Annette Gordon-Reed on Re-imagining Jefferson
Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers. She earned a place in history with her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which had an acclaimed but stormy reception when published in 1997, and which The New Yorker described as “brilliant.” She is recognized as one of our country’s most distinguished presidential scholars.Gordon-Reed spent her early career as an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, and as Counsel to the New York City Board of Corrections. She speaks or moderates at numerous conferences across the country on history and law-related topics. Gordon-Reed is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, where she was a member of the Law Review. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and son.
Question: What is our biggest misconception of the man?
Gordon-Reed: Wow. As a cold sort of statue-like figure, as a person who was… he is seen almost, he’s portrayed almost like a Sherlock Holmes’ character, a sort of all intellect and primarily intellect and not a person of passion. He was a deeply emotional person, and like lots of emotional people try to hide that by appearing somewhat detached and aloof. So, I think the notion of a cold and cerebral Jefferson is a misconception. I mean, he was almost irrational in some ways and in passions about politics, about people, all kinds of things. So that would be it, getting rid of the sort of cold Jefferson. There is this notion of him as someone who’s this sort of unfeeling, detached person and there’s just, that’s not right. I mean, he’s very much a man of sentiment and feeling and that I think comes true in, well, as you said, with his attitudes about wine and food and architecture and all those kinds of things, but he is not all mind. The head and heart, the famous letter that he writes to Maria Cosway and a lot of people assumed, well, the head wins because that’s what Jefferson is, but I don’t think that that’s right.
Annette Gordon-Reed says despite the popular notions of Jefferson, he had a big heart.
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