Annette Gordon-Reed and "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:Thomas Jefferson&the Empire of Imagination"

Nov 16, 2016

On Wednesday’s Access Utah we’ll talk with acclaimed law professor and historian, Annette Gordon-Reed, as a part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative.


Annette Gordon-Reed is Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, Professor of History in the History Department, and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. Her previous books include “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008),” which won the Pulitzer Prize in history and the National Book Award for nonfiction. Her new book, with fellow Jefferson scholar Peter Onuf, is "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination,” which explores Jefferson’s vision of himself, the American Revolution, Christianity, slavery, and race.

 

Thomas Jefferson is often portrayed as a hopelessly enigmatic figure—a riddle—a man so riven with contradictions that he is almost impossible to know. Lauded as the most articulate voice of American freedom and equality, even as he held people—including his own family—in bondage, Jefferson is variably described as a hypocrite, an atheist, or a simple-minded proponent of limited government who expected all Americans to be farmers forever.

 

Now, Annette Gordon-Reed teams up with Jefferson scholar, Peter S. Onuf, to present a character study that dispels the many clichés that have accumulated over the years about our third president. Challenging the widely prevalent belief that Jefferson remains so opaque as to be unknowable, Gordon-Reed and Onuf create a portrait of Jefferson, as he might have painted himself, one "comprised of equal parts sun and shadow" (Jane Kamensky).

 

Tracing Jefferson's philosophical development from youth to old age, the authors explore what they call the "empire" of Jefferson's imagination—an expansive state of mind born of his origins in a slave society, his intellectual influences, and the vaulting ambition that propelled him into public life as a modern avatar of the Enlightenment who, at the same time, likened himself to a figure of old—"the most blessed of the patriarchs." Indeed, Jefferson saw himself as a "patriarch," not just to his country and mountain-like home at Monticello but also to his family, the white half that he loved so publicly, as well as to the black side that he claimed to love, a contradiction of historical magnitude.

 

Annette Gordon-Reed is Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, Professor of History in the History Department, and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. A renowned law professor and scholar of American history, Gordon-Reed has taught at the New York Law School and at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. She has published six books, including “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008)” and “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997),” which examines the scholarly writing on the relationships between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. This book was a nonfiction finalist in the First Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards. Two books, “Jefferson: A Reader on Race” and “Andrew Johnson” are forthcoming.

 

Her honors include the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship in the humanities, a fellowship from the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the National Organization for Women in New York City’s Woman of Power and Influence Award. Gordon-Reed was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011 and is a member of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.

 She holds a JD from Harvard Law School and an AB from Dartmouth College. Prior to becoming an academic, she was counsel to the New York City Board of Correction and was an associate at Cahill, Gordon, and Reindel.