Memory  /  Q&A

Jefferson: Hero or Villain? It’s Complicated.

An interview with Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf.
Micha? Sokolnicki and Tadeusz Ko?ciuszko/Library of Congress

Gordon-Reed: Jefferson the God appeared during the time of great-man biography and the nineteenth-century celebration of “the hero.” People were very proud of the accomplishments of the United States of America. They wanted to tell Jefferson’s story the way they told stories about all great men of that period, emphasizing the good things they had done. Not until the twentieth century—and this is generally attributed to Lytton Strachey—did we get what’s called “new biography,” where you’re looking at the subject’s private life. Psychoanalysis had begun, and people were looking more at the inner person and trying to find what drives her. Jefferson the God persisted, but once we got to the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, society became more attentive to other people—people of color, women, and so on. All of a sudden we were looking at the founders in a different way, and at Jefferson in particular. People had made claims for Jefferson in ways he never made for himself. That led people to set him up as Jefferson the Devil.

Onuf: As psychoanalytically informed people know well, hate and love are very close. What Annette and I are struggling against are exaggerated depictions of a real person who lived in real time. It’s very hard to avoid the fallacy of saying about your subject, “He speaks to us.” Of course, Jefferson does in some ways: the voices he takes on, or that people impute to him, are a crazy medley of irreconcilable nonsense—that’s what is projected onto Jefferson. But he is still important, and we need to grapple with the question of how he will be important to us in the future. We’re trying to make sense of him the way he made sense of himself, without abandoning our own moral perspectives, our own need to tell what we think is the truth. But to either lionize him or demonize him is silly. It doesn’t help. It occludes a proper understanding.

Gordon-Reed: He makes sense to himself. There’s this whole new idea of viewing Jefferson through the lens of hypocrisy. He is no more hypocritical than other members of the founding generation, if you really look at their lives. You could find things they believed and ways in which they acted contrary to those professed beliefs. We need a reboot. People need to go back and look at Jefferson seriously instead of arguing among one another about how many more things we can each find out about Jefferson, how many contradictions. That’s a way of writing about him that hasn’t been very productive. We’ve been stuck in a ditch. You kind of know what people are going to say.