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


In “His Masterly Pen,” a thoroughly engaging study of Thomas Jefferson, Fred Kaplan shows that he, too, wields a masterly pen. Although the book’s subtitle describes it as “Jefferson the Author’s Biography,” it is more accurately an examination of Jefferson’s character and philosophical insights that Kaplan describes as the personal and personal life of our most famous Founding Father. Extracted from public records.

Therefore, this book is not a traditional biography. Readers familiar with Jefferson’s life, both public and private, will quickly note some uneven coverage in Kaplan’s narrative. For example, Jefferson’s flirtation with Maria Cosway is fully developed, while his long-standing relationship with Sally Hemings is not mentioned at all—mostly, one must assume, because there is nothing to or about Hemings. There are also letters that could help Kaplan understand Jefferson’s inner life.

The main function of this well-paced and well-written narrative is to serve as context for Kaplan’s exploration of many themes. Four of these themes stand out for this reader: the influence of class and region on Jefferson’s social attitudes and racial and gender assumptions; Jefferson’s seemingly limitless ability to rationalize his behavior and avoid unpleasant truths; the creation and commitment to a romantic myth of America as a nation of contented yeoman farmers; and the intense Anglophobia around which his politics and policies were shaped after the war. They do not, of course, exhaust Caplin’s focus, for they do not take into account, for example, Jefferson’s approach to intimacy or his philosophical ruminations on religion and slavery, both of which are fully developed in this volume. But these four themes illustrate Kaplan’s skill in exploring Jefferson’s character and his political views through the production of his “master pen.”

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Consider Kaplan’s analysis of Jefferson’s growing commitment to independence. In 1774, Jefferson wrote an essay addressing the Virginia legislature and later published it as “Summary of the Rights of British America.” Like many if not most members of the Virginia planter class, Jefferson viewed Britain’s decision to impose taxes and new restrictions with visceral alarm. It was done without the advice of these elite white people, it was an insult to their status as dignitaries. The resulting resentment led Jefferson to blame the severity of the political crisis on the British government. But Kaplan sees more than class-based anger in “A Summary View.” The essay is just one example of Jefferson’s ability to blame any crisis or failure on someone else, or on another country. “A Brief View” also introduces Jefferson’s hostility to Great Britain, its culture, and its economic system, a hostility that would last long after American independence.

Kaplan reads the central argument of “A Summary View” as at once specific and persuasive, both because it is riddled with “historical inaccuracies and special pleading” and because its author is willing to accept any counterargument. don’t have; the latter for its “unfettered emotional intensity, its … inventiveness in combining feeling, reason, language and theory”. “View a Summary” He was, in Kaplan’s conclusion, an example of the highest form of propaganda.

Only the Declaration of Independence, written two years later, would go beyond “seeing a summary” in all these elements. While many scholars have cited the indictment against King and his government as a classic example of lawyerly argument, Kaplan sees in it the same intensity of outrage against real or imagined oppression that Jefferson displayed in “A Summary View.” . And, as Kaplan notes, the Proclamation required a “disagreement” for Jefferson, who owned hundreds of enslaved people, to claim that King intended to enslave his white colonists.

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Kaplan later explores the potential of Jeffersonian fiction in supporting his vision for the New Republic. As Jefferson envisioned the future of America, he envisioned an agrarian society sustained by a free, independent, and contented white minority. These patriots, whose tilling of the soil ensured their moral superiority over urban merchants and traders, were largely a myth, based on Jefferson’s ability to build arguments on baseless generalizations and distortions of reality. Kaplan presents a fact that Jefferson stubbornly avoids, indicating that many Virginia farmers, if not most, endured a subsistence-level existence that offered little satisfaction or satisfaction. Kaplan also debunks Jefferson’s insistence that urban life was full of immorality while rural life encouraged moral values. As Kaplan points out – and as Jefferson knew – Virginia’s agricultural population had its share of “loafers, whistlers, drunkards, gamblers, sexually adventurous, and abusive husbands.” Yet Jefferson’s ability to paint a vivid picture of a bucolic American paradise was so inspiring that members of subsequent generations are known to embrace the myth and mourn the passing of prosperous times.

Kaplan recognizes the synergy created when these themes overlap, as Jefferson’s myth of a nation based on yeomanry, along with his intense hatred of Great Britain, forms the building blocks of his political theory. Although many historians have noted the rise of two opposing political parties in the 1790s, it is Kaplan who fully captures the emotional intensity of Jefferson’s hatred of Hamilton’s policies and nationalist commitment to civic life. Kaplan does this not only by examining the creation and eventual victory of the Jeffersonian Republican Party, but by reading Jefferson’s letters and public texts on the subject with what can be described as forensic attention to detail. Under the microscope of his text, the reader can clearly see the fanatical Anglophobia that led Jefferson to support an autocratic, anti-democratic French king, as well as a French Revolution that turned into a dictatorship of his own party. to achieve success.

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A less skilled historian may substitute parlor psychoanalysis for the subtle investigation of the text. To his credit, Kaplan does not go beyond what the accepted narrative framework and a sympathetic but critical reading of Jefferson’s essays allow. The skill with which the author wields his pen ensures a better understanding of this brilliant and talented man of the 18th century, who could not fully escape the moral failings of his social class or the weaknesses of his character, for he was a He helped to give birth to man. new nation

Carol Birkin is the author of “A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism

Jefferson Author Biography

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