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Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History.

Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History. By Hannah Spahn. (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Pp. x, 290. $45.00.)

Historians long have bemoaned Thomas Jefferson's maddening elusiveness, "impenetrable" mind, and "sphinx-like" character. Now we are told by Hannah Spahn that Jefferson did not even reckon time itself in the way we do. Spahn situates her subject in a dualistic Newtonian world of eternal or absolute time on one hand and an approximative time of human perception on the other, which, she says, helped create a "mentality that was philosophically bent on compromise" (4). This temporal duality conditioned Jefferson in particular to embrace gradualism, which, Spahn argues, "was not an aberration from his worldview but a central part of it" (221). At a minimum, Spahn's assertion compels us to rethink our image of Jefferson as a forward-looking liberal who anticipated linear human progress, as well as our too often condescending approach to Jefferson's views on slavery. Fascinating insights abound in part 1 ("Time") of this two-part book, where Spahn treats readers first to an analysis of "rational" time, Jefferson's "approximative perception of a Newtonian absolute time" (29). Next, in the most original chapter of this highly original book, Spahn argues that Jefferson's insistence upon rational forethought forged a link in his worldview between three disparate groups--aristocratic French women, African slaves, and postrevolutionary American youths--all of whom, for different reasons, demonstrated a want of forethought attributable to their failure to comprehend "rational" time. This in turn cast doubts in Jefferson's mind about their ability to live the rational lives republicanism demanded of citizens. Finally, Spahn qualifies Jefferson's rationalism by demonstrating that even he on occasion seemed to "enjoy the sentimental quality of time perception," an observation that contributes to the overall impression of balance, flexibility, and gradualism in Jefferson's life and thought (75).

Part 2 ("History") is less convincing. Spahn claims, for example, that although a younger Jefferson assumed that history could teach by example in an almost mechanistic way--repeated behavior produces similar outcomes--the Jefferson of the 1780s and 1790s came to believe that human affairs were too chaotic for the distant past to have any predictive value. This, she claims, helped persuade Jefferson in his presidential and retirement years to adopt an "Americanized philosophical history" that drew upon American sources and emphasized American distinctiveness as part of a complete break with the Old World. Although there is merit in this latter argument, this reviewer thinks Spahn neglects the importance of the negative English historical example in shaping the Jeffersonian Republican opposition to Federalism during the decades in which, she argues, history ceased to instruct Jefferson in the mechanistic way it once did. In fact, throughout the book, Spahn appears far more comfortable with literature and philosophy--Sterne, Locke, and Kant, for example--than with the actual history of the early Republic. This is by far the book's central weakness.

Although nonspecialists might find Spahn's thesis inaccessible, eighteenth-century historians and Jefferson scholars alike will find much to admire in this sober, thoughtful, and often brilliant book.

Michael Schwarz

Ashland University
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Author:Schwarz, Michael
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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