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Response to Review of Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History

First of all, I’d like to thank the reviewer for his interest in my book Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History and for his speedy – not to say, in this context, timely – response to it. A few remarks on his remarks on three topics, namely the terminology related to time used in this book, the topic of Whig history, and the significance of Newtonianism.

Reflections on time, of course, have a long and prestigious tradition of being accused of a characteristic fogginess: as has been suggested since antiquity, we seem to get our best chances to know anything about time either when we don’t think about it at all, or, perhaps, when we’ve moved on to some realm where we’re no longer concerned by it. Nevertheless, authors of books on time (or on someone else’s thinking about time, as in this case) can certainly be expected to have immersed themselves in the fog long enough to have tried to install their own dim fog lights. Mine, in this book, are rational and sentimental time, which I introduce specifically as artificial, non-historical terms, and (responses to reviews offering such excellent excuses for self-quotation that I cannot let the occasion pass without one) as ‘simplifying labels’ that are not meant to be philosophically accurate, ‘whether in the terminology of enlightened or of today’s discussion of time’ (p. 28). Instead, reflecting Jefferson’s own somewhat clich├ęd dualism between the temporality of his ‘Head’ and that of his ‘Heart’, the simplification of rational and sentimental time is supposed to reconstruct, as far as possible, the inclusive and flexible categories in Jefferson’s Newtonian mind – not (and I’ll come back to this important difference) in the mind of Isaac Newton, whose terms were absolute and relative time. Hence, I agree with the reviewer that the distinction between objective and subjective time is not a very productive one in this context. I do not agree with him, however, in his impression that it was characteristic of Newton’s thought, or that it shapes the argument of this book on Jefferson. Meanwhile, I couldn’t concur more with the reviewer’s insight that plural definitions of time in general can be, as he puts it, ‘hard to keep straight’: indeed, since I argue that Newtonian conceptions of temporality began to appear counter-intuitive after the transcendental turn, I have to thank the reviewer for a complaint that elegantly corroborates my thesis. This book asks, precisely, what happened when a historical thinker starting out with an early modern approach to temporality discovered, in the revolutionary period, that his divisions were ‘hard to keep straight’: how did he try to integrate divergent temporalities into his worldview (here I discuss, for instance, Jefferson’s gradualism and his generational thought), what did he do when his categories began to break down (as during his uncanny experience of historical acceleration in the crises of the 1790s), and what were the aesthetic, moral, and political implications (for example, in his changing views on the timing of antislavery reform, and their stylistic expression)?

Which brings me to my second point. This book deals with Jefferson’s conception of history through a prior investigation of his holistic approach to time, including not only strictly political, but also more general philosophical, literary, personal, economic, and even technological problems. Thus, the book departs from previous studies of Jefferson’s historical thought in that his reading of the Whig historians does not constitute its main point of departure. This does not mean, however, that I would declare myself, as suggested by the reviewer, ‘largely uninterested’ in Whig history and that this book chooses not to integrate major issues in the classical scholarship of the last half-century, such as the Anglo-Saxons or the Machiavellian moment. It would have been quite difficult, for instance, to write a section entitled ‘Foresight, continuity, and restoration,’ which discusses Jefferson’s early reflections on the historical exemplarity of republicanism, the development of his views on the Anglo-Saxons, and his Summary View of the Rights of British America, without an interest in the political dimension of temporality. The Jefferson who emerges from the chapters of part two is a Whiggish historian who tried his best to see history as a struggle for liberty against tyranny and who thought that not only historical actions, but also historical writings were supposed to enable Americans, ideally, to ‘escape’ from the mistakes of the past in the future. Yet compared to previous studies, my approach leaves more room for discussing the limitations of Jefferson’s didacticism as well – his grudging admiration for Hume, for example, and his ‘agonizing’ moments of doubt and self-doubt about the activity of ‘making history.’ Moreover, the book’s thematic focus on temporality has engendered a greater emphasis, also in its own method, on the question of change over time. Rather than stressing that Jefferson’s historical thought was, more or less once and for all, influenced by his reading of a certain group of writers, it thus also seeks to answer the question of how his responses to the upheavals of the revolutionary period shaped and changed both form and content of his historical outlook.

I’ll now try to be brief on my third and final point: Newtonianism. The reviewer rightly acknowledges my account of the differences between Newton’s and Locke’s discussions of temporality in the introduction to part one, but then wonders why I continue to speak of Newtonianism in the book although I claim, in the discussion of Tristram Shandy and elsewhere, that Jefferson responded to Locke’s terms more directly than he did to Newton’s. The answer is quite simple and not all too surprising. Both Newton and Locke – like Jefferson, incidentally – have been turned into commonly-employed adjectives and sometimes nouns, but Newton alone, to my knowledge, also made it into a frequent ‘ism’ that is both thematically wide and historically specific enough to have become identified with an entire century. Newtonianism, as generally used, refers to a complex and contradictory 18th-century culture that extended beyond Newton’s immediate goals into areas such as literature or the question of female readership and that eventually contributed to undermining some of Newton’s most cherished assumptions. Newton himself, it has accordingly been argued, would not necessarily have been a Newtonian.(1) Playing Locke’s discussion of duration off against this comprehensive Newtonian culture, if that is what is attempted by the reviewer here, is obviously difficult enough – but it is even quite problematic, it seems to me, to play it off against the context of Newton’s own thought. As the reviewer himself has noticed, Locke’s and Newton’s accounts of time are largely complementary rather than oppositional. And although the different emphasis of Locke’s approach to temporality may be construed to contain the potential for challenging Newton’s absolute time, I have to remind the reviewer that authors such as Sterne and Jefferson exploited contradictions within Locke’s argument on time (their respective parodies of Locke’s magic lantern would be a case in point here), which shared important premises with Newton’s natural philosophy. Hence, the question whether Jefferson was Newtonian or Lockean in regard to temporality, as asked in the review, would lead to comparing apples to oranges in a discussion that wouldn’t be, despite the metaphor, overly fruitful. Instead, I’d simply say that Jefferson was a Newtonian who enjoyed reading Sterne’s humorous treatment of Locke. He was a Newtonian whose thoughts on temporality were, on ontological and epistemological grounds, endearingly less refined than either Newton’s or Locke’s (one of Jefferson’s most loveable traits, from the pedestrian perspective of this book), but whose wide-ranging interests, literary skills, and political importance made them nevertheless an intricate and influential expression of a late Atlantic Enlightenment.

Thus, I have initially been quite in the dark as to what the reviewer could have meant by this book’s setting its sights ‘further south’ than the Scottish Enlightenment – except that Monticello, of course, is rather south than north of Edinburgh – but taking into account a potentially different concept of Newtonianism, I begin to understand where this geographical specification might come from. And with this deep reflection on space, I’d like to end my response, thanking, again, the reviewer for his (post-Newtonian) time, and Reviews in History for this opportunity to clarify a few basic issues.


  1. See, for instance, the memorable discussion of this point in Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Margaret C. Jacob, Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism (New Jersey, NJ, 1995) p. 61: ‘With that difference in mind we can ask, Was Newton a Newtonian, and did his values permeate the new culture of Newtonianism that emerged in his lifetime? In the next breath, we can answer, Of course not.’Back to (1)