Who Was the Real Thomas Jefferson?

No one doubts that our understanding of historical figures may need to be revisited from time to time. But academic specialists have been known to overreach. To portray a historical figure in a light exactly opposed to the popular impression and to how all other scholars have viewed him is far more exciting than repeating the boring conventional wisdom. And if you can contrive a case that an admired statesman from history actually supported your own views after all, all the better.

Poor Thomas Jefferson has suffered this kind of treatment at the hands of countless historians, and Marco Bassani, a scholar of the history of political thought, will have none of it. Bassani, an American-born professor teaching at the University of Milan, takes ruthless aim at what has been called the “scholars’ Jefferson,” who bears scant resemblance to the classical liberal figure of the popular mind. Jefferson is one of those cases in which — in terms of his views on property, states’ rights, the Union, political majorities, and the Constitution — the earlier, conventional view was in fact the correct one. Bassani’s wide-ranging knowledge of Jefferson scholarship serves him well in Liberty, State, & Union, as he carefully describes and then refutes the competing schools of thought.

He begins with the controversy over “republicanism” and “liberalism” that erupted among historians of early America in the latter half of the 20th century. The “republican” consensus that developed sought to downplay, and even to dismiss altogether, the role of classical liberalism in the tradition of John Locke from the formative influences of the revolutionary generation. In its place they substituted an ideology called “republicanism.”