Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
"I Tremble for My Country": Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Gentry • Ronald Hatzenbuehler • Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006 • xii, 208 pp. • $55.00
Reviewed by Francis D. Cogliano, reader in American history at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (2006).
The first volume of Dumas Malone's monumental six-volume biography, Jefferson and His Time, was titled Jefferson the Virginian. Had Malone not chosen this title, it would have made a fitting title for this volume by Ronald L. Hatzenbuehler. Hatzenbuehler argues that "Jefferson is best understood as an uneasy member of the Virginia gentry" (p. 5) who sought to reform his class and state yet was limited by the cultural assumptions and beliefs that he shared with them. He recognizes that most scholars rely on the same vast corpus of Jefferson's writings and that "the primary difference in their conclusions becomes context" (p. 6). Hatzenbuehler seeks to situate Jefferson's career and writings not in a national or international milieu but rather in the local context of his preferred "country," Virginia. In a series of chronological chapters he reviews the major periods of Jefferson's life and demonstrates how he was influenced by Virginia—especially its gentry.
Hatzenbuehler begins by demonstrating that Jefferson's understanding of what it meant to be a Virginian was shaped by Virginia's early historians—John Smith, William Keith, William Stith, and Robert Beverley. They influenced Jefferson's understanding of early Virginia history and the limits of the gentry, thereby providing him with the impetus to seek to reform Virginia society. In subsequent chapters Hatzenbuehler demonstrates that Jefferson's activities as a revolutionary, politician, and statesman were conditioned by his Virginia origins. In the strongest sections of the book, he establishes a clear link between The Summary View of the Rights of British America, the Declaration of Independence, and the thinking of George Mason. Scholars have long been aware of this connection but have not given it the attention it deserves, concerned as they have been with the debate over whether Locke or the Scottish Enlightenment was the primary influence on Jefferson. Hatzenbuehler persuasively argues that Mason must be considered as a primary influence on Jefferson. Similarly, he shows that Jefferson's rather limited efforts with regard to ending slavery, as well as his relationship with Sally Hemings, can best be understood if we remember that he was a member of Virginia's slaveholding gentry.
As Hatzenbuehler notes, Jefferson scholars can and do disagree over matters of interpretation. Not everyone will be persuaded by his thesis or arguments. In his first chapter when he considers Jefferson's reading of Virginia history, for example, Hatzenbuehler asserts that "Jefferson had a low opinion of the utility of history" (p. 23). On the contrary, Jefferson was, in my view, an enthusiastic and life-long student of history. Indeed greater consideration of this aspect of Jefferson's life might have strengthened Hatzenbuehler's central thesis as Jefferson expended considerable energy collecting manuscript materials related to Virginia's history and assisting those such as John Daly Burk, Louis H. Girardin, and William Waller Hening to publish works on Virginia history. Similarly, Hatzenbuehler sees the Louisiana Purchase as a departure from Jefferson's earlier strict construction of the Constitution and a rejection of the more Virginia-centered thinking upon which strict construction, and the protection of Virginia's place in the union, had been based. The Louisiana Purchase certainly was a departure from strict construction, but it could be interpreted as advancing the cause of Virginia republicanism if we think of the expansive agrarian republicanism of Jefferson and Madison as an attempt to shape the nation in Virginia's image. These are the differences of interpretation that good scholarship should inspire. This is a fine book and a worthy addition to the literature.