Twenty-mile-per-hour winds pressed on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt inside the grandstand when he dedicated the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, as did the national mood. Wartime weighed on public spirits and complicated just about every aspect of a ceremony intended to lift them.
Organizers of the event wanted to display the original Declaration of Independence, except that it had been removed from the capital in the weeks after Pearl Harbor, according to the National Park Service account. A military detail had to be sent to retrieve it from its secret location, the U.S. Bullion Depository at Fort Knox. Under the dome of the memorial, a U.S. Marine cordon stood 24-hour watch over one of the dearest of national treasures, the handwritten, signed parchment, sealed in a bulletproof case. The Marines had placed it at the feet of a 19½-foot statue of its author.
They were feet of plaster. It was artist Rudulph Evans’ prototype, painted brown for the occasion. Wartime shortages would postpone a bronze casting of Jefferson for four more years.
Shortly after noon on that Tuesday, FDR steadied himself behind a lectern along the Tidal Basin and reintroduced a national radio audience to a faded historical figure. The president’s words would linger in the air for more than a generation: “To Thomas Jefferson, Apostle of Freedom, we are paying a debt long overdue.” The date was April 13, 1943—Jefferson’s 200th birthday.
And his rebirth.
Merrill D. Peterson, Jefferson biographer and a giant on the UVA history faculty in the latter 20th century, called the FDR dedication “the most important thing to happen to Jefferson since July Fourth 1826,” his death date on the Declaration’s semicentennial. The “Apostle of Freedom” moment ushered in the golden era of Jefferson’s image in the works of scholars and the minds of Americans. That same year Dumas Malone began his nearly 40-year labors on his rich and reverent six-volume biography of Jefferson, Jefferson and His Time, publishing the first installment in 1948. Two years after that, Princeton University scholar Julian P. Boyd would publish the first set of the Thomas Jefferson Papers. Like Malone’s, Boyd’s work was groundbreaking, meticulous and enamored of its subject.
During the climb out of the Great Depression, the fighting of World War II and into the Cold War, Jefferson became the embodiment of American ideals—liberty, equality, democracy, reason and the overthrow of tyranny. He was Thomas Jefferson statesman, philosopher, architect, inventor, the Sage of Monticello. If you took your degree from the University up through roughly 1990, that was the Mr. Jefferson you studied, came to know and heard spoken of as if he were in the next room.
That Mr. Jefferson we studied and heard spoken of as if in the next room is not the Jefferson historians write about today. What changed?
That’s not the Jefferson historians write about today. Four new books this season offer new perspectives on Jefferson and the early University of Virginia. The two most significant, representing significant advances in Jefferson scholarship, are the harshest. The third, a collection of essays on the founding, is the widest ranging.
But it’s the fourth that holds the key to gaining perspective on the other three. It’s a history of the history of Jefferson, a meta look at how UVA’s founder has been portrayed across a more than 200-year arc of memoir and biography. It provides vital context to understanding the ongoing Jefferson progression—why, when and how treatment of Thomas Jefferson shifted from Apostle of Freedom to the new apostasy.
Jefferson, in four stages
That organizing framework appears in Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: Biographers and the Battle for History (University of Virginia Press, 2019, 311 pages, $35), edited by U.S. Military Academy history professor Robert M.S. McDonald (Col ’92). Central to the essay collection is University of Edinburgh historian Francis D. Cogliano’s assessment of UVA historian Peterson. Cogliano, a Massachusetts expat, furthers a thesis he has developed over the years, outlining the four stages of Jefferson’s image and reputation.
It begins with Stage 1, from Jefferson’s death through the Civil War, 1826 through 1865. During that period, contemporary assessment of Jefferson was partisan, depending on the beholder’s views of North vs. South, abolition vs. slavery, Federalism vs. Republicanism.
Stage 2 begins with Reconstruction, when America had a falling out with Jefferson, or at least had lost interest. His theories on states’ rights, secession and rebellion no longer captured the imagination, and his musings on an agrarian, small-government republic had become out of step with a strengthening central government and industrial economy. Jefferson’s retreat from public consciousness lingered roughly through the Depression.
Stage 3, Cogliano argues, came into its own that windy day in 1943 by the Tidal Basin. It coincides with the ascendance of Malone’s influence in the field, the subject of a companion essay in Thomas Jefferson’s Lives by R.B. Bernstein, a lecturer in law and politics at the City College of New York.
Malone joined the UVA history faculty in 1926 and in 1959 became the first in a distinguished line of Thomas Jefferson Foundation professors of history. Malone’s approach to Jefferson was old-school. As Bernstein puts it, “Malone’s volumes comprise an elegant case for an earlier interpretation of Jefferson—less critical, more admiring, less sensitive to issues of race and slavery, more partisan in chronicling his political career.” In the course of publishing his six-part biography of Jefferson, Malone collected a Pulitzer, plaudits and, by the time of Volume Six, The Sage of Monticello, in 1981, increasingly critical reviews.
Malone had given up UVA’s Thomas Jefferson chair in history 19 years earlier to devote more time to his biography and to make room for the newly recruited Peterson to succeed him. Peterson contrasted Malone’s Southern gentleman with the sensibilities of a New Deal liberal. Even so, while Peterson faulted Jefferson’s views on race, he held to Stage 3 orthodoxy that Jefferson consistently opposed slavery and even laid the groundwork for its eventual abolition. Cogliano explains, “This view is central to the third-stage interpretation of Jefferson, for it allows him to remain the premier American exponent of democratic values while addressing the challenge that slavery poses to his legacy.”
Together, Malone and Peterson represented a powerful force in Jefferson scholarship. Bernstein, in his assessment of Malone, and Cogliano, in his companion piece on Peterson, both make the case that their subjects’ work holds up today.
Except where it doesn’t. Bernstein characterizes Malone’s Jefferson and His Time as a flawed masterpiece. Malone and Peterson shared at least two blind spots in their assessment of Jefferson. First, neither liked to look upon Jefferson as a political operator. They preferred to regard him as a statesman. Peterson’s protagonist, Cogliano writes, “is very much a third-stage Jefferson, the nonpartisan epitome of American values.”
The other blind spot, of course, was race and, more personally, Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. Rumors of his having fathered children with his enslaved house servant, his deceased wife’s half-sister, had dogged Jefferson back to the 1790s and throughout his political life. For all their professional curiosity, neither historian showed interest in evaluating the evidence or its full implications. Rather, they dismissed out of hand what they considered an old political smear. Volume Four of Malone’s series includes a special addendum refuting what he called “the Miscegenation Legend.” Writes Bernstein, “This appendix caused Malone more trouble than anything else he wrote about Jefferson, because the Hemings controversy would not go away.”
Peterson, a critic of Jefferson’s racial views and an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement, asserted what Cogliano describes as a character defense, that Jefferson couldn’t have taken an enslaved mistress because it would have been out of character. More generally, Peterson took a more formal approach to his biography, keeping focused on Jefferson’s public life rather than veering into private matters.
History gets intimate
Then came what Cogliano identifies as Stage 4. Just as a World War II and Cold War mindset predisposed academe and country for the Apostle of Freedom Jefferson, so did the civil rights, Vietnam and post-Watergate iconoclasm of the 1960s and 1970s spur a new skepticism and questioning of received wisdom. In truth, some of that had already been going on. Cogliano is quick to disclaim that his stages overlap, the start and end dates imprecise—“they’re broad categories, rather than … prescriptive boxes,” he said in an interview.
Fawn M. Brodie’s 1974 Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History wasn’t the first Stage 4 treatment of Jefferson, but it was the most dramatic. A less-credentialed historian than Malone and Peterson (she had a master’s degree from the University of Chicago rather than an Ivy League Ph.D.), Brodie was the opposite of old-school. She was a Freudian, willing to draw inferences, for example from what little is known of Jefferson’s relationships with his parents. Her study of Jefferson’s intimate relationship with Sally Hemings became a New York Times bestseller and a cultural phenomenon.
And it gave the Jefferson establishment fits. Annette Gordon-Reed, the Harvard University legal historian who won a Pulitzer for her authoritative research into the Hemings family, contributes an essay on Brodie to Thomas Jefferson’s Lives. She titled the chapter “That Woman,” a callout to how Jefferson papers editor Julian Boyd purportedly referred to the author of An Intimate History. That book, Gordon-Reed writes, “forever changed the way historians and others write about the personal life of Jefferson.”
Brodie broke new ground in two important ways. First, she was willing to give weight to African American voices in the Jefferson story, namely the Hemings family oral histories, and allowed them to challenge how Jefferson’s white descendants liked to portray him. Gordon-Reed writes, “Brodie put the words of people who had been enslaved on par with the people who had enslaved them.”
Second, and related, Brodie’s work unstuck Jefferson biography from a chronology flaw. An overreliance on source material from Jefferson’s white grandchildren gave Stage 3 Jefferson the character of a stately and loving grandfather through all phases of his life. That cohort of family members knew him during his later years, decades after the Hemings sexual relationship is believed to have begun in Paris. That Jefferson, Gordon-Reed writes, “was a man in the prime of his life whose senses had been reawakened in a new setting after the devastating loss of his wife and the professional pain he suffered due to his disappointing tenure as governor of Virginia.”
Brodie died in 1981, before seeing her work vindicated during the 1990s, chiefly through Gordon-Reed’s Hemings research, and then through the 1998 DNA testing of Jefferson’s and Hemings’ direct descendants, which resulted in general acceptance that Thomas had fathered Sally’s children.
The transition from Stage 3 to Stage 4 was complete. As Cogliano describes this new epoch, “For many historians, increasingly concerned with questions of class, gender, and, especially where Jefferson was concerned, race, his limitations seemed more important than his achievements.”
The line of succession of the UVA history department’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson chair personifies the progression of Jefferson historiography. Peter S. Onuf took over for Peterson as UVA’s third Thomas Jefferson Foundation historian in 1993. Onuf was an early supporter of Gordon-Reed’s work and would later collaborate with her on the multifaceted Jefferson biography Most Blessed of the Patriarchs in 2016. Cogliano describes Onuf’s influence in Jefferson scholarship as profound, especially through his teaching. Speaking from Edinburgh, Cogliano says, “There’s a very long list of Peter’s Ph.D. students who have kind of reshaped the field.” Thomas Jefferson’s Lives is dedicated to Onuf and arose from an academic conference held in his honor in 2012, the year Onuf took emeritus status on the history faculty. Far removed from his Stage 3 predecessors, Onuf took what Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood calls in the book’s afterword “an ironical stance toward Jefferson: what else could he do with the slaveholding aristocrat who has become the nation’s supreme spokesman for democracy?”
Enter Taylor, Stage 4
That irony is on full display in Thomas Jefferson’s Education (W.W. Norton & Co., 2019, 426 pages, $29.95), an important new work by the fourth and current occupant of the Thomas Jefferson history chair, Alan Taylor. He came to UVA to succeed Onuf in 2014 and almost immediately got to work on the book, taking a break that spring to collect his second Pulitzer in history for his previous title.
For this one, Taylor says, he set out to explore the political dynamics of the first attempts to fund public education in Virginia. It’s a path that invariably led him to recount the founding of the University, but in a way that locates it in the political and cultural context of the new nation and, more pointedly, Old Virginia, slavery’s largest state with 40 percent of the population under the yoke.
“I want to read the papers of lots of other people who are around Jefferson in Virginia, who are involved in politics, and to read the newspapers, not just for when Jefferson is mentioned, but just to understand how the society is working,” Taylor says of his method, “and so to embed Jefferson much more in a broader world of other people than I think is the usual case.”
Far removed from the elegiac origin story found in Malone’s Sage of Monticello or Virginius Dabney’s history, Mr. Jefferson’s University, both published in 1981, Taylor’s is a Stage 4 tell—unsentimental, unsparing and often contrapuntal to some of UVA’s most cherished lore.
Can’t we at least revel in the beauty of UVA’s neoclassical architecture? It’s not that kind of book. As Taylor reports it, Jefferson’s pursuit of Palladian perfection sucked up all the money for anything else. It forced UVA to charge the highest tuition in the country, inclined it to do away with admissions prerequisites and prevented it from awarding financial aid. So much for the Jeffersonian ideal of building classes based on merit instead of means. It foreordained a student body of plantation princelings—wealthy, riotous, slave-owning underachievers.
Citizen leaders would have to come later. Jefferson aspired to train up the next generation of Jeffersons to accomplish the reforms he could not, abolition foremost. But, Taylor notes, Jefferson paired it with an equal and incompatible goal. Wary of the rise of Northern federalism, Jefferson also aimed for his University to bulwark Southern culture and influence, to preserve the slave system at least until Southerners were ready to reform it themselves. In effect, he wanted students to be both radical reformers and defenders against change. They proved better at the latter, setting in motion what would become UVA’s growing allegiance with the Confederacy.
Not even the Jeffersonian ideal of an Academical Village, of students and faculty living side-by-side in a community of learning, remains sacred in Taylor’s telling. The student rooms proved too small, too hot and too public to accommodate scholastics, and the pavilions subjected the faculty to the perils of proximity. Francis W. Gilmer, a tortured soul and one of the book’s more colorful characters, turned down an early teaching appointment because of the living arrangements. He wrote to a friend, “But to put me down in one of those pavilions is to serve me as an apothecary would a lizard or beetle in a phial of Whiskey, set in a window, & corked tight.”
From the historical record, Taylor pieces together a dystopian world, an asylum run by the inmates, in UVA’s case Southern wastrels bred to have a ruthless air of superiority and a hair-trigger sense of umbrage. From faculty minutes he recites the incident of a student’s beating a hotel server for muttering something when upbraided for bringing him rancid butter. And he gives the report of a group of students stripping and beating a local tavern sex slave they said gave them a venereal disease. The faculty board placated her aggrieved owner, the only recognized injured party, by having the young men pay him $10, less than the punishment for damaging a library book.
Taylor is a gifted writer, able to animate dusty primary materials into a fast and lean narrative. There’s a certain just-the-facts economy to his prose, punctuated with New England–style wry asides. It’s a stern approach that doesn’t afford much opportunity to gain a sense of joy or marvel in Jefferson’s profound influence on this university, on higher education and, by extension, on the course of human events.
You won’t find the Jefferson Memorial’s 19½-foot Apostle of Freedom in the book, other than the feet of clay. By his last two years, UVA’s first academic sessions, Jefferson experienced increasing pain and increasing doses of laudanum. “I see him as a tragic figure, which is not how we usually see Jefferson,” Taylor tells Virginia Magazine. “I see how his fortune vanishes. He’s left saddled with debt, his ambitions to leave something secure for his grandchildren shattered. He sees the country changing in ways he’s not comfortable with. He sees the students at his University not behaving in the ways he expected them to behave. At the end it’s really very sad.”
While Jefferson’s opposition to slavery is an article of faith in the Stage 3 histories, Taylor depicts Jefferson as weak and ineffectual on the subject, spinning increasingly impractical and inhumane reforms, in Taylor’s words, “to whiten Virginia.” One proposal would have had the state buy newborn slaves from their owners, relocate the separated children to Haiti, and let the enslaved adult population eventually die off. Taylor writes, “By drafting ever more detailed emancipation plans in his study, Jefferson sustained his claim to champion black freedom—provided it was far away from Virginia and he did not have to expend any political capital to push it.”
Still, if you tilt the book just so, you can see flashes of Jefferson’s charm and ingenuity. There’s Jefferson outmaneuvering Washington and Lee University’s predecessor to secure the state charter for his Central College, and then checkmating William and Mary before it could get a competitive foothold in Richmond. Most poignantly, there’s Jefferson coming down the mountain from his sickbed to confront students after an infamous riot. The great man’s tears alone coaxed confessions from 14 shaken young men. You see Jefferson, near his final months, disarming would-be troublemakers by hosting small groups of students for Sunday dinners at Monticello.
Out of hiding, into history
There is nothing charming about the Jefferson who appears in Educated in Tyranny: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s University (University of Virginia Press, 2019, 259 pages, $29.95). The book changes our way of seeing. Where before we looked upon the Lawn and saw the beauty of the architecture’s classical orders, now we see the disorder of the oppressed and their oppressors. The scene goes from stylized Stage 3 Technicolor to stark Stage 4 black and white.
The collection of essays, the culmination of UVA research formally underway since 2012, is edited by Louis P. Nelson, a UVA vice provost and architectural history professor, and Maurie D. McInnis (Col ’88), who left the UVA faculty in 2016 to become the provost of the University of Texas at Austin. (Full disclosure: She serves on the UVA Alumni Association board.)
The book’s full focus on race, its commitment to telling a long-silent African American story, makes it quintessentially Stage 4, which is to say a rebuke to Stage 3. “For decades a fairly simple narrative, one that focused on the genius and creativity of Jefferson’s designs, dominated the early history of Thomas Jefferson’s university,” McInnis writes in the introduction. “Changing this narrative and uncovering this history has been a multiyear effort of many individuals.”
Educated in Tyranny changes our way of seeing. As we look at the Lawn, the scene goes from stylized Technicolor to stark black and white.
What stands out is the array of disciplines and talents brought to bear to recreate history from discarded shards and restore humanity to people the record rarely refers to by name. The team of contributors includes experts in history, archaeology, architecture, urban planning and historic preservation, practitioners as well as academics. Nelson tells Virginia Magazine, “So many of these chapters are co-authored because it really did require different disciplinary minds coming together.”
Nelson, for example, collaborated with UVA historic preservation project manager James Zehmer (Arch ’02) for the essay on UVA’s original construction. They write, “[T]he question is not ‘What was built by enslaved labor?’ but rather ‘What was not?’ ” For the chapter “Everyday Life in the Yard,” which encompasses the workspaces beautified more than 100 years later into the Lawn’s gardens, Nelson teamed up with veteran UVA archeologist Ben Ford (Grad ’97, ’98). Among other techniques, the two use drone-assisted aerial imagery and three-dimensional computer modeling, drawing on the resources of the several-year Jefferson’s University–Early Life digital-history project (which receives funding from the Alumni Association’s Jefferson Trust). The technology enables them to site slave-labor kitchens and laundries and even posit the light-and-shadow sight lines of how masters maintained surveillance and slaves avoided it.
Educated in Tyranny presents Jefferson as either too unthinking or too ashamed to design proper accommodations for the teeming population of enslaved domestics his village would foreseeably draw to the Grounds. The book describes early UVA as the worst of two worlds: a plantation with urban overcrowding. In their chapter “Landscape of Slavery,” Nelson and McInnis cite census records to put the enslaved population at 125 to 200 at any given time. They cross-reference those numbers with floor plans, physical evidence of habitation and documentary references to show that workers must have slept crammed together in groups of four to eight, sometimes more, in lofts, unventilated cellars and other barely habitable corners of the early buildings. They write, “These are the spaces that shaped everyday life for the vast majority of the enslaved African Americans who lived, labored, and died at the University of Virginia.”
That was when they could find respite. The chapter “Violence” opens with a student in 1856 beating a 10-year-old girl to unconsciousness for seeming disrespectful. The essay, which McInnis wrote, elaborates on themes found in Taylor’s book—volatile plantation heirs and cowering faculty administrators. The professors forgave the assailant after he apologized to them, not to the girl, and not, in that instance, to her owner. Children and adults “had not one master but hundreds,” McInnis writes. “It meant that enslaved people were daily subject to the arbitrary actions of faculty, hotelkeepers, and students, and the commands of these different groups were frequently contradictory, making navigating daily life fraught with peril for those enslaved at UVA.”
The abuse followed African Americans to the grave. The most gruesome chapter is UVA history professor Kirt von Daacke’s (Col ’97) report on the Anatomical Theater, the medical building Jefferson added to his plans, a subject covered in the Spring 2017 Virginia Magazine. Jefferson saw human dissections as essential to medical education. Four other Virginia medical schools would get the same idea, which made finding cadavers during the 19th century an increasingly competitive undertaking. The specimens most easily acquired came from the communities least able to object. In the South that meant African Americans, enslaved and free, fresh in the ground. (In the North, medical grave robbers targeted the indigents in potter’s fields.) Von Daacke documents tales of medical students, professors, mercenary “resurrectionists” and the infamous enslaved helper Anatomical Lewis scouring black cemeteries throughout Virginia.
Assembling history from a scant record—events originally dismissed as unremarkable, and later avoided as uncomfortable—requires Educated in Tyranny to engage in a fair degree of interpolation and informed supposition. The essayists are good about showing their work and explaining their assumptions. One of the bigger leaps occurs in the “Anatomical” chapter. Von Daacke draws a through line from Jefferson’s notorious 1785 musings about black biological inferiority to the fact that his medical school would work primarily with black cadavers more than 40 years later. Von Daacke asserts that UVA medical professors acquired African American corpses not just out of convenience but deliberately to conduct studies that would prove Jefferson’s racial theories. The thesis might seem in line with the faculty’s racial attitudes on record throughout the 19th century and UVA’s later embrace of eugenics by the turn of the 20th, but without direct evidence, it still seems speculative.
Von Daacke continues to accumulate circumstantial support. “We just don’t have the clear evidence that people are saying that that’s what was going on then,” he says. “We’re expecting them just to write it down and say exactly what they’re doing, and they don’t have to, because I think the context of the time makes it unnecessary to actually always say out loud exactly what’s going on.”
Call it Stage 3½
The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University (University of Virginia Press, 2019, 341 pages, $29.95) results from a pair of 2018 conferences tied to the UVA bicentennial. Historians John A. Ragosta (Law ’84, Grad ’08), Onuf and Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy—all affiliated with Monticello’s Jefferson studies program—edited the anthology.
It carefully navigates between Stage 3 and Stage 4, trying to balance recognition of Jefferson with a sense of reckoning. Western Washington University history professor Johann N. Neem (Grad ’99, ’04) presents an essay on Jefferson’s visionary design of a curriculum to develop knowledge and critical thinking, not simply glib orators. For the section “Building an Idealized Academical Village,” Jefferson Papers associate editor Ellen C. Hickman contributes a piece on Jefferson’s deft hand in making his figment of a college in a curious location seem the ineluctable choice for a University of Virginia.
Yet the same section includes an essay by McInnis, adapted from Educated in Tyranny, to tell the violent story of UVA’s slave past. For the section “Young Leaders of the Republic,” UVA associate professor and Special Collections researcher Ervin L. Jordan Jr. devotes a full chapter to a dramatized version of the rancid-butter incident mentioned in Taylor’s book. Taylor himself contributes material from Thomas Jefferson’s Education, though it focuses on William and Mary, setting the stage for the coming UVA.
Thomas Jefferson’s University makes sure to represent Stage 4 thinking, but it also pushes back against it. The introduction to the section on “Jefferson’s Mind for the University” cites the Anatomical Theater as an example of his vision “to institute the best possible practical curriculum on a solid scientific foundation.” It doesn’t get into the business of how UVA came by its anatomical specimens or speculate whether there was an ulterior interest in targeting African American graves. In the book’s final chapter, “Final Thoughts: The University Survives,” the editors challenge the notion that Jefferson founded UVA primarily to preserve Southern slave culture. They write, “The University’s legacy of slavery must be explored, understood, and confronted, but it is not the legacy that drove Jefferson’s initial commitment to a university, nor the one that he intended to leave.”
Stage 5: Are we there yet?
That kind of scholarly whipsawing in Thomas Jefferson’s University demonstrates the ongoing tension between Stage 3 celebration of Jefferson’s great feats and Stage 4’s calling him to account for his great failings. This conscious mediating of perspectives raises the prospect that we may have crossed into a new phase of Jefferson history-telling.
Cogliano, the leading proponent of this historiographic sequencing, allows for a Stage 5 in his analysis. He describes it in a footnote in his Thomas Jefferson’s Lives essay on Peterson as “a nuanced reassessment of Jefferson that has moved beyond the attack/defense paradigm.”
You can find strains of Stage 5 in at least two of the works reviewed here, as they try to find a dialectic resolution between Stage 3 (Jefferson as hero) and Stage 4 (Jefferson as hypocrite) to arrive at Stage 5 synthesis (Jefferson as complex historical figure). Even Taylor, in his introduction to Thomas Jefferson’s Education, takes stock, if briefly, of “the cherished parts of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy.”
Educated in Tyranny makes no pretense of attempting to solve Thomas Jefferson. There’s still much Stage 4 inquiry to complete. The book was published in August, but the project of uncovering UVA slavery history continues.
Maybe it’s too soon to move on to a next, more nuanced stage. Gordon-Reed, often associated with Stage 4 for her work authenticating the Sally Hemings story, puts it this way: “We talk about truth and reconciliation. There has to be truth first, and that’s the process we’re in now.”
Nonetheless, Gordon-Reed supports a Stage 5 approach to Jefferson studies. Indeed, Cogliano and Taylor point to her as its embodiment. She describes this sensibility as a more mature, realistic approach to assessing Jefferson, rejecting what she calls childish hero worship but also sparing him from “the judgments that people are making today about, you know, somebody who was born in 1743.” None of the country’s other founders had as profound an influence on the country, nor accomplished so much in his life, she says, citing in particular the founding of what would become a great university, however inauspicious its beginnings.
“The more I’ve worked on him as a subject matter, I would say the more impressed I am,” Gordon-Reed says. “I’m less hard on him today than I was when I first started writing.”
Stage 5 asks whether we as a culture are able to hold two opposing ideas in our minds simultaneously. Can we strive to gain a multifaceted understanding of the both/and of Jefferson and resist inclinations to choose either/or? Are we, as alumni, willing to place Educated in Tyranny, with its well-documented accounts of squalor, abuse and inequity, but also its interpolations and suppositions, on the same shelf as that set of Dumas Malone we got as a graduation gift, replete with its encyclopedic scholarship but also its old-school obduracy? Can we appreciate Taylor’s chronicle of the dystopic reality of early UVA and, even if the author doesn’t afford us the opportunity, find worth and modern resonance in Jefferson’s quest?
Or Stage 5 is not synthesis and resolution, but simply a phase we’re going through, a stop along the way to Stage 6, when the zeitgeist casts Jefferson in yet a different light. “Our ever-evolving understanding of Jefferson has at least as much to do with us and our concerns as it does with him and his achievements,” West Point historian Robert McDonald, editor of Thomas Jefferson’s Lives, says via email. “He’s a perpetual hostage of an ever-advancing present.”