferson did, but on the whole he did view slaves as property. It is this conception he had - that his high living necessitated a money machine, balanced against his frequently expressed view that slavery was an evil that needed to be abolished.

This book also shows Jefferson's love of music, a way that he connected to other people and shared joy with them. It shows us what he thought of "my beloved country," Virginia, and of the nation for which he drafted the Declaration of Independence. This book very solidly shows that Jefferson entered public life because he wanted freedom for everyone, not a despotic monarchical regime as his opponents John Adams and Alexander Hamilton seemed to him to admire and wished to promulgate. But Jefferson disagreed always with a pleasant manner, and was known for being fair and friendly even to his biggest enemies. In this way, Jefferson would get what he wanted.

This book is a bit difficult for an armchair historian, but worth the trouble for a self-confessed "Jefferson nut" like me. If you get the chance, go look at Jefferson's book collection at the Library of Congress' Jefferson building. You'll be glad you did.
Profile Image for Lynn Pribus.
1,987 reviews51 followers
August 9, 2017
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, especially contentious since some of his enslaved people were half-siblings to his wife and other family members. Whenever he was away from Monticello with any of his enslaved servents, he paid them the going wage in the other community -- such as when he was in DC as president. He also allowed them to work away from Monticello and keep their earnings. Some of the half-siblings he simply wrote off the books without actually freeing them, but others he freed in writing.

He had inherited his slave population and rarely bought or sold any except to bring a family together. He was highly critical of the situation, but felt helpless to change it.

He saw slavery as a catastrophe waiting to happen if slaves were simply emancipated without being repatrioted to Africa. He was nearly a cult figure in the early days of the Republic and was the "face of America." During the years he was in Paris, he was shocked to find that, although he was "fluent" in French, he initially coulnd't understand a word of the rapidly spoke word.

He was a music lover, constantly singing and a poorly set broken wrist made it almost impossible for him to play his violin, he would regularly play for three hours a day.

Although history is involved, this is much more a detailed character study of a truly multi-faceted man. I would love to see an illustration of him with a contemporary haircut, blue jeans and a tee shirt!
Profile Image for Sally.
Author 17 books363 followers
February 14, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Rosemary Clark.
38 reviews2 followers
October 21, 2017
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-Reed and Onuf instead offer a paean to Thomas Jefferson – the farmer, the paterfamilias, the man of sinew and soil – with great detail and historical context. His relationships are illustrated through letters, the recollections of contemporaries, and historical reports. Most relevant is his vast appreciation for music, poetry, and literature, and his lifelong efforts to bring those arts, along with his own architectural talents, to the untamed environs of rural Virginia and its inhabitants.
Profile Image for Priya.
Author 1 book13 followers
June 2, 2016
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 without making an overt judgement.

So nothing earth shattering or spectacular but I did enjoy reading Jefferson's eloquent burn of Hamilton. Seriously. Amazing.
87 reviews
May 26, 2016
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.
23 reviews
December 19, 2016
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.
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