Review of His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer by Fred Kaplan.
The book is therefore not a traditional biography. Readers familiar with Jefferson’s life, both public and private, will soon notice patchy coverage in Kaplan’s account. For example, Jefferson’s flirtation with Maria Cosway is fully developed, while his long relationship with Sally Hemings is barely mentioned – much of it, one must assume, as there are no letters to or about Hemings. that would help Kaplan fathom Jefferson’s inner life.
The main function of this well-paced and well-written narrative is to provide context for Kaplan’s exploration of a number of themes. Four such themes stand out for this reader: the impact of class and region on Jeffersonian social attitudes and racial and gender assumptions; Jefferson’s seemingly limitless ability to rationalize his own behavior and avoid unpleasant truths; the creation of and commitment to a romantic myth of America as a nation of contented farmers; and the intense Anglophobia around which his politics and policies took shape after the war. These of course do not exhaust Kaplan’s attention, as they do not take into account, for example, Jefferson’s approach to intimacy or his philosophical ruminations on religion and slavery, both fully developed in this volume. But these four themes illustrate Kaplan’s skill in discovering Jefferson’s character and his political ideology through the products of his “masterful pen.”
Consider Kaplan’s analysis of Jefferson’s emerging commitment to independence. In 1774 Jefferson composed an essay addressed to the Virginia legislature and later published as “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” Like many if not most of Virginia’s planter class, Jefferson viewed Britain’s decision to impose taxes and new restrictions with visceral concern. That this was done without consulting these elite white men was an insult to their status as gentlemen. The resulting resentment led Jefferson to blame the escalating political crisis on the British government. But Kaplan sees more in “A Summary View” than class-based outrage. The essay is just one example of Jefferson’s ability to blame any crisis or failure on someone else, or on a country other than his own. “A Summary View” also presents Jefferson’s hostility to Britain, its culture and its economic system, a hostility that would last long after American independence.
Kaplan reads the central argument of “A Summary View” as both specious and persuasive, the former because it is replete with “historical inaccuracies and special pleadings” and because its author is unwilling to acknowledge any counter-arguments ; the latter because of its “limitless emotional intensity, its … inventiveness in combining feeling, argument, language and ideology”. “A Summary View” was, Kaplan concludes, an example of the highest form of propaganda.
Only the Declaration of Independence, written two years later, will surpass “A Summary View” in all these elements. Where many scholars have characterized the Declaration’s indictment of the king and his government as a perfect example of legal argument, Kaplan sees in it the same intense undercurrent of rage against real or imagined tyranny as Jefferson posted in “A Summary View”. And, as Kaplan notes, the Declaration required “mental dissonance” for Jefferson, who owned hundreds of slaves, to assert that the king’s intent was to enslave his white settlers.
Kaplan later explores Jefferson’s ability to create myths in support of his vision for the new republic. As Jefferson envisioned the future of America, he saw an agrarian society supported by a free, independent, and contented white yeomanry. These patriotic yeomen, whose tilling the soil ensured their moral superiority over urban merchants and traders, were largely a fiction produced by Jefferson’s ability to construct an argument on unfounded generalizations and distortions of fact. Kaplan provides the reality that Jefferson stubbornly avoids, pointing out that many, if not most, Virginia farmers endured a subsistence level existence that brought little satisfaction or contentment. Kaplan also dismisses as a myth Jefferson’s insistence that city life was plagued with immorality while rural life encouraged moral values. As Kaplan points out—and as Jefferson knew—Virginia’s agrarian population had its share of “slackers, wasters, alcoholics, gamblers, sexual adventurers, and abusive husbands.” Yet Jefferson’s ability to paint a vivid picture of a bucolic American paradise was so compelling that members of later generations have been known to embrace the myth and mourn the passing of an era of happy yeomanry.
Kaplan recognizes the synergy produced when these themes overlap, as when Jefferson’s myth of a nation based on yeomanry combined with his intense hatred of Britain to form the building blocks of his political ideology. Although many historians have recounted the rise of two opposing political parties in the 1790s, it is Kaplan who fully captures the emotional intensity of Jefferson’s hatred of Hamiltonian policies and the Nationalists’ attachment to city life. Kaplan does this not simply by examining the creation and eventual victory of Jefferson’s Republican Party, but by reading Jefferson’s letters and public texts on this subject with what could be described as forensic attention to detail. Under his textural microscope, the reader can clearly see the obsessive Anglophobia that drove Jefferson to support an absolutist, anti-Republican French king, and a French Revolution that degenerated into a dictatorship, in order to ensure his party’s success. .
A less skilful historian could substitute parlor psychoanalysis for a subtle interrogation of the texts. To his credit, Kaplan goes no further than the accepted narrative framework and a sympathetic but critical reading of Jefferson’s papers allow. The skill with which the author handles his masterful pen allows us to better understand this brilliant and talented man of the 18th century who could not completely escape the moral failings of his social class or the weaknesses of his own character since he contributed to give birth to a new nation.
Carol Berkin is the author of “A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism.”
A biography of Jefferson the writer
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