Thomas Jefferson has had a rough few years. Since DNA established beyond a reasonable doubt that he fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, Jefferson has been pushed into the shadows and forced to watch as his political rivals John Adams and Alexander Hamilton enjoy the limelight.
In 1775, Samuel Johnson had already identified the central paradox of United States history. He notoriously challenged British readers to explain why ‘we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes’. Generations of historians have tried to answer that question. How could a movement espousing belief in liberty include so many slaveholders?
In his 2013 book, The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters, Anthony Pagden devoted a chapter to the European ‘discovery’ of ‘man in nature’, partly through their study of the individual men whom French and British explorers brought back from their voyages to the South Pacific.
For many of us, the ongoing carnage in Syria is a self-evident humanitarian crisis. We do not need to be convinced that the children drowning at sea, the women and men, young and old, begging for entry into any country that will accept them are worthy of our help.
About 40 years ago, the field of US intellectual history entered a period of self-doubt about the rigor of its methods, about the narrowness of its archive and its interests, even about the ontological gravity of the subjects it treated.
Paradigm shifts in historiography seem to come all at once rather than being spaced evenly along the disciplinary trajectory. The last such shift in writing about slavery and race (including civil rights) in the United States came between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s.
Even after John Adams’s belated success on American television, and Alexander Hamilton’s recent conquest of Broadway, Federalists still seem to lag Jeffersonians in popular and scholarly interest.
In the last year several books appeared focused on the United States in the world that seek to combine a study of intellectual history, popular culture and politics in a long breath of the 19th century.
Thomas Paine, the most widely read political thinker in the late 18th century, played a notable role in the American Revolution, in the development of popular radicalism in Britain, and in the French Revolution.