Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: "The Jeffersons at Shadwell"

Susan Kern's The Jeffersons at Shadwell (Yale University Press, 2010) is a remarkable work of historical scholarship. By blending historical scholarship with material culture studies and archaeology, Kern has written what she calls "a history of people written from the things they used and the things they did" (p. 6).

The people under consideration here aren't just any people, though: Kern takes as her subjects the three generations of the Jefferson family that experienced life at Shadwell (a small plantation just a few miles from the mountain where Thomas Jefferson would construct Monticello), along with the slaves they owned and the wide variety of other people with whom members of the family associated (business and political colleagues, relatives, locals, and visitors).

Kern notes at the outset that she has some hurdles to face in the telling of this story, not the least of which are historiographical rumors and errors that have crept into the literature based on misreadings of long-ago excavations at Shadwell and on the carefully-crafted story of his background that Thomas Jefferson put into circulation himself. Shadwell was no back-country hovel, Kern argues, located in a remote part of the state where contact with "civilization" was infrequent. No, Peter Jefferson and his family were intimately connected with the elite class of Virginia planters through Peter's local and colony-wide political positions, his status as a wealthy landowner, &c.

Based on a careful study of archaeological evidence plus documentary materials (most notably Peter Jefferson's estate inventory, taken after his death in 1757), Kern offers a reconstruction of Shadwell as it would have been in its heyday, filled with imported luxury goods, kitchenware, books (there is an excellent discussion of the book as not just intellectual object but also as artifact on pp. 33-38), and other symbols of the Jeffersons' significant status. Maps showing the distribution of archaeological evidence, along with additional documentation from a wide range of family sources, are a wonderful addition. I found Kern's discussion of the costs of education (compared to the values of other articles and objects) particularly compelling: as Kern notes, "Of the items listed in Peter Jefferson's inventory, only slaves cost more than Thomas's annual education income" (p. 63).

The Shadwell slaves are treated at length by Kern, who devotes a chapter apiece to the slaves of the "home quarter" (house servants, cooks, craftspeople) and to those of the "field quarter" (generally engaged in tobacco farming). In each case she again includes evidence from surviving documents and from the archaeological investigations, which revealed some fascinating things (including information on cooking methods, medicine preparation, and leisure activities) on which the written record tends to be utterly silent. The slaves and their family connections are examined, and Kern traces them by descent through the various Jefferson family members they served.

Two chapters are devoted to Peter Jefferson's connections to the wider world as merchant, land speculator, miller, landlord, colleague, surveyor, and colonial officeholder. Kern ably discusses his circle of friends and acquaintances, including his ties with local and visiting Indian groups, who often stayed at Shadwell while enroute to the colonial capital at Williamsburg. Finally, Kern examines the carefully-constructed legacies of Peter and Jane Jefferson (as set out in their detailed wills), the marriage connections made by their children and the lasting relationships the siblings maintained with one another through their adult lives (and which continued into the next generation).

Kern argues (and I think quite rightly) that the total body of evidence shows the Jefferson family as a well-connected, stable, close-knit family group with strong ties to other Virginia gentry, and that some biographers' views of Thomas Jefferson as somehow breaking out of a frontier family to "make something of himself" are rather off the mark. She also suggests that a reevaluation of Jefferson's relationship with his mother is called for, and that the 20th-century myth that Jefferson "did not like his mother" is simply not borne out by the facts.

This well-researched, well-written, and wide-ranging book is microhistory at its best. From pottery shards to bookshelves, from the text of records written in family bibles to Thomas Jefferson's carefully-composed epitaphs for those he buried in Monticello's cemetery, Kern's clean prose offers valuable insight and vital contextual detail to our understanding of the Jefferson family. Accompanied by twenty pages of data tables and more than fifty pages of detailed (and very nice) footnotes, this is a book that anyone with an interest in truly "getting" Virginia plantation culture in the time of Jefferson, and the roots of Thomas Jefferson himself, should make room for on their shelves.

No comments: