Review — Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh

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Overview

Synopsis Historian Thomas S. Kidd describes the flawed inner life of America's third president.

Author Professor Thomas S. Kidd
Genre History

Length 310 pages

Release Date May 10, 2022

Happy President’s Day! Since 1879, it has been an American tradition to celebrate all 45 men who have served as president (on the date of George Washington’s birthday) as a federal holiday. Unfortunately, this year’s President’s Day is certainly coming amid difficult times, as a difficult election year, partisan squabbling, global wars, and anger continue to boil over on the international stage. With that said, what better way is there to celebrate than by looking into the life of one of our nation’s most complicated and controversial presidents?

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: The book explores Thomas Jefferson’s Heterodox approach to theology, describing his proclaimed and private beliefs in detail, from his relationships with traditional Christians to his Unitarian tendencies.

Violence: The book describes several tense episodes in Jefferson’s life but with limited description.

Language/Crude Humor: Little to none.

Sexual Content: Some discussions of out-of-wedlock sexuality, alleged sexual assault, and marital issues.

Drug/Alcohol Use: The book discusses Jefferson’s enjoyment of alcohol, which he drank in large quantities.

Other Negative Themes: Coarse discussions of racism, moral failure, and other issues.

Positive Content: Themes of humility and grappling with the challenging aspects of history.

Review

It would appear that the middle ground in American culture and politics has all but evaporated. When it comes to controversial areas of history, people almost entirely break into two ways of thinking — hagiography or iconoclasm. We either want to mythologize the past and make it untouchable or to burn it down. These two extremes usually outshout those who want to live with grace and nuance in these circumstances, as we saw most recently when a video circulated on Twitter of a Thomas Jefferson statue in New York City being removed from its pedestal in November 2021, drawing widespread anger and hostility as users debated the president’s controversial history.

Thomas Jefferson, in particular, is a useful figure to look at given the severity of our times. The author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s third president was one of the most complicated, hypocritical, and challenging figures in our nation’s founding. He was a slave owner who decried slavery. He was a defender of religious liberty who railed against organized religion. He was a man of virtue and character who indulged his vices and drowned himself in a lifetime of debt. He is a man who does not fit into any boxes cleanly, being both idealistic and highly flawed.

A Biography Of Spirit and Flesh

These contradictions make up the body of Baylor University Professor Thomas S. Kidd’s recent book Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh. Being an Evangelical Christian, a distinguished researcher on American history, and a disenfranchised political moderate, Kidd approaches the life of Jefferson with a rare eye for nuance and complexity. He avoids the extremes of portraying him as a faultless mythical figure or a vile monster but instead shows the former president as a complicated man caught up in the winds of his times and prejudices.

“This is a biography of a brilliant but troubled person,” he writes, arguing:

Most of the controversy about him comes back to questions of character. How could the author of the Declaration of Independence keep hundreds of human beings in bondage? How could he carry on a long-standing sexual relationship with one of his bondspeople, who was also his dead wife’s half-sister? … “Hypocrisy!” Jefferson’s critics cry. When you look closer at Jefferson, however, hypocrisy doesn’t quite penetrate the mystery, doesn’t explain Jefferson’s troubled genius and vacillating life.

White man with buzz cut in a suit smiles in front of a bookshelf
Baylor University Professor Thomas S. Kidd is the author of Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh

Kidd initially eschews that he is writing a traditional biography, instead deferring a more expansive and historical look at Jefferson’s life to more comprehensive biographers like Jon Meacham, John Boles, Francis Cogliano, and Robert McDonald. Instead, he leans into the Spirit and Flesh subtitle to chart a more complex narrative about the man’s personal beliefs, actions, and hypocrisies across his incredible life.

Hypocrisy is certainly the easiest case to charge against Jefferson. He was an incredibly high-minded and intelligent man, yet his actions fell very short of his proclaimed virtues. Jefferson never freed the hundreds of slaves he held at his Virginia plantation because his estate was caught in terrible debt. This resulted in bankers descending upon his property to sell hundreds of bondspeople across the state of Virginia to settle his finances. Debt was an ongoing character fault in Jefferson’s life. The Virginia aristocrat regularly took large loans to buy expensive leatherbound books, French wines, artworks, scientific contraptions, or expansions to his mansion, either to keep up appearances among the elite or to soothe his yearnings. This character flaw meant that hundreds of men were forced to stay in bondage after half a century of their master publicly claiming to despise slavery.

Jefferson was a self-described Epicurean, subscribing to the ancient Greek philosophy that proclaimed the importance of minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure in life. However, Jefferson was far too sexually and financially irresponsible to indulge his pleasures responsibly. He was also a highly heterodox Christian who quietly doubted the divinity of Christ for most of his adult life, despite his orthodox Anglican upbringing, and publicly proclaimed that rationalistic Unitarianism would be the future of religion in America (narrator voice: it wasn’t).

Kidd (Nominally) Defends Jefferson

All of these faults make it all too easy to simply wash one’s hands of such a complicated figure, but Kidd doesn’t take the easy road. He rightly highlights many of the clear moral failures of the man while portraying them in contrast with his most complicated realities — showing his genius as a political theorist, his deep capacity for charity towards religious minorities of the time (namely Baptists and Lutherans), and his curious fixation on the Bible and the philosophy of Christ.

Jefferson was a man of the enlightenment and science. He described himself fully as a materialist and advocated for a textual critic approach to Biblical scholarship that downplayed the role of spirits, miracles, and the historical relevancy of the Bible. But, he loved to learn and constantly sought out texts on the newest scientific news and discoveries, becoming a proficient and learned man in all areas of life. He had strong opinions on classical literature, learned enough architecture to design his own mansion (multiple times), and taught himself multiple languages. He was the greatest writer and political theorist of the Founding Fathers, and his words set the course for the country’s commitment to liberty and justice, even if those things were initially limited to white men.

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC is lined with quotes of the third President, seen on the wall are the words "God eternal"

Kidd’s biography brilliantly navigates a course through Jefferson’s life that focuses primarily on his character. The highs of his idealism and the lows of his character are depicted tightly in tension, showing how they played into one another and affected the lives of those around him.

Instead of renaming schools and toppling statues, I propose that we instead ponder perplexing, hard truths about the American founding. Time-bound self-interested men framed the world’s most enduring republic on the bedrock of the slave owner Jefferson’s glorious principle that “all men are created equal.” These paradoxes warrant sober reflection and further study. We should steer clear of the excesses of either patriotic apologetics or iconoclastic destruction. The Founders, including Jefferson, were hardly saints. But maybe we’re not either.

Conclusion

Thomas Jefferson lived a life that would make most modern people uncomfortable, and that has only increased the temptation to look at his life through narrow lenses. However, he is a man that does not fit comfortably into boxes. He is proclaimed a hero by Christians and atheists alike, who selectively quote him to their benefit. He is regularly crucified by “Jefferson bashers”(as Kidd calls them) for his obvious sins or adored by his fans as “the most quintessentially American founder of them all.”

The reality is that both of these statements are in some sense true. He was an idealist and a hypocrite, a Christian and an atheist, a violent rebel and a lover of tranquility, and a virtuous man who loved vice. He was a human being, and his flaws would foreshadow and fulfill the history of the nation he helped to found in ways he never could’ve imagined. This contradiction ought to force us to approach him and each other with humility.

Positives

+ Serious Examination of the Life of Jefferson
+ Valuable Anecdotes and Direct Quotes
+ Moderate Proposals for How to Grapple with the Facts

Negatives

- Somewhat Limited Biographical Information

The Bottom Line

Kidd does an excellent job contrasting the complicated aspects of Jefferson's life with his accomplishments, portraying a tragic image of a man of high ideals and a powerful impact on history.

 

Story/Plot 9

Writing 9

Editing 8

8.7

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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