Judging Jefferson: Ideals or Actions?Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Thomas Jefferson, democracy
Daniel N. Gullotta is the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and a PhD candidate at Stanford University specializing in American religious history. He is the host of The Age of Jackson Podcast.
Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh
Thomas S. Kidd
Yale University Press
Thomas Jefferson continues to inspire and divide Americans. Even though he still ranks in the top 10 in C-SPAN’s Presidential Historians Survey, recent years have witnessed Jefferson’s name and image removed from schools, libraries, and the halls of government. Jefferson’s statue at his own University of Virginia served as a rallying point for white supremacists during the summer of 2017. All the while, Daveed Diggs’s flamboyant portrayal of him in the musical Hamilton was winning acclaim on Broadway.
Much of this controversy stems from Jefferson’s dual identity as the author of the Declaration of Independence and his status as one of the nation’s most prominent slaveholders. Add to this the unsettling reality that Jefferson fathered at least six children with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, and it’s little wonder that many Americans find themselves wondering how such a man could have penned the words “All men are created equal.” With the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution looming, it is difficult to predict if and how Jefferson’s name will be invoked.
For many, Jefferson’s life is nothing but a testimony to his own hypocrisy, while others see Jefferson as a visionary bound to the conditions of his time. The latest book from historian Thomas Kidd, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh, attempts to shed light on Jefferson’s puzzling philosophy and problematic past.
Kidd’s goal is not to write a new life story of Jefferson, but rather to illuminate and grapple with his ethical and moral universe. Because of this, Kidd’s biography is amazingly (and mercifully) succinct, at least compared to the mammoth accounts produced by other historians. Whereas political battles frame most Jefferson biographies, moral tensions and intellectual conflicts dominate Kidd’s telling.
Using a loose chronology of Jefferson’s life and times, Kidd situates readers to the dilemmas and dramas defining his thought at any given time, from Christian orthodoxy to romantic pursuits to slavery. Mapping out the main influencers on Jefferson’s thought—such as John Locke and Algernon Sidney on the Declaration of Independence, Montesquieu on colonization and racial separation, and the trappings of the South’s honor culture—Kidd helps readers understand the makeup of Jefferson’s brain on any given subject.
In short, A Biography of Spirit and Flesh is devoted to following Jefferson’s intellectual and religious development, both in terms of its sources as well as its evolution in different spaces and situations.
Given Kidd’s status as one of today’s most popular and preeminent Christian historians, his take on Jefferson’s religious profile also serves as a vital corrective to the pseudohistory produced by figures like David Barton, who promote an uncomplicated synthesis between Christianity and the American founding. Granted, Kidd’s Jefferson is no secularist champion, and this book rejects the easy pigeonholing of Jefferson as a mere deist. Though he was surely heterodox in rejecting doctrines like the Trinity, he truly saw himself as a follower of Jesus and was devoted to a “naturalistic” vision of Christianity.