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


In “His Masterly Pen,” an absorbing study of Thomas Jefferson, Fred Kaplan demonstrates that he too wields a masterly pen. Although the book’s subtitle describes it as “a biography of Jefferson the writer,” it is more precisely an examination of the ideas about Jefferson’s character and philosophy that Kaplan drew from the personal and public writings of our most famous Founding Father.

So the book is not a traditional biography. Readers familiar with Jefferson’s life, both public and private, will soon notice uneven coverage in Kaplan’s narrative. For example, Jefferson’s flirtation with Maria Cosway is fully developed, while his long relationship with Sally Hemings is barely mentioned, largely, one must assume, because there are no letters to or about Hemings to help Kaplan investigate. the inner life of Jefferson.

The primary function of this well-written and well-written narrative is to serve as context for Kaplan’s exploration of a range of themes. Four of these themes stand out for this reader: the impact of class and region on Jefferson’s social attitudes and racial and gender assumptions; Jefferson’s seemingly limitless ability to rationalize his own behavior and avoid unpleasant truths; the creation and commitment to a romantic myth of America as a nation of contented farmers; and the intense anglophobia around which his politics and policies took shape after the war. These, of course, do not exhaust Kaplan’s attention, for they do not take into account, for example, Jefferson’s approach to intimacy or his philosophical reflections on religion and slavery, both of which are fully developed in this volume. But these four themes illustrate Kaplan’s ability to discover Jefferson’s character and his political ideology through the products of his “masterful pen.”

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Consider Kaplan’s analysis of Jefferson’s emerging commitment to independence. In 1774, Jefferson composed an essay addressed to the Virginia legislature and later published as “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” Like many, if not most members of Virginia’s planter class, Jefferson viewed Britain’s decision to impose taxes and new restrictions with visceral alarm. That it was done without consulting these elite white men was an insult to their status as gentlemen. The resulting resentment led Jefferson to directly blame the British government for the intensifying political crisis. But Kaplan sees more in “A Summary View” than class-based outrage. The essay is just one example of Jefferson’s lifelong ability to blame any crisis or failure on someone else or some country other than his own. “A Summary View” also introduces Jefferson’s hostility to Great Britain, its culture and its economic system, a hostility that would last long after American independence was achieved.

Kaplan reads the central argument of “A Summary View” as simultaneously misleading and persuasive, the former because it is full of “historical inaccuracy and special pleading” and because its author is unwilling to acknowledge any counterarguments; the latter for his “boundless emotional intensity, his … inventiveness in combining feeling, argument, language and ideology.” “A Summary View” it was, Kaplan concludes, an example of the highest form of propaganda.

Only the Declaration of Independence, written two years later, would surpass “A Summary View” in all these elements. Where many scholars have characterized the Declaration’s indictment of the king and his government as a perfect example of legal argument, Kaplan sees in it the same intense undercurrent of rage against real or imagined tyranny that Jefferson displayed in “A Summary View.” And, as Kaplan points out, the Declaration required a “mental dissonance” for Jefferson, who owned hundreds of enslaved people, to claim that the king’s intention was to enslave his white settlers.

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Kaplan later explores Jefferson’s ability to create myths in support of his vision for the new republic. As Jefferson envisioned America’s future, he saw an agrarian society sustained by a free, independent, and contented white yeomanry. These patriots, whose act of tilling the soil ensured their moral superiority over urban merchants and traders, were largely a fiction produced by Jefferson’s ability to build an argument on baseless generalizations and distortions of fact. Kaplan provides the reality that Jefferson doggedly avoids, noting that many, if not most, Virginia farmers endured a subsistence-level existence that brought little satisfaction or contentment. Kaplan also dismisses as myth Jefferson’s insistence that city life was full of immorality while country life fostered moral values. As Kaplan points out, and as Jefferson knew, Virginia’s agrarian population had its share of “moccasins, scumbags, alcoholics, gamblers, sex adventurers, and abusive husbands.” Yet Jefferson’s ability to paint a vivid picture of a bucolic American paradise was so persuasive that members of later generations are known to embrace the myth and mourn the passing of an era of happy yeomanry.

Kaplan recognizes the synergy that occurs when these themes overlap, as when Jefferson’s myth of a nation founded on yeomanry combined with his intense hatred of Britain to form the building blocks of his political ideology. Although many historians have narrated the rise of two opposing political parties in the 1790s, it is Kaplan who fully captures the emotional intensity of Jefferson’s hatred of Hamiltonian policies and the Nationalists’ attachment to urban life. Kaplan does this not only by examining the creation and eventual victory of Jefferson’s Republican Party, but by reading Jefferson’s letters and public texts on this subject with what might be described as a forensic attention to detail. Under his textural microscope, the reader can clearly see the obsessive Anglophobia that led Jefferson to support an absolutist, anti-republican French king, as well as a French Revolution that turned into a dictatorship, in order to achieve the success of his party.

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A less skilled historian might substitute the subtle interrogation of texts for drawing-room psychoanalysis. To his credit, Kaplan does not go beyond what the accepted narrative framework and a sympathetic but critical reading of Jefferson’s papers allows. The skill with which the author wields his own masterly pen ensures a better understanding of this brilliant and talented eighteenth-century man who could not entirely escape the moral failings of his social class or the weaknesses of his own character as he helped to give birth to to a new nation.

Carol Berkin is the author of “A sovereign people: the crises of the 1790s and the birth of American nationalism“.

A biography of Jefferson the writer

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