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


In “His Master Pen,” a comprehensive study of Thomas Jefferson, Fred Kaplan shows that he was also a master penman. Although the book’s subtitle describes it as “a biography of Jefferson the writer,” it is Kaplan’s exploration of Jefferson’s character and philosophy, gleaned from the private and public writings of our illustrious Founding Father.

So the book is not a traditional biography. Readers familiar with Jefferson’s public and private life will soon notice some inconsistencies in Kaplan’s narrative. For example, Jefferson’s relationship with Maria Cosway is fully developed, while his long affair with Sally Hemings is barely mentioned—mainly, one can assume that Kaplan has no letters or letters to Hemings that would help reveal Jefferson’s inner life.

The main function of this brilliantly paced and well-written story is to serve as a context for Kaplan’s exploration of a number of themes. Four themes stand 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 behavior and avoid unpleasant realities; creating and indulging in the romantic myth of America as a land of contented yeoman farmers; and the intense Anglophobia that his policies and politics developed after the war. These certainly do not exhaust Kaplan’s attention, for they do not take into account, for example, Jefferson’s views on intimacy or his philosophical reflections on religion and slavery, both of which are fully developed in this volume. But these four titles demonstrate Kaplan’s skill in revealing Jefferson’s character and his political ideology through the works of his “master pen.”

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Consider Kaplan’s analysis of Jefferson’s desire for independence. In 1774, Jefferson wrote an essay for the Virginia legislature that was later published as “A Short View of the Rights of British America.” Like many members of Virginia’s planter class, Jefferson viewed Britain’s decision to impose new taxes and restrictions with internal alarm. That this was done without consulting the elite white men was an affront to their status as gentlemen. The resulting resentment led Jefferson to place the blame for the worsening political crisis on the British government. But Kaplan sees more in “Final Scene” than class-based outrage. The essay is just one example of Jefferson’s ability to blame any crisis or failure throughout his life on someone else or on a country other than his own. “The Final View” also introduces Jefferson’s hostility toward Great Britain, its culture, and its economic system, a hostility that would last long after American independence was won.

Kaplan reads the central argument of The Final View as both false and persuasive because it is full of “historical inaccuracies and special appeals” and because its author refuses to acknowledge any counterargument; the latter due to his “unbridled emotional intensity, his … inventiveness in combining feeling, argument, language, and ideology.” “Final Scene” It was an example of the highest form of propaganda, Kaplan concludes.

Only the Declaration of Independence, written two years later, surpasses the Final Vision in all of these elements. While many scholars describe 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 anger against real or imagined tyranny that Jefferson expressed in his “Concluding View.” As Kaplan points out, the Declaration required “psychic dissonance” for Jefferson, who owned hundreds of slaves, to claim that the king’s intention was to enslave his white colonists.

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Kaplan later explores Jefferson’s ability to mythologize to support his vision of a new republic. As Jefferson envisioned America’s future, he envisioned an agrarian society supported by a free, independent, and contented white population. These patriotic Yemenites, whose act of tilling the soil gave them moral superiority over urban merchants and traders, were largely a fiction born of Jefferson’s ability to construct arguments based on unwarranted generalizations and distortions of fact. Kaplan presents a reality that Jefferson stubbornly avoids, suggesting that most, if not all, of Virginia’s farmers lived at a subsistence level that brought little or no contentment. Kaplan also dismisses as a myth that Jefferson’s urban life was full of immorality and rural life promoted moral values. As Kaplan noted, and as Jefferson knew, Virginia’s agrarian population had its share of “revelers, spendthrifts, drunkards, gamblers, sexual adventurers, and abusive husbands.” Yet Jefferson’s ability to paint a vivid picture of an American paradise was so persuasive that later generations have been known to embrace the myth and mourn the passing of a happy yeomanry.

Kaplan recognizes the synergy that occurs when these themes overlap, such that Jefferson’s myth of a nation based on Yeomanry combines with his intense hatred of Great Britain to form the building blocks of his political ideology. Although many historians have chronicled the emergence of two opposing political parties in the 1790s, it is Kaplan who fully captures the emotional intensity of Jefferson’s hatred of Hamiltonian politics and the Nationalists’ love of urban life. Kaplan does this not only by examining the formation and eventual victory of the Jeffersonian Republican Party, but also by reading Jefferson’s letters and public texts on the 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 drove Jefferson to support the absolutist, anti-republican French king, as well as the French Revolution, which turned into a dictatorship to ensure the success of his party.

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A less experienced historian may substitute psychoanalysis for the careless interrogation of texts. Kaplan does not go beyond what he believes is an accepted narrative framework and a sympathetic but critical reading of Jefferson’s papers. The author’s skill with his masterly pen allows us to better understand this brilliant and gifted man of the 18th century, who could not completely escape the moral shortcomings of his social class or the weaknesses of his character. a new nation.

Carol Burkin – “A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism.”

A biography of Jefferson the writer

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