James Gilreath, ed. Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1999. xv + 383 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8444-0965-8.
Reviewed by Caroline Winterer (Department of History, San Jose State University)
Published on H-SHEAR (May, 2000)
Thomas Jefferson was a man who seems to have written something about everything, and indeed here we find that he has a great deal to say about the subject of citizens and citizenry. Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen, a collection of essays edited by James Gilreath, is the result of a 1993 symposium at the Library of Congress commemorating the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth. The book in fact is organized much like a scholarly conference, with the book's five sections acting like panels, each with three or four papers followed by an expert's comments. The book's title does not do justice to the expansiveness of the topic: Jefferson did indeed worry about the education of citizens, but the essays show that he also worried more broadly about how citizens should be defined, and then how they should be prepared or formed ("educated" is too narrow a word) to take up their duties in the new republic. The essays hang together nicely, revealing that Jefferson thought deeply about the formation of citizens in ways that illuminate other, often problematic, aspects of his thought, such as his notoriously slippery views on slavery and Native Americans.
The book's five sections are as follows: "The Public and Private Spheres" explains Jefferson's views of the relationship between family and citizen formation; "An Informed Citizenry," the section most literally about education, discusses Jeffersonian ideas about formal education and literacy; "Influence of the Old and New World" tackles Jefferson's notions of whether slaves and Native Americans (and the ever-suspect French) could make good citizens in the young republic; "A Republic of Citizens" coheres around discussions of how citizens should participate in a government that was by its Jeffersonian nature believed to represent a danger to their liberties; and "An International Perspective" compares Jefferson with older European ideas of how to educate a good ruler.
Within each section, there are some gems: tight, lucid essays that clearly demonstrate the relationship between their subject and Jeffersonian ideas of citizen-formation. Michael Grossberg argues convincingly that Jefferson championed the abolition of entail and primogeniture because he wanted to free new generations from the yoke of inherited distinctions, which he called aristocratic, feudal, and unnatural. In the same section, Holly Brewer shows that Jefferson was unsure of how to incorporate children-defined by the Enlightenment as nonrational beings-into a citizenry defined precisely by its capacity for reason. In section four Suzanne Morse examines the ward republics, a form of local government that, like the ancient Greek polis, stressed citizens' direct involvement in civic affairs. The ward republics, argues Morse, gave Americans a political education, honing their skills of self-government in a republic veering dangerously toward federalism. Jennings L. Wagoner writes the only essay that systematically treats Jefferson's ideas about formal schooling. For Jefferson, liberty rested on education, so education had real social utility: it contributed to the happiness of citizens and the health of the republic. Wagoner shows how this conviction shaped his programs for overhauling existing curricula, but also reveals its limitations: Jefferson could not move beyond the starkly utilitarian idea that the education of citizens was a means rather than an end in itself.
In part three, James Oakes's elegant piece, "Why Slaves Can't Read," shows why Jefferson would regard the term "literate slave" as an oxymoron. Moving beyond the pieties of Jefferson's well-documented racism, Oakes shows the educational significance of that racism. To Jefferson, literacy was the backbone of political freedom: "to read was to be free," as Oakes puts it. The real problem for Jefferson was not so much showing that their inferiority rendered blacks fit for slavery, but stomaching the prospect of free blacks living free and equal beside him. Intellectual inferiority made blacks unable to take up the duties of citizens, argued Jefferson. With this kind of reasoning, Jefferson could on the one hand sincerely oppose the enslavement of human beings while also recoiling from the legacy of emancipation.
Not all the essays successfully illuminate Jefferson's thinking about citizenship, but there are not so many of these that they sink the volume. Nor do the comments at the end of each section add much that was not better explained in the essays. Taken as a whole, however, the book succeeds by explicating, from a variety of perspectives, Jefferson's ideas of citizenship formation, showing their links to other, better known Jeffersonian ideas as well as to the Enlightenment as a whole.
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Caroline Winterer. Review of Gilreath, James, ed., Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen.
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