What to Read Next (No. 232): Thomas Jefferson and Rethinking History
I finished and scheduled last week’s newsletter, which I called “Our New Reality,” on Thursday afternoon. Late Friday morning, a number of hours after that newsletter went out, the Roe v. Wade judgment was publicly delivered. Suddenly, those words “Our New Reality” ended up conveying something more serious than my original intent.
Turns out, our new reality looks a lot like the old reality of America, a place in which women’s bodies are controlled by men in power.
Buckle up for this week’s longer edition!
The Importance of Rethinking Our History
About six weeks ago, when I started thinking about this year’s Fourth of July newsletter, I didn’t expect today’s subject matter, Thomas Jefferson, to be so relevant. But here we are.
These days, Jefferson’s legacy is almost always mentioned alongside Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman he fathered six children with. While we’ll never be able to know the full range of complex emotions Hemings undoubtedly felt towards Jefferson, there’s no doubt about the power dynamic that led to their “relationship.”
All of America’s promises and contradictions are wrapped up in the character of Thomas Jefferson. While other founders had slaves, they didn’t pen the very words that abolitionists used in their campaigns for freedom (“all men are created equal”); there’s an especially disturbing air of hypocrisy when it comes to our third president.
The books featured today ultimately ask how we approach our old heroes from history.
Two of them are Pulitzer-winning books, one from the 1950s and one from 2008; the third book is a new memoir written by a middle-aged white man who came to grips with Jefferson’s legacy in the midst of writing a travel narrative.
Funny enough, though I enjoyed all three, I’m not giving any my highest recommendation.
The real point here is to encourage you to always be evaluating and re-evaluating our national history, from all the available voices — especially the minority voices who have been ignored for the majority of America’s existence.
There’s just no reason for historical figures to maintain the same legacy they’ve always had. Just as individual people change and strive to be better, so should the shared understanding of our past. Nobody seeks out a plateaued, static existence, but for some reason there are a lot of people who believe American history should be just that: fixed, immovable, unchanging.
So, while the books featured here today won’t be making my Best of 2022 list, they did highlight, for me, the importance of seeking out new and different voices.
What are some books you’ve read that have enhanced your understanding of America’s past? Fiction, non-fiction, new, or old, I’d love to hear!
In Pursuit of Jefferson: Traveling through Europe with the Most Perplexing Founding Father by Derek Baxter
Re-creating some famous figure’s historical journey has long been a staple of travel writing. About a decade ago, Baxter took on a travel agenda I had never heard of: Thomas Jefferson’s meanderings through Europe during the American Revolution.
From the wild gardens of England, to the vineyards of France, to the ancient ruins of Italy, and even some domestic sojourns, Baxter comes face to face with not only his own lack of adventure in life, but also his favorite founding father’s dark legacy of enslaving people.
For Baxter, a middle-aged white dude from Virginia, revering Jefferson was practically a birthright. And while his story of becoming enlightened to the contradictions of America’s past is not a new one, it remains an important narrative to share. For a well-off man to change his mind about something is always a somewhat surprising, admirable thing.
In Pursuit of Jefferson is a fun (sometimes overly long) memoir that combines travel with history in an accessible way.
Read More Books Rating (out of 5): 3.5
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
Historian Annette Gordon-Reed is best known for bringing to light Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with enslaved woman Sally Hemings.
For decades, historians wrote off the rumors of these Jefferson-Hemings children as just that, but Gordon-Reed worked to set the record straight, often in the face of serious backlash from the broader historical community. Being a Black woman in that field, especially in the mid-90s, was incredibly difficult and lonely.
Despite her uphill climb, the importance of her scholarship and research cannot be understated. Our modern understanding of Thomas Jefferson has been profoundly shaped by Gordon-Reed’s writing and advocacy on behalf of the Hemings name.
Though this was not her first book about Jefferson and Hemings, The Hemingses of Monticello, published in 2008, functions as the capstone of her research into that story.
The nuance with which she writes about the relationship between enslaved peoples and their enslavers is unparalleled and unlike anything I’ve read. This was definitely the most memorable aspect of the book: the psychological examination of how the Jeffersons and Hemingses interacted on a day-to-day basis.
Even though Thomas Jefferson looms in the background (and sometimes foreground) of every paragraph, this really is a book about the Hemings family, from their first appearance on American shores in the early 1600s to Jefferson’s death in the mid-1800s.
As a reader and book reviewer, though, I have a hard time recommending it for anyone other than serious armchair historians (or, ya know, actual historians). It’s dense, at times, and gets into a lot of detail. That’s the point: this is a research-heavy book that will be used by historians for decades. Which also means it going to be inaccessibly tough for most readers — myself included. I skipped large chunks, at times, and wasn’t very motivated to pick it up and keep reading.
There are definitely pages and chapters of utter brilliance, but it takes some wading. Again, The Hemingses of Monticello is an incredible achievement, but will take some big-time commitment if you feel like giving it a read.
RMB Rating (out of 5): 4 — based not on merit, but on accessibility and readability
Jefferson: The Virginian by Dumas Malone
Over the course of thirty years in the mid-1900s, biographer Dumas Malone wrote and published six volumes about the life of Thomas Jefferson. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1975 for the entire effort, but isn’t very well-known today.
I read the first volume, Jefferson: The Virginian, and came away very impressed with Malone’s narrative powers — he can tell a great story and really brought Jefferson to life. But, it was also clear to me why this book is more of a relic than a classic.
While Malone doesn’t shy away from some of Jefferson’s failings, he never really examines the man through other perspectives.
Published around the same time, Robert Caro’s classic The Power Broker addresses Robert Moses’ reign as New York City Parks Commissioner through the lens of the city’s displaced residents.
In the ‘80s, Doris Kearns Goodwin told JFK’s story by focusing in on the familial and cultural forces that shaped his parents and grandparents, thus giving the reader a more well-rounded portrait.
Yes, Malone can tell a damn good story, but it’s not quite the right story.
I enjoy reading old history books like this for the simple fact that they can offer great insight into our society’s understanding of history at that moment in time. It’s easy to see why Jefferson enjoyed such a lofty, uncomplicated reputation when books like Malone’s were all that was available to people. Thankfully, a new generation of historians are telling a different story from a new and important perspective.
RMB Rating (out of 5): 3
That’s all for me this week. Thanks so much for reading — I deeply appreciate the time and inbox space!