Keeping the tension between the past and the present, foreign and familiar in play, Gordon-Reed and Onuf raise Jefferson in relief, against his times and ours, to examine his attitudes about home, family life, public service, slavery, politics, friendship and education. The Jefferson who emerges in these pages is a dynamic, complex and oftentimes contradictory human being ... Though this sounds like sober historical reading, the writers have smithed an engaging, sterling, prose style, polished to highlight incongruities between Jefferson's philosophy and how he had to live in the world.
To the already bursting Jefferson canon, they add a fresh and layered analysis, one centered more on his interior life than his deeds for posterity ... Gordon-Reed and Onuf are not the first to search for other ways into Jefferson’s private place, nor will they be the last. But they have provided a smart and useful map for those who are certain to follow.
Most Blessed of the Patriarchs cannot entirely avoid compiling the sort of despairing catalogue of the great man’s hypocrisies that the authors set out to transcend ... [the authors'] approach yields a stimulating graduate seminar on topics in Jefferson studies, shedding welcome light on subjects such as Jefferson’s passionate attachment to music and his tenacious insistence that a person’s religious beliefs are nobody else’s business. For a reader coming to Jefferson for the first or even second time, however, the structure might be challenging.
The authors are accomplished scholars, yet somehow the entire book feels wrong. It’s not that they revile Jefferson. Nor do they deify their subject or attempt to turn his brilliant but inconsistent thought into a coherent philosophy. No, what Ms. Gordon-Reed and Mr. Onuf have done is something that one wouldn’t have thought possible: They’ve made Thomas Jefferson small and boring ... We may wish to praise or censure him, but the author of the Declaration worked painstakingly to express himself clearly—and that is a good bit more than the authors of this monograph can claim.
Much of the fascination of the book is that, in a relatively short span, it examines Jefferson not only as statesman and plantation owner, but also as philosopher, scientist, author, musician, inventor, architect, educator, father, and friend ... I suspect this new book will cause controversy [because] it takes Jefferson’s perspective seriously at a time when his reputation is at a low in some quarters, especially college campuses and Broadway. Readers may be unwilling or unable to swallow the potent dram of generosity needed to see the world through a slave owner’s eyes, even one who claimed to hate slavery and who wrote some of history’s most influential words of liberation. In their search for understanding rather than for comfortable bromides, Gordon-Reed and Onuf exemplify a virtue that Jefferson admired, even though, in this case, it does not always tend to his advantage.
Rather than offering the stuff of conventional biography, the authors profile Jefferson by devoting chapters to his views on key concepts such as 'Home,' 'Plantation,' and 'Politics.' Not surprisingly, they keep returning to his central contradiction — that one of history’s most articulate enemies of tyranny owned hundreds of slaves, including his mistress, over whom he held dominion ... While the authors acknowledge that Jefferson was not quite the model parent that he professed to be, they tend to gloss over his severe emotional and interpersonal difficulties, which have led numerous writers to suggest that he may suffered from some chronic mental illness such as social phobia.
Gordon-Reed and Onuf claim that they are not aiming to critically assess what Jefferson’s life might mean for us. Nor do they see their book as an effort to tell us how Jefferson ought to have behaved—so easy to do in retrospect. Instead, they want to understand what Jefferson himself thought he was doing in the world. They want 'to present a picture of the total man,' by which they mean to include his ideas about slavery, race, and the place of women as well as his political activity and his vision of the nation’s future ... The new book is not easy reading. It assumes that the reader already knows a good deal about Jefferson and his life, and because it is not a chronological narrative it skips about quite a bit in time and place. The book is really a series of ruminations on various aspects of Jefferson’s life, all rather loosely tied together ... So any reader expecting a full account of Jefferson’s life should go elsewhere. But if the reader already knows the outlines of his life, then this collection of reflections will be richly rewarding. It is full of fascinating insights about Jefferson ... As the book proceeds, the authors’ strenuous efforts throughout to link Jefferson’s preoccupation with family and his private household with his concerns in the larger world of the nation begin to flag and become confusing.
In an age such as ours where certainties are tweeted, proclaimed and feverishly sought in the public domain, Jefferson’s seeming embrace of contradiction and paradox is frustrating. Gordon-Reed and Onuf share this pain. But in the end, they, too, seem to embrace, if warily, Jefferson’s vagabond imaginings and ideas as embodying America’s willful, constant impulse to revise and reinvent itself. If history is any guide, the pendulum that now swings in Alexander Hamilton’s favor will surely swerve back toward Jefferson — and Most Blessed of Patriarchs submits the first, convincing brief for that shift.
...an approach that allows exploration of Jefferson, unleashed from a chronological narrative. But perhaps more interesting, the book returns, like a touchstone, to remind the reader that Monticello and all that it stood for was built on the backs of enslaved African-Americans. Jefferson may have preferred to turn his face and avoid the harsh reality of his slaveholding, but neither these authors, nor history, will allow that contradiction to stand unexamined ... an important contribution to understanding Jefferson in light of his now-confirmed relationship with Hemings. Sex, as they say, changes everything. Even our understanding of Jefferson himself.
Gordon-Reed and Onuf don’t succeed in reconciling the contradictory facets of a slaveholder who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but they often illuminate them ... Most Blessed of the Patriarchs works best when the authors stick to the details of Jefferson’s home life at Monticello ... When the narrative expands to larger issues, the result is more problematic.