Book Review- “Most Blessed of Patriarchs”

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Peter Onuf, Annette Gordon-Reed, Most Blessed of Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination, New York, Norton & Co., 2016  ISBN-13: 978-0871404428

 

Two intellectuals dabble in history to satisfy their personal desires which radically alter the public’s view of history to advance present day human rights. 

 

Professor Peter Onuf occupied the position at the University of Virginia once held by the likes of Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson.  Here is where the similarities end.  He has teamed with law professor, turned “historian” Annette Gordon-Reed to produce the most scurrilous work on Jefferson since Fawn Brodie.

Both claim to understand Jefferson’s “sense of himself;”  a remarkable accomplishment considering that renowned scholars like Malone and Peterson never attempted such pretension.  Onuf and Gordon-Reed present conjecture and innuendo as indisputable fact.  Readers are presented with what the authors believe about Jefferson; we’re just supposed to take their word for it-  historical evidence be damned.

Gordon-Reed continues to promote the highly debatable “fact” that Jefferson fathered all of Sally Hemings’s children.  The tiny clique of scholars operating Monticello unquestionably agrees, but Gordon-Reed isn’t satisfied with this historical canard being accepted.  She doubles-down with an unbelievably irrational and irresponsible “discussion of white male insecurity.”  No historical citations here as she tells us about Jefferson….

“He said nothing, however, about black men’s organs of regeneration, and the widespread belief that black males had larger p..s than white males…White males’ sexual anxieties also played an integral role in their competition with and fears about black men … ” and Jefferson “evinced much more concern about black men having sex with white women than about white men having sex with black women … These deep feelings expressed themselves most often in fantasies of what black men might do if not controlled and in the spreading of canards about their basic nature.”

Notice she was clever enough to explain Jefferson never said this, but she wants readers to believe it is what he really felt.  Someone clearly feels this way on the topic- there’s absolutely no evidence it was Thomas Jefferson.

The authors claim a “mountain of evidence” defends their highly suspect assertions.  It is strange how few of the citations are from Jefferson himself, a man who left over 20,000 letters.  Rather than acknowledge the gaps in the historical record, the authors substitute their own personal views for historical facts.  Jefferson did not want his deepest, most personal feelings known; Onuf and Gordon-Reed offer little beyond inflammatory speculation and historical innuendo.  The realm of imagination is clearly theirs.

A better one-volume of Jefferson’s life is Peterson’s epic “Thomas Jefferson and A New Nation.”

 

 

 

Review of “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” by Ronald C. White

My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies

Ronald White’s “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” was published in 2016, two years after I spent eight weeks reading six other biographies of Grant. White is a well-known historian and the author of nine books (including one of my favorites on Abraham Lincoln). He is currently working on “Abraham Lincoln’s Diary” which is a collection of notes and reflections left behind by Lincoln (due out in 2020) and a biography of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (due in 2021).

There is no shortage of compelling biographies of Ulysses Grant – at least eight have been published in the last two decades alone. But ever since I completed my initial round of reading on Grant (in late 2014) I’ve been looking forward to reading this biography of the 18th president. Based on my experience reading White’s “A. Lincoln: A Biography” I had high expectations for “American…

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Abraham Lincoln and Smallpox

Presidential History Blog

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Abraham Lincoln suffered from variola (smallpox) when he was in the White House.

November, 1863

Almost as an afterthought, President Lincoln had been invited to make “a few appropriate remarks” at an event in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

In July, a massive three-day battle had been fought at the tiny town of Gettysburg. Thousands of soldiers, North and South had died. Thousands more had been injured.

The only known photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg.

 Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, a Republican, mounted a vigorous campaign to make part of that battlefield into a national cemetery. The effort was enthusiastically supported, and on November 19, the dedication ceremony for the sobering memorial was scheduled. Former Congressman Edward Everett, considered the country’s premier orator, had accepted Curtin’s invitation to be the keynote speaker. As a courtesy, an invitation for the President to be on the program was issued – nothing more.

Abraham Lincoln: Health…

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Is it the Fourth?

Can we endure without the man who gave us our creed?

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Americans, largely through the efforts of a lewd media, used the Fourth of July 2019… to denigrate and trivialize Thomas Jefferson’s memory.  Salacious accusations disguised as legitimate archaeology and scholarship dragged the author of our Declaration of Independence down into tabloid scandal-mongering.  We have fallen to the point where Jefferson’s name cannot be mentioned without alleged slave mistresses.  We forget what he gave us- focusing instead on trifling conjecture.  We have forgotten what the Fourth of July truly means….

 

“I thank heaven that the 4th. of July is over. It is always a day of great fatigue to me”

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Jefferson said… “And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them. In short, the flames kindled on the 4th. of July 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism. On the contrary they will consume those engines, and all who work them.”

 

Remember what Jefferson gave us…….. never forget what he gave mankind. 

Jefferson and Freedom

A Man for His Time

If Jefferson was wrong, then America is wrong…  This was the foundation for a generation of Jefferson scholarship.  James Parton to Dumas Malone to Joseph Ellis-  all were able to succinctly explain the Jeffersonian contradictions regarding slavery by following this simple guideline.

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“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

Modern scholars see America as wrong…. therefore, Jefferson was wrong.  Not only was he wrong, but his attitudes and actions were utterly repugnant and hold no place in our national conscience.  The sooner we expunge his legacy, the sooner we can move closer to a true America.  Jefferson has no place in the history of our country’s quest for civil liberties…..they want you to believe this, from Leonard Levy to Fawn Brodie to Annette Gordon-Reed and Paul Finkelman.

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Jefferson did say this about slavery… in the only book he ever published:

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other…Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” 

July 3, 1863

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Rising to the occasion is a concept so misunderstood… it borders on the cliché.  When used in the wrong context it cheapens actual heroic achievement.  Too often, historic deeds are overlooked because well-worn studies have rendered them routine because of historic scope.  In the pivotal battle of the war, at its decisive moment, actions speak louder than the words of any biographer…. as Confederate soldiers stormed over the stonewall at the “Angle”- decisive action was needed, and General Alexander Webb provided it.

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Alexander Webb received the Medal of Honor for his actions on July 3, 1863.  Webb’s brigade occupied the crucial position at the “copse of trees” which was the focal point of Lee’s attack.  Webb marched defiantly up and down his line during the fierce bombardment that preceded Pickett’s charge.  The confederates under Armistead  charged into Webb’s position and the two brigades were locked in deadly combat.  Seizing the colors of the 72nd Pennsylvania, Webb led a charge into the confederates  at the famous “angle” in the stone wall.   The two generals nearly came to personal blows as Webb’s counter attack brought them to within feet of each other.  Armistead fell mortally wounded while a ball passed through Webb’s upper thigh, but he remained on the field.  Webb describes the action in his report of the battle.  General George Gordon Meade nominated Webb for the Medal of Honor which he received in 1891.

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The Sykes Monument

A New Memorial Well Deserved

George Sykes is one of two Union Corps commanders without… an equestrian memorial at the Gettysburg National Military Park.  Dan Sickles declined one in his honor, claiming “the whole damned battlefield is my monument.  The exclusion of Sykes is misunderstood and often erroneously remembered by historians and students of the battle.

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John Sedgwick missed over a third of the battle… and Henry Slocum’s inaction on July 1 bordered on insubordination- yet both these Generals have mounted statues on the battlefield.  These monuments were constructed by their states in conjunction with the Gettysburg Memorial Association between 1867-96.  The US War Department took no part in the construction of monuments at Gettysburg.  So why was Sykes overlooked?

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Many assume Sykes was not memorialized because of poor performance… in and after the Battle of Gettysburg.  His nicknames of “Slow Trot” and “Tardy George”  have become historical cans tied to his record trail.  Neither assumption is holds water- the truth is more complicated:

  • Sykes’ promotion to Corps command on June 28, 1863 upset some of his fellow officers- especially those who ranked him.  Sykes was given the V Corps at the direction of Meade.
  • Sykes did not have a good rapport with volunteer troops, who in many cases, led the later efforts to erect monuments- Sykes spent most of the War commanding Regular Army troops.
  • He did not have a long career following the war, dying at a dusty Texas outpost in 1880. 
  • Following the War, Delaware was in no position to contribute funds to a monument depicting someone who permanently left the state as a teenager. 
  • Reynolds and Sedgwick were popular leaders with volunteer troops; while Howard and Slocum had long public careers following the War.**

 

**Thanks to Scott Hartwig for the pointers.