Go Where the Research Takes You

Jefferson scholarship has become a topic in its own right…. The study of our most elusive Founder keeps evolving- Jefferson scholars of every stripe are prone to several mistakes- common misjudgements students of history need to be aware of….  The 5 Big Mistakes of Jefferson Scholarship

Be true, keep it real

Be true, keep it real

  • The Source- For historical convenience, James T. Callender has become a reliable journalist of the early republic.  Studies based on the notion of Jefferson fathering the children of Sally Hemings need Callender to be believable.  Trouble is, he was anything but trustworthy.  His entire muckraking career was a sham, but the mistake is to give him unwarranted credibility.
  • Psychobiography, DNA, conception windows- oh my!- No one is going to exhume Jefferson for a definitive DNA test, so the 1998 Nature analysis is not conclusive.  Fawn Brodie’s methods of historical research and interpretation were discredited long ago.  Fraser Neiman’s argument that Jefferson’s visits coincide with Hemings’s conceptions is built upon far too many assumptions.  These three ‘theories’ are the foundation of all Sally Hemings claims;  None are proven with acceptable certainty.
  • Rose colored, 3D glasses-  Historians trained in the methodology of the New Left are perfectly comfortable judging historical figures by current standards.  Political Correctness creates just the standard that no Founding Father can reach.  Jefferson was a man of his age, not Lincoln’s, and definitely not ours.  More effort should be spent studying what Jefferson did and why, not explaining what he should have done or said.
  • Love is not a river- Too much ink has been wasted attempting to explain Jefferson’s love life.  The historical record shows a deeply private and discrete man, his inner most feelings are not written down.  Scholars refuse to accept the mystery, so volumes of conjectural nonsense have been written about Jefferson’s loves, desires, and indiscretions.  We should all just admit that we know little about his feelings, and he wanted it that way.
  • Proper perspective never hurts- It is far too easy for a modern scholar to defend their work by dismissing previous scholarship.  Every writer wants their book to be read by as many as possible.  Diverting attention away from well established studies is par-for-the-course in Jefferson scholarship.  Too many writers have built their studies on the mistakes already listed here- while more deliberate historians are cast aside as ‘insufficient.’   Dumas Malone, Merrill Petersen, and William S. Randall produced what were the standard works on Jefferson for decades.  We should not be so quick to discard their insights.

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