The “Little Republics”

Thomas Jefferson's "Fractal" view of American self-governance

Image of Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson’s perspective and sense of self finally receive the close scrutiny required for understanding this complex Founder.Photograph by iStock

“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf (Liveright, $27.95)

“I am going to Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in November 1793, shortly before resigning as George Washington’s secretary of state. He was anxious “to be liberated from the hated occupations of politics, and to sink into the bosom of my family, my farm and my books…. I shall imagine myself as blessed as the most blessed of the patriarchs.”

What kind of patriarch did this American founder wish and imagine himself to be? ask two eminent Jefferson scholars. In their fascinating, subtle, and deeply insightful new book, Annette Gordon-Reed, Warren professor of American legal history at Harvard Law School and professor of history, and Peter S. Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, seek to understand, as dispassionately as possible, how Jefferson gave meaning to his existence, how he wished to be perceived by others, how he shaped his private and public lives, and how he reconciled in his own mind his status as a slave-owner with his immortal words that “all men are created equal.”

Dispensing with a traditional chronological biography, Gordon-Reed and Onuf focus instead on fathoming Jefferson’s own perspective and sense of self, carefully examining his home life in Virginia, his years in France, his many roles in American politics, his hospitality, and his artistic and intellectual interests—his observations of the natural world, his enthusiasm for music and books, his thoughts about religion.


Monticello was the center of Jefferson’s universe. Throughout his long life of public service—as a member of the Continental Congress, war governor of Virginia, American minister in Paris, secretary of state, vice president, and president—the mountaintop slave plantation he built always remained his lodestar, the home he longed for.

Home meant peace: discord and argumentation were excluded. Unlike the sophisticated salons he had frequented in Paris, Monticello demanded no dazzling displays of wit and tolerated no malicious gossip. And unlike the unruly world of politics, which Jefferson referred to as “Bedlam,” Monticello was a domain over which he could exercise control. Overseers, workers, and slaves who did not fit into his “program of willed domestic tranquility”were cast out. Even members of his family “tried hard to live up to their assigned roles,” Gordon-Reed and Onuf remark. “I now see our fireside formed into a groupe,” Jefferson wrote his daughter Martha in 1797, “no one member of which has a fibre in their composition which can ever produce any jarring or jealousies among us.”Nothing seemed to matter as much to Jefferson as his idyll of sweet, warm, benevolent family life. Writing to his other daughter Maria as president in 1801, he remarked wistfully that “it is in the love of one’s family only that heartfelt happiness is known.”

Monticello, the domain of a loving patriarchal father, was also the elegant estate of a refined gentleman, whose visitors would partake of the most enlightened conversation America had to offer (and of the finest of French wines). House servants were mostly kept offstage by a clever arrangement of dumbwaiters and revolving service doors, but, as Gordon-Reed and Onuf point out, there was no way to hide the fact that Monticello was a slave plantation and that Jefferson was the master of numerous enslaved people whom he could purchase, punish, or sell as he wished. The privileged life of the man whose Declaration of Independence put human equality at the center of the American Experiment was based on the subjugation and exploitation of a condemned race.

How, Gordon-Reed and Onuf ask, did Jefferson explain and live with this burning contradiction?

His solution, they believe, was to imagine a “reciprocal relationship” with his enslaved people, while declining to recognize that any degrading submission took place. They “did things for him. He, in turn, did things for them.” Some guests were surprised that Jefferson treated his slaves as though they were members of his family (which some of them indeed were). “How gentle, how humble how kind” were the master’s “manners,” one friend exclaimed. “His meanest slave must feel as if it were a father instead of a master who addressed him, when he speaks.” The authors cogently remark that, by convincing himself that it was possible to be a slaveholder and still have enslaved people’s best interests at heart, Jefferson was in fact promoting the “proslavery fantasies of happy relations between masters and slaves on southern plantations.”

Of course, we know that Jefferson often referred to slavery as “evil,” but the aging patriarch persuaded himself that its eradication was a task best left to future generations. In a famous letter written to James Madison in 1789, he proposed that “the earth belongs always to the living generation” and that “the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”Gordon-Reed and Onuf suggest that this concept of generational sovereignty would permit Jefferson to wash his hands of slavery by withdrawing “from the noisy and contentious world of the ‘living generation’ into the ‘tranquility’ of retirement.” The enterprise of abolishing slavery, Jefferson wrote in 1814, “is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, & these are the only weapons of an old man.”


Although Jefferson never ceased idealizing Monticello as “a powerful counterweight to the strife and discord of political life,” the pull of politics proved irresistible. His 1793 retirement lasted only until 1797, when he became vice president under John Adams. Those retirement years were as much ordeal as idyll. Writing to Maria in 1802, President Jefferson admitted that they were probably the most depressing of his life. It was a time when the young republic was struggling to define itself, and it did not suffice to live as a patriarch in the bosom of his family. Deeply committed to fostering democratic self-government, he longed to fulfill his role as republican patriot.

Yet, in Jefferson’s imagination, the roles of patriarch and patriot were not disconnected; on the contrary, they were closely linked, as were their two abodes, home and nation.

The kind patriarch’s well-governed family, knitted tightly together by tender attachments, was, in his mind, the bedrock of republican self-government. Domestic life, defined by the selfless and caring bonds among family members, was a school for virtuous, sociable citizens. The model of the family, Gordon-Reed and Onuf write, “would radiate out to the community, the state, and the nation. The American nation would, in turn, become an example to the world of the capacity for relationships based on harmony, bonds of trust, and mutual interest to keep peace in the world.”

Jefferson’s famous prescription for republican government rested on what he called “ward republics.” “Divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it,” he wrote in 1810. Each hundred was to elect all local officials, including jurors, and have civil officials “to manage all its concerns, to take care of its roads, its poor, and its police by patrols.” These “little republics,” he wrote, “would be the main strength of the great one.” Ironically, Jefferson found the model for them in New England, not in Virginia. “These wards, called townships in New England,” he wrote in 1816, “are the vital principle of their governments, and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation.” Indeed, the goal was to make “every citizen…an acting member of the government.” He could only hope that “in the fulness of time” Virginians and the rest of the nation would follow the progressive example of the Easterners.

Jefferson’s concept of a republican nation composed of self-governing states, counties, and “wards” which, in turn, were composed of family units, predated the groundbreaking discovery of fractals in 1975 by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, an occasional visiting professor at Harvard. A form of geometric repetition, fractals are, as one writer described them, “smaller and smaller copies of a pattern successively nested inside each other, so that the same intricate shapes appear no matter how much you zoom in to the whole.” Mandelbrot’s favorite example was the cauliflower—“a single floret,” he wrote, “looks like a small cauliflower. If you strip that floret of everything except one floret of a floret…it is again a cauliflower.”

And so, as Gordon-Reed and Onuf demonstrate in their excellent book, Jefferson’s self-fashioning as blessed family patriarch was inextricably and intimately tied to his vision of self-governing communities and a self-governing free nation. Monticello was what Jefferson wanted for himself—and, minus slavery, it was also a prescription for a free republican nation in which citizens could enjoy their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In his imagination and in his mind, the mountaintop home over which he presided constituted an ideal model for the nation and the world.

Susan Dunn, Ph.D. ’73, McCoy professor of humanities at Williams College, is the author of many books, including Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia (reviewed in the March-April 2008 issue, page 26) and 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—The Election Amid the Storm.

Read more articles by Susan Dunn

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