The Many Faces of Thomas Jefferson

Few of America’s seminal Founding Fathers elicit as much admiration or condemnation as Thomas Jefferson. For that reason Jefferson has been the subject of more than 700 biographies (739 appear on a basic search at the Library of Congress website).

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Add one more to that total with the edition of University of Wisconsin at Madison historian John Kaminski’s “The Quotable Jefferson” (Princeton University Press), with one exception: Kaminski’s tome is a categorized collection of Jefferson quotes, placed in context for easy comprehension.

Speaking at the Cato Institute today, Kaminski said the purpose of his work is to lend a higher understanding “on one of the most condemned Founding Fathers.”

By putting Jefferson into context, Kaminski will, one hopes, alleviate some of the confusion and outright lies that swirl around Jeffersonian mythology. After all, which of the Founders words and memory has been so equally co-opted by right and left, liberal and conservative? None.

Jefferson’s words have been used to condemn and support gun control. His legacy employed to advance civil rights and held in contempt as a paradigm of racism and the evils of slavery.

Others have even invented out of whole cloth fictitious Jefferson quotes, designed to advance a cause. Contemporary anti-war activists have grown fond of this fiction, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” words Jefferson never once uttered or wrote. Still, the bumper sticker lends an air of intellect when stuck next to a sticker on the back of a Volvo or Toyota Prius.

Kaminski also used his talk to, ever so gently, chide the dreaded non-academic historians. David McCulloch’s “John Adams” was in the crosshairs today, as so many others in the past (like Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who in 2001 wrote a review hidden inside a rambling screed, which savaged McCulloch’s work as a mere “lullaby”).

To his credit Kaminski, though, hedged his concerns with McCulloch’s book when he acknowledged that in today’s increasingly shut-in world of American academics, many historians write books only for the academy, while upbraiding the public as ill-informed cretins.

Kaminski’s work, the product of many years research and laborious editing, will help to familiarize readers with the world view of Jefferson, while placing his words in the correct context. The work, even in light of the volumes on Jefferson already at hand, is a welcome addition for those wanting to understand the man in his own word.