Review of Peter Onuf's, “The Mind of Thomas Jefferson”

tags: Jefferson

M. Andrew Holowchak is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rider University.

In his book The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, former Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History, Peter Onuf states plainly that Jefferson was a man of questionable character due to his numerous “contradictions.” Yet close analysis of Onuf’s writings create an impasse for Jeffersonian scholars. Jefferson, we find, was a man of profound secrecy, and his writings reveal an indescribably protean figure, about whom scholars can know nothing. Yet public clamor for books on Jefferson forces scholars to write about the figure. Thus, it seems, anything goes, or just about. For Onuf, the only guiding principle to the best scholarship is that writers aim to construct “possible Jeffersons”—Jeffersons that are human, not superhuman. At day’s end, following his own guiding principle, we find that Onuf’s man of contradictions is merely another possible Jefferson, and we are left, given Onuf’s historiography, with no reasons to prefer Onuf’s Jefferson to, say, that of Dumas Malone or any other biographer.

A Question of Character

Peter Onuf in The Mind of Thomas Jefferson acknowledges various “tensions” in Jefferson’s writings that are substratally reducible to an in-the-man “contradiction,” recognizable on account of a twisted personal life—viz., his express avowals of the abomination of slavery and of the inferiority of Blacks, as well as a 38-year on-the-quiet relationship as master to slave with Sally Hemings.i

The depiction Onuf wishes us to have is a man, riven by amaranthine tension between self-constructed dichotomies—e.g., white versus black, private versus public worlds, male versus female, his republicanism on paper versus his behavior as president—and the product of “adolescent conflicts.” He draws selectively from the prodigious and ever-growing literature on Jefferson’s private life to reveal a protean Jefferson—a Jefferson that is everything to everyone and ever inaccessible because, he says, the numerous and inconsistent images were carefully constructed by Jefferson himself through his correspondence. “Letter writing defined the parameters of Jefferson’s world. He assumed different voices in performing different roles as a correspondent…. Historians who look for disclosures of an authentic self behind these many voices and roles will be frustrated. Jefferson’s self is in his writing, and his fundamental commitments to equality, consent, and civility inform all his varied self-representations.”ii

Let us take a closer look at Onuf’s argument—what might be called the noncognition argument. He argues thus (brackets indicative of what is implicit):

1. “Jefferson’s self is [only] in his writing.”

2. “[Jefferson] assumed different voices in performing different roles as a correspondent.”

3. [Each of these different voices is a “genuine” voice of Jefferson—a possible Jefferson.]

4. [There is no authentic self behind the varied voices, or at least none that is accessible.]

5. So, “historians who look for disclosures of an authentic self behind these many voices and roles will be frustrated” (noncognition thesis, 1-4).

If the reconstruction is correct or roughly so—one cannot be sure, for Onuf seems more protean than the Jefferson he creates—when we penetrate beyond the different voices of Jefferson and look for an authentic self, there is none. Yet one wonders about the warrant for what I take to be the implicit claims 3 and 4, which must be assumed to generate the conclusion and which are the warrant for adding “only” to the first premise.

Yet why should anyone believe claim 3 and especially claim 4? All correspondents assume different roles and different voices in letters with different persons. That is merely epistolary decorum—i.e., engaging with each correspondent in pursuance of that correspondent’s needs. That is no warrant for claiming either that there is no authentic self behind the varied voices or that no authentic voice is accessible (claim 4). Jefferson wrote many thousands of letters. So, if there is good reason to doubt the veridicality of claim 4, the conclusion does not obtain. The argument is a paralogism.

Onuf himself recognizes that claim 4, implicit in the argument, is false, for he speaks of the equality, consent, and civility as informing “all [Jefferson’s] varied self-representations.” If they inform his varied self-representations, might that not be because they are an essential part of the authentic Jefferson?

Onuf next turns to a discussion of Jeffersonian statecraft, where he brings home the point of Jefferson’s hypocrisy once again by references to his “contradictions.” Citing the critical work of James Sterling Young and Michael Lienesch, Onuf blames Jefferson for largely creating the sort of party animosities against which he railed all his life. Also along the lines of partisanship, Onuf castigates Jefferson and Jeffersonians for their “imaginary network of conspirators against liberty,” as if the gripes Jefferson had with Adams, for instance, apropos of the Alien and Sedition Acts were the result of sciamachy.

Overall, Jefferson and Jeffersonians “traded in empty words; self-effacement disguised vaulting (or sordid) ambitions.” Onuf sums, “If Jefferson could not acknowledge his true motives or moral lapses, most conspicuously as a slave owner, that simply makes him more of a monster of self-deception.”iii It is certain that Onuf assumes the antecedent of the conditional claim is true, and so we may conclude the consequent—i.e., that Jefferson is a monster of self-deception as well as a greater monster, a true lusus naturae, for having no awareness of his monstrosity. The words are harsh and bold, and undeserved.iv

Possible Jeffersons”

The non-cognition argument shows Jefferson, prodigiously out of touch with any conception of a true self, was a self-deceptive chameleon. It follows that the approaches to Jeffersonian scholarship today can be as protean as was Jefferson. He is literally a man for all times and for all persons, and so anyone, it seems, can have something substantive to say about such a plastic, inaccessible figure.

The real issue for Onuf is sanctimonious reverence for Jefferson on the part of certain scholars. Jefferson has become a “synecdoche” for America. “Treatments of Jefferson that make him a god, standing or fallen, or ask him to stand for the entire nation, necessarily distort his human qualities,” writes Onuf. “Only in fiction should a person’s character and emotional attributes be asked to bear the whole weight of the narrative. The most successful of the recent studies of Jefferson are those that have best uncoupled not Jefferson and his pedestal but the man and the nation. Jefferson’s proper contest is not the array of gods and demigods in the American pantheon, but, rather, the social and intellectual milieu that shaped him—and within which he acted.”v

Who are, for Onuf, the most successful recent scholars, who have knocked Jefferson off his pedestal? It comes as no surprise to find Burstein and Gordon-Reed as the most prominent scholars. Onuf refers to the early books of Burstein, a former student, and Gordon-Reed, a close friend. He adds, “Each give us what might be called ‘possible’ Jeffersons.” In The Inner Jefferson, Burstein gives a depiction of Jefferson in “a mental and felt world of books and correspondents,” while Gordon-Reed gives a depiction of “an embodied world of masters and slaves.”vi Why are these possible Jeffersons? The answer is that the depictions are accessible; they are Jeffersons constructed like the rest of us.

Thus far, Onuf’s agenda seems plausible. Historians ought not to hyperbolize. Yet we must ask: Who are the god-makers? From his comment on the most successful recent studies, we can only assume they wrote prior to the writings of Burstein and Gordon-Reed. It seems impossible not to assume that Onuf chiefly has in mind Claude Bowers, Gilbert Chinard, Dumas Malone, and possibly even Merrill Peterson—the last two perhaps the two foremost Jeffersonian scholars, as each was Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History before Onuf. Do those historians embellish and sanctify Jefferson? In implicating Malone and Peterson, Onuf—like Socrates, who recognized that he was wiser than the most prominent politicians, poets, and craftsmen of his day inasmuch as he recognized his profound ignorance vii—would implicitly be placing himself ahead of those two great scholars, at least insofar as he recognizes the many flaws of Jefferson that they failed to recognize. If Onuf does not have Malone and Peterson among the scholars he castigates, then one would like to know to whom he refers, for his criticism is sharp, and there is something disingenuous about sharp criticism without identifying one’s target.viii

There is a second imbroglio. To create possible Jeffersons is merely to create not-impossible Jeffersons (following the logical equivalency of the claims p is possible and p is not necessarily false) and that allows for a wild array of depictions. Burstein’s Jefferson differs profoundly from Gordon-Reed’s. Is that inconsistency a matter for scholarly remorse? Onuf thinks it is not. “The proliferation of possible Jeffersons does not constitute the failure of the biographical enterprise. We would suggest, rather, the opposite. The search for a single definitive, ‘real’ Jefferson is a fool’s errand, setting us off on a hopeless search for the kind of ‘knowledge’ that even (or especially) eludes sophisticated moderns in their encounters with each other—and themselves.”ix

Onuf continues. “If, in this age of full disclosure and true confessions, we are increasingly reluctant to rush to judgment on questions of character [recall Onuf’s inference that Jefferson is a “monster of self-deception”!], how can we expect historians and biographers to explain to us an intensely private man who has been dead more than a century and a half?” We cannot, he asserts, but the public’s clamoring for the character of Jefferson and a moral assessment of it is a “form of compensation for the dim recognition that we are doomed to cluelessness in our own world, like Plato’s cave, a domain of shadows and hand-me-down light.”x In short, the search for an authentic Jefferson is a cul-de-sac—iteration of the noncognition thesis—yet public clamor for and moral assessment of an authentic Jefferson requires historians willy-nilly to travel down the cul-de-sac.

The depictions of Jefferson with which Onuf opens his book—e.g., O’Brien and Ellis—are indecorous, and prodigiously so. O’Brien depicts Jefferson during his years in France as a blood-thirsty villain, who embraced liberty at any cost—even extraordinary loss of human life. Ellis says, “Jefferson is a thinking man’s racist, but he’s a racist.”xi Jefferson is made to be less than human, not like the rest of us. While such depictions are consistent with Onuf’s criterion, which demands only that Jefferson is never made out to be a god or even a fallen god, they are dysphemistic and morally suspect.

Yet Onuf is at least forbearing of positive depictions of Jefferson—e.g., Burstein in The Inner Jefferson, because Burstein does not canonize Jefferson. Still he does mention, in an endnote, Burstein’s volte-face on the issue of Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’s slave children in Burstein’s “brilliant” exposition in Jefferson’s Secrets.xii The old thesis is that Jefferson had too great of regard for morality and for his family to have exposed them to the ridicule associated with an affair. Burstein crawfishes in the newer book. The new thesis is that Jefferson, placing aside scandal, undertook a lengthy 38-year affair for reasons of health—i.e., he needed seminal release in a handsome, younger woman, and his slave was a no-strings-attached option. Since the DNA evidence is inconclusive and nothing significant has been added to the historical literature to decide Jefferson’s paternity one way or the other, one wonders what makes the new thesis so brilliant. In sum, Jefferson had too much regard for the wellbeing of his family to have begun and sustained a 38-year affair with a slave is a possible Jefferson just as much as Jefferson had more regard for his own health than for the wellbeing of his family so that he began and sustained a 38-year affair with a slave, for neither thesis depicts Jefferson as a god. Yet if constructing a possible Jefferson is the sole criterion for above-board Jeffersonian scholarship, then it seems that almost anything goes, and Jeffersonian scholarship turns out to be as veridically rewarding as Dickinsonian poetry is uplifting.

Overall, Onuf’s claim that public clamor prompts historians, such as himself, to create depictions of Jefferson’s character and to assess him morally is horsefeathers. Historians are not in the business of creating ex nihilo; proper history is evidence-driven and unselective. Historians are interested in Thomas Jefferson, because they believe the man behind the writings is accessible.

I end by noting that Onuf’s Jefferson—“a monster of self-deception”—is merely another possible Jefferson. Though he acknowledges he is writing from the perspective of “cluelessness,” I suspect the majority of scholars that spend a significant portion of their life in the study of Thomas Jefferson follow the path of critical investigation of all relevant available evidence.


i Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 21.

ii Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 32-3.

iii Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 38.

iv One wonders what places Onuf and other professional scholars in such a lofty moral perch that they can, with clean conscience, readily and freely pass moral judgment on one of the most prominent figures of world history at the time and a man who has given politically and scientifically so much of himself to others. For a refutation of Jefferson’s slavery and an account that shows we are in no position to state categorically that Jefferson had an affair with Sally Hemings, see M. Andrew Holowchak, Framing a Legend (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012).

v Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 57-8.

vi Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 58.

vii Plato, Apology, Five Dialogues, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), 20d-23c.

viii Failure to identify the scholars at whom it is directed seems cowardly.

ix Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 58-9.

x Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 59.

xi Ellis, more than Onuf, is responsible for the jargon of “Jefferson’s contradictions.” “Interview with Joseph Ellis,” Frontline,, accessed 18 Dec. 2012.

xii Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 64n19.

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