Daniel P. Jordan: Historian defends Jefferson





If you've always wanted to get to know Thomas Jefferson, Dodd Auditorium was the place to be this week.

For there, in the University of Mary Washington's George Washington Hall, Daniel P. Jordan delivered the world's fastest crash course in Jefferson.

Jordan, a historian who has been the executive director of Monticello since 1985, knows his subject well enough to poke a little fun at the founding father.

He recalled the visitor to Jefferson's mountaintop home near Charlottesville who remarked to a friend, "Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a truly great man, but don't ever forget, Elvis is still The King."

Monticello, Jordan made clear, may be the world's premier resource for Jefferson studies, but it isn't "the Thomas Jefferson Chamber of Commerce."

He devoted his hour's talk, part of UMW's popular "Great Lives" series, to trying to put Jefferson in perspective.

Moving swiftly through the decades since Jefferson's birth in 1743, Jordan tore him down, noting his detractors' main criticisms and ticking off his flaws. Then, convincingly, he made the case that Jefferson nonetheless belongs in the topmost tier of figures in American history.

The Virginian's reputation has been in decline since the 1990s, Jordan said, when 250 million people around the world watched President Clinton kick off his predecessor's 250th birthday commemoration.

The slump since then has four causes, he said:

The recent wave of great biographies about Jefferson's adversaries, most notably David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on John Adams.

The ascendance of historians educated in the 1960s and '70s who tend to be anti-hero and cynical about the "great white fathers" of the nation's founding era.

The rediscovery that Jefferson enslaved African-Americans, and new scientific findings that he likely had at least one child by Sally Hemings, one of those slaves....


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