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June 06, 2013


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I do think it critical to discussions of Jefferson to keep in mind that he was a public official for most of his life at nearly all levels of government. The philosopher governed, which no doubt, shaped his relationship to theory.

I also think that Jefferson as a racial thinker was, as he said of the Declaration, expressing the minds of his fellow citizens, many of whom had already made up their minds about where blacks were to fit (or not) in the new American nation.


There is a sophisticated defense of Jefferson's argument against the rule of the dead hand constitution in Michael Otsuka's book _Libertarianism Without Inequality_, )(OUP, 2005) if anyone is interested in that. I'll admit that, in the end, the argument seemed more like a reductio than convincing to me, but it is the most sympathetic and sophisticated treatment of the idea that I've seen.

Brad Smith

The best, in-depth examination of Jeffeson's Constitutional thinking is David Mayer's "The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson," (U. Virginia Press, 1994).


Other excellent considerations (and very current) are two of Peter S. Onuf's books: Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood and The Mind of Thomas Jefferson. Prof. Onuf and I consider TJ's views on the generations in the book about TJ that we are presently working on.

Matthew Crow

Hi, thank you all for taking the time to comment. The point I'd like do just throw back out there is the question of what is at stake for us in not counting Jefferson as one who had or has anything constructive to say about jurisprudence. Legal theory was fundamental to shaping Jefferson's thinking, I would want to argue, and secondly, our hangups about authoritative text and historical change remain haunted by Jefferson's own foray into these very issues.

Obviously, a blog post about books on Jefferson's thought (even if just limited to political and constitutional thought) would be a different kind of thing entirely. Mayer is good on the issue of the generations, as is Herbert Sloan in his book, Principle and Interest. For both, though, law and the jurisprudential origins of the concept of usufruct are tangential to how they understand Jefferson's thinking here. On Jefferson's thought more broadly, one can follow the grooves laid down by Peter Onuf's writings to work by Hannah Spahn and Brian Steele (friend of the show), and Kevin Hayes, who does foreground Jefferson's legal career and legal reading in his understanding of the development of Jefferson's mind. Of course, Onuf's work pays big dividends not only on its own terms and in continuing collaboration with distinguished colleagues, but in refocused attention by other scholars on the link between constitutionalism, expansion, empire, and state formation (Eric Hinderaker, Patrick Griffin, Max Edling, Alison LaCroix, Eliga Gould, Aziz Rana, and Craig Yirush come to mind). To get even broader, work by Adam Rothman, Lauren Benton, Walter Johnson, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, James Tully, and Christopher Tomlins asserts itself here, too, and to go back to Jefferson, Anthony Wallace's Jefferson and the Indians is still required reading on the sage of Monticello.

Thank you for the Otsuka reference- I will take a look, although I must admit that when the word libertarian gets used I think of total lack of attention to actually existing historical and political conditions, but that is no excuse not to read further.

Finally, to the first comment- thank you especially for taking the comment not once but twice. I think we would agree that it is a mistake to think of Jefferson as having a system or a doctrine, even a singular theory- I would add that that is what I think is fascinating about his thinking. I've always liked Jay Fliegelman's line- Jefferson as a participatory observer, a reflexive and reflective actor. That is to say, I don't think of Jefferson as a philosopher in our sense of the word- that actually misses the power of this thinking, which was constantly engaged, I would argue, even when he said it was not, in the practical art of government, especially if we consider a rather expansive concept of governance. Jefferson governed not only states and territories and municipalities, but people. This won't be news to anyone here, but a central part of the fact that he governed was the fact that he owned- even in his home he governed himself and others. What I would add is that he thought about that, and this had ramifications for how he thought about other things. Along the lines of Foucault's recently translated lectures, he theorized the relationship between the government of self and others, and that thinking, which is not different from action or reality, was and continues to be of significance. What I would like to get at is what Jefferson himself called that mode of action called thinking.

Just so, I want to press the point about Jefferson as a racial thinker. Undoubtedly, Jefferson is reflecting (and reflecting on) the limits of the political and economic context in which he finds himself. But he is also doing work in the Notes on the State of Virginia, on himself and, eventually, on the terms of political debate in his time, and that on a variety of fronts. Jefferson is as much an agent as a product- the question of the place of Africans and African Americans in particular, free and enslaved, in the new republic and the Atlantic world was not completely settled- and Jefferson is working to settle it, and he is going to try and do so precisely with the idea of their incapacity to be active agents- subjects, rather than objects, of law and politics. To return to the last point I made in the original post, yes, we have to look at Jefferson in context, but we also have to look at what he and others, for good and for ill, do to their contexts. And that kind of historical practice provides reinvigorated focus, I hope, on how we act in and on our own.

Thank you again, and with respect and admiration,- matt crow

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