Faculty Book Talk: Annette Gordon-Reed’s “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs,” Mon. April 11, at noon

The Harvard Law School Library staff invite you to attend a book talk and panel discussion in celebration of Professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s recently published book with co-author Peter S. Onuf, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination (W.W. Norton & Co.).

Monday, April 11, 2016 at noon, with lunch
Harvard Law School Room WCC 2019 Milstein West A/B (Directions)
1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge

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Annette Gordon-Reed is the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, and a Professor of History at Harvard University. She will be the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Queen’s College, Oxford University during the 2014-2015 academic year. She received the 2008 National Book Award and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008). She is also the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir, with Vernon Jordan, Jr (2001), Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History, editor (2002), and Andrew Johnson (2010).

Her honors include the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship in the humanities, a fellowship from the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the National Organization for Women in New York City’s Woman of Power and Influence Award. Gordon-Reed was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011 and is a member of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.



“A groundbreaking work of history that explicates Thomas Jefferson’s vision of himself, the American Revolution, Christianity, slavery, and race.

Thomas Jefferson is often portrayed as a hopelessly enigmatic figure—a riddle—a man so riven with contradictions that he is almost impossible to know. Lauded as the most articulate voice of American freedom and equality, even as he held people—including his own family—in bondage, Jefferson is variably described as a hypocrite, an atheist, or a simple-minded proponent of limited government who expected all Americans to be farmers forever.

Now, Annette Gordon-Reed teams up with America’s leading Jefferson scholar, Peter S. Onuf, to present an absorbing and revealing character study that dispels the many clichés that have accrued over the years about our third president. Challenging the widely prevalent belief that Jefferson remains so opaque as to be unknowable, the authors—through their careful analysis, painstaking research, and vivid prose—create a portrait of Jefferson, as he might have painted himself, one “comprised of equal parts sun and shadow” (Jane Kamensky).

Tracing Jefferson’s philosophical development from youth to old age, the authors explore what they call the “empire” of Jefferson’s imagination—an expansive state of mind born of his origins in a slave society, his intellectual influences, and the vaulting ambition that propelled him into public life as a modern avatar of the Enlightenment who, at the same time, likened himself to a figure of old—”the most blessed of the patriarchs.” Indeed, Jefferson saw himself as a “patriarch,” not just to his country and mountain-like home at Monticello but also to his family, the white half that he loved so publicly, as well as to the black side that he claimed to love, a contradiction of extraordinary historical magnitude.

Divided into three sections, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” reveals a striking personal dimension to his life. Part I, “Patriarch,” explores Jeffersons’s origins in Virgina; Part II, ” ‘Traveller,’ ” covers his five-year sojourn to Paris; and Part III, “Enthusiast,” delves insightfully into the Virginian’s views on Christianity, slavery, and race. We see not just his ideas and vision of America but come to know him in an almost familial way, such as through the importance of music in his life.

“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” fundamentally challenges much of what we’ve come to accept about Jefferson, neither hypocrite nor saint, atheist nor fundamentalist. Gordon-Reed and Onuf, through a close reading of Jefferson’s own words, reintroduce us all to our most influential founding father: a man more gifted than most, but complicated in just the ways we all are.” — W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.


Martha Minow




Martha Minow, Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law, Harvard Law School


Noah Feldman





Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of International Law, Harvard Law School


Joyce Chaplin




Joyce E. Chaplin, James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History and Chair, American Studies, Harvard University



More about “Most Blessed of Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination:

“They neither indict nor absolve Jefferson; instead, they aim to make sense of his contradictions for modern sensibilities…A fascinating addition to the Jefferson canon.” — Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed)

“Gordon-Reed and Onuf, both highly reputable Jefferson scholars, strive to understand Jefferson’s outlooks over his long life…Gordon-Reed and Onuf’s keen and fresh approach to Jefferson and his ideas will engage history buffs.” — Booklist (starred review)

“[T]he work proves to be a subtle, intriguing study of [Jefferson’s] Enlightenment ideals…. The authors make some trenchant observations regarding the effects of living in France on Jefferson’s tempering of the republican ideals, in showing him both the dangers of extremism and the hope of ‘ameliorating’ his slaves’ conditions by incorporating them into his patriarchal family. An elegant, astute study that is both readable and thematically rich.” — Kirkus Reviews

“With characteristic insight and intellectual rigor, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf have produced a powerful and lasting portrait of the mind of Thomas Jefferson. This is an essential and brilliant book by two of the nation’s foremost scholars—a book that will, like its protagonist, endure.” — Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

“A peerless team, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf pierce the mysteries of Jefferson’s character and at last offer a compelling explanation of how the republican statesman and plantation patriarch could coexist in a single soul. Jefferson’s flaw was not hypocrisy but conviction, his unswerving belief in paternalism as empowering and beneficent.” — Danielle Allen, author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality

“How did Jefferson’s sense of himself and his life missions affect how he handled his many roles, including revolutionary, president, and plantation owner? In this groundbreaking book, Gordon-Reed and Onuf look at Jefferson as a total person and how he set about to fulfill the goals he developed early and held throughout his career. Jefferson is endlessly fascinating, and this book shows why.” — Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs

“This inspired collaboration takes us as close as we’re likely to get to the way Thomas Jefferson understood himself and his times. Not content with clichés about a man who made his world anew, Gordon-Reed and Onuf show us the world that made the man…. Here is Jefferson as he might have painted his own image, a self-portrait comprised of equal parts sun and shadow.” — Jane Kamensky, author of Copley: A Life in Color

“No other recent scholar has done more than Annette Gordon-Reed to illuminate Jefferson’s private life; no historian has done more than Peter Onuf to explore the multiple facets of his public life. Together the coauthors’ intellectual and personal friendship has produced a remarkable portrait of Jefferson.” — Jack Rakove, author of Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America

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