Why Have Jefferson’s Biographers Largely Overlooked His Love Affair with the Work of Laurence Sterne?

tags: morality, Jefferson

M. Andrew Holowchak is the author of many books about Thomas Jefferson including "Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" (2013). Amy Barbee is a psychologist in private practice, with expertise in marriage and family therapy.


Rev. Laurence Sterne was Jefferson’s favorite novelist, and even moralist. Jefferson read often Sterne’s novels The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (hereafter, TS; 1759–1767),and A Sentimental Journey (hereafter, SJ; 1768).

That said, almost nothing has been written about Jefferson and Laurence Sterne. There is a literary consensus in the literature on Jefferson in passing comments concerning Sterne’s influence that Jefferson enjoyed the novels of Laurence Sterne because of their moral value. Dumas Malone is typical, as he writes in The Sage of Monticello, “In the whimsies of Laurence Sterne he found not only entertainment but moral value.” That, however, is not hard to miss, as Jefferson in several letters extols the moral value of Sternian literature.

Yet in a letter to nephew Peter Carr (10 Aug. 1787), Jefferson says more. “The writings of Sterne particularly form the best course of morality that ever was written.” Why the superlative? Douglas L. Wilson says in his edition of Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book, “That Jefferson sincerely admired Sterne as a writer and moralist is beyond question, but these superlatives [sic] must be taken in context. Jefferson was trying to steer younger readers to something that they would relish and remember as he did.”

If we take Jefferson’s use of the superlative in the context of his letter to Carr, as Wilson asks us to do, we get more than Wilson thinks we ought to get. Jefferson is advising his beloved nephew on a course of study to develop most fully Carr’s character. Jefferson in the letter limns the features of the moral sense and advises Carr “to read good books because they will encourage as well as direct your feelings.” He then lists only the writings of Sterne within the letter, though he adds the Socratic dialogs, Cicero’s moral writings, Lucretius, Kames, Helvetius, and Locke in the enclosure under “Morality.” So more needs to be said on the question of Jefferson’s choice of the superlative.

Part of the answer comes in an earlier letter to friend Robert Skipwith (3 Aug. 1771). Jefferson says that works of fiction are superior to works of history—“considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life”—in that they allow much exercise of the human moral-sense faculty through indirect experience of acts either of charity and gratitude or of atrocity. History, which Jefferson always valued chiefly for its moral lessons (e.g., TJ to Anne Randolph Bankhead, 8 Dec. 1808, and TJ to William Duane, 4 Apr. 1813), fails “to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue.” He cites Sterne’s SJ, and remarks that it matters little whether “Sterne really went to France.” What matters is that we do feel remorse that he rebuked a Franciscan and grateful that he subsequently made an offering of peace—“a view with emulation [of] a soul candidly acknowledging it’s fault and making just reparation.”

Reference to SJ in the letter to Skipwith on the superiority of fiction is not incidental. Jefferson found in Sterne’s novels much more than a whimsical, entertaining novelist. As Andrew Burstein notes in “Jefferson and the Language of Friendship,” Sterne “highlighted episodes in life in which the highest value lay not in ascetic withdrawal but in sentimental attachment”—“sentimental” being a reference to moral sentiment (e.g., Smith and Hume). Thus, Sterne’s novels were substratally and situation-sensitive moral guidebooks. Yet Jefferson too held moral engagement in highest regard. Consider, for instance, his castigation of daughter Maria (3 Mar. 1802) for her “willingness to withdraw from society,” which he claimed would prove sufficient punishment for any who might withdraw.Thus, Jefferson like Sterne considered himself a “sentimental traveller”—hence his attraction to, perhaps obsession with, Sterne’s writings.

In SJ, Sterne writes of a “traveller”—readers quickly recognize the traveler is Sterne himself—who is not idle, inquisitive, lying, proud, vain, or splenetic. He is instead a “sentimental traveller”—one governed by the heart, not the head. “I seldom go to the place I set out for,” Sterne writes. “I am governed by circumstances—I cannot govern them.” Sterne means by such statements that there are numerous unanticipated episodes in each day that provide opportunities for meaningful moral engagement. In such scenarios, a sentimental traveler ought to and will act. “You take a withering twig, and put it in the ground; and then you water it, because you have planted it.” Thus, a sentimental traveler is first and foremost a moralist, fully engaged in local, even worldly, affairs.

Jefferson qua sentimental traveler was obliged to live life in pursuance of the dictates of the heart—for Jefferson, the moral sense (a separate faculty), not moral sentiment (which needs no separate faculty). He too writes of not governing, but being governed, by circumstances, “The motions of a traveller are always controuled by so many imperious circumstances that wishes and courtesies must yield to their sway” (TJ to Gen. Andrew Jackson, 18 Dec. 1823).

Much more must be said apropos of life as a sentimental journey for both.

First, a sentimental traveler goes through life with his eyes opened fully and turned to all things—especially things which, because they are uncommon, escape the notice of everyday persons. “What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in everything,” writes Sterne in SJ, “and who having eyes to see, what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on.” Again, “the man who either disdains or fears to walk up a dark entry may be an excellent good man, and fit for a hundred things; but he will not do to make a good sentimental traveller. I count little of the many things I see pass at broad noon-day in large and open streets. –Nature is shy, and hates to act before spectators but in such an unobserved corner, you sometimes see a single short scene of hers worth all the sentiments of a dozen French plays compounded together.” Jefferson too believed in engaged, open-eyed living. “It is unfortunate that most people think the occurrences passing daily under the eyes,” he writes to John Page (4 May 1786), “are either known to all the world, or not worth being known. They therefore do not give them place in their letters.” To the Marquis de Lafayette (11 Apr. 1787), he writes about his peregrinations through France: “I am constantly roving about, to see what I have never seen before and shall never see again. In the great cities, I go to see what travellers think alone worthy of being seen; but I make a job of it, and generally gulp it all down in a day. On the other hand, I am never satiated with rambling through the fields and farms, examining the culture and cultivators, with a degree of curiosity which makes some take me for a fool, and others to be much wiser than I am.”

Though a sentimental traveler travels au pied levé, yet the traveling is neither aimless nor goaded by mere inquisitiveness. The sentimental traveler strives for “useful knowledge and real improvements” of character. “I have a mortal aversion for retuning back no wiser than I set out,” writes Sterne in his travels through Italy. With wisdom as his goal, life for the sentimental traveler is a moral adventure. Jefferson too was wedded to the notion of useful knowledge, so much that he formed the curriculum at UVa around elective education and subjects for students of greatest utility—agriculture being foremost (cf. TJ to Augustin François Silvestre, 29 May 1807). He also, like Sterne, sought “useful knowledge and real improvements” of character. He writes to Robert Skipwith in his 1771 letter, “Everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue.”

Third, a sentimental traveler is modest and humble. Sterne says that he, while in France, was fêted and treated as a celebrity—“at this price I could have eaten and drank and been merry all the days of my life at Paris”—but “’twas a dishonest reckoning, … the gain of a slave.” Feeling himself a cockalorum, he “grew sick,” and left for Italy the morning next. Again, he says: “There is not a more perplexing affair in life to me, than to set about telling anyone who I am—for there is scarce anybody I cannot give a better account of than myself.” Jefferson also considered humility a virtue. To William Short (4 Aug. 1820), he says that Jesus’s “precepts of the purest morality” are “sanctioned by a life of humility.” Jefferson also practiced modesty. He eschewed the pomp of prior presidents when he took office, as he wished then to be treated as no Triton among minnows, but as a mere steward, answerable to the people.

In addition to modesty, a sentimental traveler is self-controlled. “There is nothing unmixt in this world,” writes Sterne in SJ, and even “enjoyment itself was attended ever with a sigh.” Again, “man has a certain compass,” and so “the social and other calls have occasion by turns for every key in him.” If he begins “a note too high or too low, there must be a want either in the upper or under part, to fill up the system of harmony.” Jefferson’s commitment to self-control is evidence in a letter to Madame de Tott (5 Apr. 1787). “The plan of my journey, as well as of my life, being to take things by the smooth handle (cf. TS, Vol. II, chap, 7), few occur which have not something tolerable to offer me.”

Fifth, a sentimental traveler uses language with laxity and imagination to gain its fullest effect and to communicate the sentiments of the heart most completely. Everyday expressions are fraught with meaning, uncommunicable by language. Sterne writes in SJ: “There are certain combined looks of simple subtlety—where whim, and sense, and seriousness, and nonsense, are so blended, that all the languages of Babel set loose together could not express them—they are communicated and caught so instantaneously, though you can scarce say which party is the infecter.” Moreover, Sterne in Tristram Shandy is lambent—almost irreverently so. His “chapters” are often no more than a few paragraphs—e.g., Vol. VI chap. 9, and Vol. IX, chap. 9 are merely one sentence, and chaps. 18 and 19 of Vol. IX are blank—and each chapter is anecdotal. Sterne uses often and brilliantly aposiophesis. The style overall bespeaks a certain joie de vivre. It is the same with Jefferson, who recognized Robertson, Addison, and Sterne as being “of the first merit in the different characters of composition” (TJ to John Garland, 27 Feb, 1822). When Jefferson epistolized, he showed utmost regard for communicating with his correspondent in a manner comfortable to that correspondent. Writing for Jefferson—and he was a superb writer—was not merely a means of putting thoughts on paper, it was active and impassioned engagement with a correspondent. Yet when Jefferson wrote, he intentionally took certain liberties with the grammatical conventions of his time. Language, like its users, he believed was alive. It needed to mature over time with the advances of science and changing interests of people. Though he sometimes complained of writing letters, it was a daily task that he generally found pleasant—perhaps fun—as writing was for him as with Sterne an affair of the heart.

Sixth, a sentimental traveler has a sense of humor. That is all too obvious in “the lusty roastbeef humor” (Alf Mapp, Thomas Jefferson) of Sterne’s novels and needs no illustration. Yet Jefferson’s love of Sterne shows plainly that he too had a sense of humor, though it was likely dry and intellectual. To Maria Cosway (24 Apr. 1788), he writes: “At Strasbourg I sat down to write to you. But for my soul I could think of nothing at Strasbourg but the promontory of noses, of Diego, of Slawkenburgius his historian, and the procession of the Strasburgers to meet the man with the nose. Had I written to you from thence it would have been a continuation of Sterne upon noses, and I knew that nature had not formed me for a Continuator of Sterne: so I let it alone till I came here and received your angry letter.” The aside is a reference to Sterne’s lengthy, playful digression concerning the length of noses, beginning at Vol. III, chap. 31, in TS, Jefferson’s humor went unrecognized by the French coquette.

Finally and most importantly, a sentimental traveler is a lover. Jefferson and his moribund wife copied a moving passing from Sterne’s TS (Vol. IX, chap. 8; her writing in italics),prior to her death on Sept. 6, 1782:

Time wastes too fast:  every letter

I trace tells me with what rapidity

life follows my pen. The days and hours

of it […] are flying over our heads like

[light] clouds of windy day never to return—

more every thing presses on—and every

time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which

follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation

which we are shortly to make!

The passage, taken from Sterne, is expressive of Sterne’s deep capacity for love. The passage, appropriated by Jefferson, indicates an equally profound regard for love.

One cannot end, however, without emphasizing another part of Jefferson’s obsession with Sterne—Anglican Minister Sterne’s Sermons of Mr. Yorick, totaling 45, which have not been studied by scholars. Jefferson read and recommended highly these sermonsand Sterne was a powerful, often unconventional sermonizer—not only to Skipwith early in life, but also to Joseph C. Cabell (Sept. 1800) and to John Minor (30 Aug. 1814) later in life. In the later letters, however, Jefferson recommends Sterne’s sermons, not his fiction. That is telling, and should not come as a surprise, for Jefferson always looked for moral lessons wherever they could be found: in real life, fiction, history, ethical works, and even in the published works of esteemed sermonizers. In that regard, Sterne had the advantage of being both novelist and sermonizer, and of being foremost in Jefferson’s eyes as both.

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