Book review of His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer by Fred Kaplan.


In “His Superb Pen,” Fred Kaplan conducts a thorough and fascinating study of Thomas Jefferson, proving that he, too, could use a superb pen. Although the book’s subtitle describes it as a “biography of the author Jefferson,” it is more accurately an insight into Jefferson’s character and philosophy that Kaplan draws from the personal and public writings of our most famous founding father. investigation.

As such, this book is not a conventional biography. Readers familiar with Jefferson’s public and private life will be quick to notice some uneven reporting in Kaplan’s account. For example, Jefferson’s flirtations with Maria Cosway are fully developed, while his long-term relationship with Sally Hemings is barely mentioned – one must assume, in large part because of the lack of writing to Hemings. Letters from or about Hemings could help Kaplan delve into Jefferson’s inner life.

The main function of this well-paced and well-written narrative is as a backdrop for Kaplan’s explorations of many themes. Four of these themes stood out to this reader: the influence of class and region on Jefferson’s social attitudes and assumptions about race and gender; Jefferson’s seemingly limitless ability to rationalize his actions and avoid unpleasant truths; The romantic myth of America as a country of contented homesteaders; his politics and policies after the war formed around a strong Anglophobia. Of course, these do not drain Kaplan’s attention, since they do not take into account, for example, Jefferson’s attitudes toward intimacy or his philosophical reflections on religion and slavery, both of which are amply developed in the book. develop. But these four themes illustrate Kaplan’s skill at discovering Jefferson’s character and political ideology through his “masterstroke.”

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Consider Kaplan’s analysis of Jefferson’s emerging commitment to independence. In 1774, Jefferson wrote an essay to the Virginia legislature, later published as “A Survey of the Rights of British America.” Like many, if not most, members of the Virginia planter class, Jefferson was viscerally appalled by Britain’s decision to impose taxes and new restrictions. To do so without consulting these white elites is an insult to their gentility. The resulting resentment led Jefferson to blame the growing political crisis solely on the British government. But it’s not just class-based outrage that Kaplan sees in “Summary View.” This article is just one example of Jefferson’s ability throughout his life to attribute any crisis or failure to other people or countries rather than his own. “Overview” also presents Jefferson’s hostility toward Britain and its cultural and economic institutions, an animosity that would persist long after America won its independence.

Kaplan reads the central argument of the “General View” as both plausible and persuasive, the former because it is full of “historical inaccuracies and idiosyncratic appeals” and because its authors are unwilling to admit any rebuttals; the latter For its “unfettered emotional intensity, its … creativity in combining feeling, argument, language and ideology”. “Summary View” Kaplan concludes that this is an example of the highest form of propaganda.

Only the Declaration of Independence, written two years later, surpassed the Introduction on all these elements. Many scholars have described the manifesto’s indictment of the king and his government as a perfect example of lawyer’s argument, and Kaplan sees in it the same strong undercurrent of anger at real or imagined tyranny that Jefferson showed in his “Synoptic View” . And, as Kaplan points out, it was “mental disorder” for the proclamation to require Jefferson, who owned hundreds of slaves, to claim that the king’s intent was to enslave his white colonists.

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Kaplan later explores Jefferson’s ability to create mythology in support of his vision for a new republic. As Jefferson envisioned America’s future, he saw an agricultural society sustained by free, independent, and content white homesteaders. The practice of these patriotic yeomen cultivating the land assuring them a moral advantage over city merchants and merchants was largely a figment born of Jefferson’s ability to base his arguments on unfounded generalizations and distortions of fact. Caplan offers a reality that Jefferson stubbornly avoided, pointing out that many, if not most, Virginia farmers lived subsistence lives with little satisfaction or fulfillment. Kaplan also disproved the myth that Jefferson insisted that city life was rife with immorality while rural life encouraged moral values. As Kaplan pointed out—and Jefferson knew—a portion of Virginia’s farming population consisted of “loafers, libertines, alcoholics, gamblers, sexual adventurers, and abusive husbands.” Yet Jefferson’s ability to vividly paint an idyllic American paradise was so convincing that members of later generations are known to accept the myth and mourn the passing of the happy homesteader’s time.

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Caplan recognizes the synergy that arises when these themes overlap, as in the case of Jefferson’s myth of a nation founded on homesteading combined with his intense hatred of Britain to form the bedrock of his political ideology. While many historians have recounted the rise of two opposing political parties in the 1790s, Kaplan fully captures the emotional intensity of Jefferson’s hatred of Hamiltonian policies and the nationalist attachment to urban life. Kaplan does this not only by examining the creation and eventual victory of Jefferson’s Republican Party, but also by reading Jefferson’s letters and public texts on the subject, with arguably forensic attention to detail. Under his structural microscope, readers can clearly see the compulsive Anglophobia that drove Jefferson to support an autocratic, anti-republican French king, and a French Revolution that turned into a dictatorship in order to achieve his party’s success.

Less skilled historians may substitute parlor psychoanalysis for subtle interrogation of texts. To his credit, Kaplan does not go beyond accepted narrative frameworks and a sympathetic but critical reading of Jefferson’s papers allow. The author’s skillful use of his own prose ensures a better understanding of this brilliant 18th-century man who helped give birth to a new nation.

Carol Berkin is “The Sovereign People: The Crisis of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism

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