Friday, April 28, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 26: Jefferson as icon and synecdoche

JSTOR Daily recently looked at what it describes as the enigma of Thomas Jefferson: What Are We to Make of Jefferson? 04/13/2017 in an article by Peter Feuerherd:

His views on black people can only be considered racist, and, while a champion of liberty, Jefferson owned slaves and fathered slave children with his mistress Sally Hemmings. His views on race could only be described as retrograde. And, while expressing doubts about slavery, he lived with its benefits, both economically and personally via his relationship with Hemmings, something long denied by historians but now widely recognized via DNA testing of his mixed-race descendants.
I'm not sure the DNA evidence is quite so generally accepted as that article indicates. But it's a strong statement of the argument that Jefferson was more a defender of slavery than an opponent.

And Feuerherd also argues:

The hagiographic view of Jefferson has definitely faded. Yet there is a call among historians not to go too far in the other direction, viewing a complex eighteenth- and nineteenth- century figure through a twenty-first century lens. But even in the context of his own time, when fellow Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton opposed slavery, much of what Jefferson preached seemed lacking in his own life. The man who preached freedom and extolled the virtues of the simple yeoman farmer lived well above his means and owned humans.
JSTOR Daily also provides links to American Synecdoche: Thomas Jefferson as Image, Icon, Character, and Self by Jan Lewis and Peter Onuf American Historical Review 103:1 (Feb 1988).

They describe the way Jefferson looms over American history this way:

As historian James Parton put it in 1874, and Jefferson biographers have repeated ever since, "If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right." More recently, filmmaker Ken Burns has said that "one approaches Thomas Jefferson with the sense that he is, in a biographical sense, the Holy Grail of American history.
Of course, those are catchy sayings rather than historical evaluations. But Lewis and Onuf are looking at Jefferson's role as an icon, and those of illustrative examples of iconography.

Their article about several works on Jefferson, including Ken Burns' Thomas Jefferson: A Film (1997). Here is part of their critique of Burns' treatment of Jefferson and slavery:

Bums's image of Jefferson stands in contrast to the most recent scholarship on Jefferson, which is skeptical and, indeed, often critical. By failing to engage these debates, Bums misses an opportunity to engage his audience as well. The only exceptions are the opening and closing sections with the cacophony of voices talking about Jefferson's complexities and the twenty minutes or so devoted to race, slavery, and the Sally Hemings issue. Here, the viewer's gaze is deflected from transparent objects and images to the conflicting testimonies of talking heads. But in Bums's film, all authorities are created equal, and they tend to cancel each other out in a way that inert images and objects are never allowed to do.

... Although Bums repeatedly raises the issue of race in his films-co-producer Camilla Rockwell says, "Any film by Ken is going to have race as a central focus" - he treats it as an incoherence, an insoluble
problem in an otherwise explicable past.
They also evaluate books on Jefferson by Conor Cruise O'Brien, Joseph Ellis, and Pauline Maier observing that "for all their differences, these books are variations-or interrogations - of Parton's theme. They ask us to consider the civic consequences of the Jeffersonian synecdoche." By "synecdoche," they are referring to the way Parton and Burns use Thomas Jefferson to represent the United States.

I suppose I've done that to a certain extent in this year's Confederate "Heritage" Month posts, using Jefferson as a way to understand the evolution of the pro- and anti-slavery narratives.

But in real history, Jefferson really was a key player in those debates.

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