Life follows my pen : Jefferson, letter-writing and the quest for imaginative friendship

Burstein, Andrew Mark, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Stagg, John, AS-Madison Papers (MADI), University of Virginia

This is an analysis of Thomas Jefferson's self-presentation as a letter-writer. It explores Jefferson's deliberate use of language to convey thought and emotion, as well as the unintended self-revelation that the same effort produces. Key questions are these: How critical were Jefferson's friendships to his personal and political goals? How did he develop and maintain those friendships? What is the significance of changes in his letter-writing identity as he wrote to particular friends, to men vs. women, Americans vs. Europeans, older vs. younger correspondents?
Letter-writing in the eighteenth century was a dignified means of establishing one's character. This was a tradition which derived from Cicero, one which Jefferson studiously pursued and from which he demonstrably profited. A gentleman's virtue, self-control and effort at self-improvement all became known through epistolary eloquence. Jefferson's letters show that he was equally influenced by the contemporary "age of sensibility," and the self-probing style conveyed in the wit of English clergyman-author Laurence Sterne. The Jefferson-Sterne connection, not understood in any meaningful way by previous Jefferson biographers, is emphasized throughout the dissertation. Thus appreciating the inherited (classical) formulation and contemporary stylistic refinements, the modem reader can distinguish just how Jefferson departed from convention and expressed his individuality.
Jefferson looked upon friendship, sustained through letter-writing, as a moral-philosophic enterprise which could only falter if bound too closely with politics, ruptured by public disagreement. As a conscious exercise of enlightened "reason," he attempted to show sensitivity to the recipients of his letters, employing well-chosen words to evidence his sympathy with ideas that he did not always embrace himself. Yet, while expressing a liberal ideal of social harmony in a republican polity, Jefferson contributed to political passions by deliberately reinventing the word "republican" as the "Republican" party. In all, letter-writing played a crucial role in Jefferson's lifelong effort to fashion himself as a man of integrity and an enlightened, optimistic friend.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
analysis, self-presentation, Thomas Jefferson, eighteenth century, literary
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