In a certain sense, Thomas Jefferson’s allies and enemies invented him in the years following his resignation from the Washington Administration. To the former, he became something akin to a Second Coming of the Savior, while to the latter, he seemed nothing less than a version of the Anti-Christ…
Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Robert M.S. McDonald (The University of Virginia Press, 2016)
When Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis in the summer of 1806, after being terra incognita for nearly three years, the citizens of that town gave the party a warm and giddy welcome. In the official ceremonies, town fathers offered eighteen toasts to the two officers, their company, and their endeavors. To the fountainhead behind it all, though, St. Louis offered the most enthusiastic praise: To “The president of the United States—the friend of science, the polar star of discovery, the philosopher and the patriot.”
As West Point historian Rob McDonald expertly reveals in his profound and original study of the third president, Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time, those who loved and hated Jefferson manufactured his image. While Jefferson allowed this to happen—especially in the early- to mid-1790s—he had not originally sought the position of patriot demigod. Instead, Dr. McDonald writes, Jefferson actually believed that in a republic, the true leader does not seek leadership or power, preferring the private life unless the public demands and confers such honors as political authority. This was not just a right, Jefferson believed, but the duty of republican citizenship. Indeed, surprisingly to this reviewer, Jefferson did not in the least promote his authorship of the Declaration of Independence or the Notes on the State of Virginia. Indeed, he found the circulation of Notes to be surprising and upsetting. The appearance of a French version of the latter (now in book form), however, did prompt him to edit an official edition in 1787. Originally, however, he had written Notes as a long letter to several friends. Even more shockingly, a full decade-and-a-half after Congress passed the Declaration, many Americans still did not know of Jefferson’s authorship.
As Dr. McDonald convincingly argues, Jefferson’s resignation from Washington’s cabinet on December 31, 1793, radically changed how Americans perceived him and his place in the history of the republic. Dr. McDonald goes so far as to claim that both Jefferson’s allies and enemies invented him in the years following his resignation. To the former, he became something akin to a Second Coming of the Savior, while to the latter, he seemed nothing less than a version of the Anti-Christ.
Aside from Abraham Lincoln, is there any more polarizing figure in American history than Thomas Jefferson? Well, at least among long-time prominent figures? Almost certainly not.
Armed with painstaking research, Dr. McDonald examines Jefferson’s life and career from the publication of Notes to the end of his presidency and, then briefly, to his death in 1826.
In addition to the fascinating and original analysis Dr. McDonald gives the reading public and the history profession in Confounding Father, it is critical not to miss the joys of his writing style. Dr. McDonald’s style, at times, is so breezy (and even outright hilarious in places) that one might be tempted to overlook the importance of the scholarship while merely enjoying the ride. There were moments in reading the book that I actually laughed out loud in grand delight at Dr. McDonald’s wit. In part, of course, Dr. McDonald spends much of the book focusing on those who disliked Jefferson. Much of the material, hence, is downright cleverly outrageous. Yet, in addition to this, Dr. McDonald possesses a great sense of knowing exactly which ditty, song, or satirical poem to cite and quote at exactly the right place in the writing. He shows that, in contrast to today’s world of soundbites and populist anger, the liberally-educated politicians of the early republic created a world at once subtle and jaunty. One of my favorites in Confounding Father is this ditty mocking Jefferson’s destructive Embargo of 1807:
Our ships all in motion
Once whiten’d the ocean
They sail’d and return’d with a Cargo
Now doom’d to decay
They have fallen prey
To Jefferson, worms, and embargo.
At other times, however, the wit employed both on behalf of and against Jefferson bordered on the racially brutal and would never pass muster, even in a relatively less politically-correct time than our own. This was especially true in the matter of Sally Hemings.
Jefferson’s supporters, though, matched the invective of his detractors. In one such example, Jeffersonians created a dictionary exclusively for the Federalists. Slander is “whatever is said truly or falsely against Federalists.” Christianity is “a total want of charity and forbearance towards men of different opinions.” “Tag-rag” are “farmers and mechanics, and their wives and daughters.”
The downside to this rivalry, Dr. McDonald notes, is that Jefferson himself began to believe in his own greatness, to experience paranoia when dealing with his enemies, and to see the necessity of divisions and partisanship within the republic. Because the third president carried so much weight with the American public at large, his wishes and concerns became the wishes and concerns of the country as a whole, deeply rooting themselves in the psyche of the very culture and character of the United States.
Thankfully, Dr. McDonald is not only an expert stylist, but he is also a true scholar. After so much ink has been spilled and so many keystrokes have led to premature arthritis in the name of Jefferson, who would have believed that a whole new area of Jeffersonia remained to be discovered? Yet, this is exactly what Dr. McDonald has done: He has opened up a whole new realm of historical writing and criticism.
It is certainly worth noting that Dr. McDonald is a student of both Peter Onuf and Donald Higginbotham. As such, it is not surprising that Dr. McDonald’s take on Jefferson is rather Enlightenment-focused. Though I would personally fall much more in the republican school of thought, there’s much to be gained from the Peter Onuf/Joyce Appleby/Hans Eicholz/Robert McDonald school of Enlightenment liberalism. Even if Enlightenment liberalism only played a small role in the Founding itself, it almost immediately became a critical framework by which to judge the era. No figure—with the exception of Ben Franklin—more represented that strain of thought than Jefferson. To tie this back to the beginning of this review, Jefferson’s directions to the Corps of Discovery is the greatest manifestation of the American version of the Enlightenment.
For any reader of The Imaginative Conservative, McDonald’s Confounding Father is not just a worthy addition to your library—it is a must-own.
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