Friday, February 12, 2016

Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson & The Empire of the Imagination- Annette Gordon-Reed

Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson & the Empire of the Imagination- Annette Gordon-Read, Peter S. Onuf
W.W. Norton & Company; Liveright
Advanced Reader Copy: Release Date: April 13, 2016

Synopsis: 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 clichΓ©s 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 Kaminsky). 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." 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.

This newest addition to the works exploring the life of Thomas Jefferson is a must-read for American History buffs.  It is not as much a biography as it is an exploration of the world that Jefferson lived in, and the idealized one that he created in his mind, his "empire of the imagination".  Instead of reading as a chronological biography of his life it explores themes that were important to Jefferson: home, family, politics, music, etc. and how these reflected and influenced his views of the world and how he saw himself in that world.  It is the process of his life, not the simple bullet point highlights, that this book explores. 

The most important foundations of Jefferson's life centered on his home and his family.  I was interested to read how deeply this reflected in his approach to politics and how he saw the new republic developing.  It was especially interesting to consider that, due to travel, politics, and death, the ideal family that Jefferson obsessed over is one that he himself never truly had, or didn't have for long.  There is an extensive look at the issue of slavery and the question that haunted Jefferson in life as well as in history: how could he be against slavery, that "peculiar institution" and yet own slaves himself? While this is a question that in some ways can never fully be answered, Gordon-Reed and Onuf examine it from Jefferson's political, practical, and moral views and come to some interesting conclusions.  The same is done for his relationship with Sally Hemmings and the entire Hemmings family. 

  During an election year it was especially fascinating to look at politics in Jefferson's day. One was not expected to run for political office to benefit oneself (any hint of ego or self interest in politics was looked at with great suspicion) but for how the individual could benefit the greater whole. Even while Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Hamilton and others were dividing into Federalists and Republicans, they were against  multiple parties. The idea was that you were a patriot and therefore there was no dissent. Not very practical when put into real world situations, but interesting to think about.  

I greatly enjoyed this book and this style of looking at an individual's life through the themes that run through it and the larger picture. Instead of being yet another tired biography of a man who has had endless biographies written about him, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs puts Jefferson into the larger picture of his world: both the actual world and the 'empire of imagination' that helped him remain to this day one of our most remembered presidents and Founding Fathers. 
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley for an honest review.

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