Ex-Pres Reveals Little in Letters


For anyone, retirement can be difficult, slow, and even depressing as it closes the door on the everyday life one has known for decades. And if the old saying is true that the higher they are the harder they fall, then adjusting to retirement after a career that included writing the Declaration of Independence and serving as our third president must have been particularly incommodious.

Thomas Jefferson passed much of his time writing letters from his home at Monticello, Va., to political heavyweights and family alike, revealing a more personal side to history.

Enter Andrew Burstein and his third work on Thomas Jefferson, “Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello.” Burstein attempts to prove that in addition to the image that we all hold of Jefferson from his actions on the political scene, his retirement correspondence can shed new light on the already mythical figure.

Any work that revisits a historical figure as popular and as abundantly studied as Thomas Jefferson must provide a new spin. In “Jefferson’s Secrets,” Burstein boldly attempts to use Jefferson’s understudied retirement years (1809-1826) as the twist, providing a new lens through which to view and perhaps reevaluate our third president. Burstein studied the massive amount of retirement correspondence to investigate Jefferson’s views on his mortality, slavery, his relationship with Sally Hemmings, and political opposition.

Burstein’s final product, however ambitious, proves to be only a partial success. The author is linked inescapably to the content of the retirement letters, which do not provide new insight into the issues the reader is most probably interested in—namely, slavery, abolition, and interracial affairs.

Fortunately, the correspondence does provide insight into Jefferson’s views on a number of interesting topics, including his attitudes towards women, political confrontation, and his legacy.

It is in the study of these issues—which Jefferson rarely addressed during his political career—that Burstein’s work proves so valuable, for only through an investigation of his retirement papers can one understand these private parts of Jefferson’s life.

In this regard, Burstein, as a discoverer of a different, unseen Jefferson, has produced a truly original and necessary work that will guide future research. The author skillfully takes a figure known to most only from a distance as a brilliant revolutionary and humanizes him, portraying Jefferson as a loving grandfather, an inspired educator, and an old man perhaps unusually aware of and at peace with his impending death.

But that is all these sections are: scholarship intended for historians specifically studying Jefferson. That is not meant as an insult. But in a time when historical biographies have become mainstream, nightstand literature—David McCulloch’s 2001 Pulitzer-Prize winning “John Adams” for example—Burstein does not deliver.

It is only in the two chapters about Jefferson’s views of slavery and Jefferson’s affair that Burstein’s writing really thrives. Jefferson is portrayed as a political ideologue stuck in a dilemma—on the one hand advocating the equality of all men, and on the other owning slaves and repeatedly expressing no support for abolition efforts in the early nineteenth century.

Burstein does not over-sympathize Jefferson. Instead, the Founding Father is presented as a man who believes that slavery should and will ultimately fail, but also as a man guided by reason who simply believes that there is neither enough public support for, nor any practical means of affecting, abolition at the present time.

This disappoints the reader, and it is supposed to, for we want to see Jefferson buck every trend regarding slavery and be the revolutionary he was in 1776 in the fight for political independence. But this simply was not the case. Burstein admirably examines the president as an objective historian and not as a love-struck biographer.

Unfortunately, even the work’s most compelling section is flawed. Burstein is supposed to be showing us Jefferson through his retirement correspondence. However, in explicating Jefferson’s views towards slavery, Burstein relies overwhelmingly on earlier texts. Jefferson’s opinion on slavery and abolition are most famously documented in his 1785 “Notes on Virginia”—the lack of additional material in the retirement correspondences belies the author’s point that a new Jefferson can be found in these letters.

Burstein’s work suffers from a vicious “catch-22.” When he does use Jefferson’s retirement correspondence effectively, the work is historically and academically useful, but uninteresting. On the other hand, when Burstein does get to the issue that we all really want to read about and does expose Jefferson as torn between two opposing values, he drifts from his methodology and undermines his point.

Ultimately, Jefferson’s retirement and his letters are just what we expected: interesting occasionally, but by-and-large uneventful.

—Staff writer Benjamin L. Weintraub can be reached at bweintr@fas.harvard.edu.

Jefferson's Secrets
By Andrew Burstein
Basic Books
Out Now