University of Virginia History Professor Peter Onuf's 'Age of Jefferson' Class Explores the Life and Works of the School's Founder

April 3, 2008 — From their first days on Grounds, newcomers to the University of Virginia begin to sense that the school is obsessed with the man students and faculty affectionately call "T.J." That man is, of course, Thomas Jefferson, the University's founder.

While being part of the U.Va. community does seem to inspire a somewhat blind reverence for the third president of the United States, a course titled "Age of Jefferson," taught by Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History Peter Onuf, offers students the chance to thoroughly examine the historical figure of Jefferson. The class, which Onuf has offered various semesters since he came to U.Va. in 1990, explores Jefferson's life and ideas to deepen students' understanding of the founding father, and also to open a new window on early U.S. history. More undergraduates are enrolled in the course this semester than ever before.

"I am very interested, and I hope my students are interested, in the ways in which the American founding period, beginning with the American Revolution, for better or worse defined the world that we live in," Onuf said. "Many people would teach this class as a chronological period class and Jefferson would obviously figure, but wouldn't be the central figure. I have always found great pedagogical value in the sharp focus on Jefferson, because it allows us to talk about everything."

Onuf asserts that his class is not simply a celebration of Jefferson. While he has studied and taught about the man for decades, Onuf still sees him as a somewhat frustrating subject of academic study.

"I get very impatient with him as a person," Onuf said. "I think he rewards close study. This is partly because there are so many important tensions or contradictions that we need to attend to that he illustrates. I use him as an individual to get into those problems."

During one recent lecture, he lightheartedly told his students, "I would never be confused with an apologist for Jefferson. I don't defend the guy. I just make a living off him."
In the course, students closely examine Jefferson's writings and letters. Often they come across apparent hypocrisy in his ideas — discrepancies between his declared philosophies and the way he lived his life.

"Practically anything you can think of, you can approach in Jefferson and see what look to us to be conflicting imperatives and tensions," Onuf said.

One example: Jefferson's views on slavery, the subject of a recent class lecture. Onuf outlined the discrepancy between Jefferson's immortal phrase in the Declaration of Independence, "All men are created equal," and his other public proclamations against slavery, and the fact that over the course of his life he owned 800 slaves. While Onuf explores the reasoning and context behind Jefferson's hypocrisy, he admitted to his students, "We can make sense of him, though ultimately his position is incoherent." Other lecture topics include Jefferson as an American icon, his relationship with Sally Hemings, and his ideas on religion and moral philosophy.

In the course, Onuf attempts to move beyond both the reflex negative reaction Jefferson's hypocrisy arouses in some and the sense of awe and reverence the founding father stirs in others. He lectures without notes, contributing to his distinctly conversational lecture style. University student David Goslin, who is currently taking the class, said he appreciates Onuf's balanced presentation of Jefferson and his historical legacy.

"What I think has been the most interesting part of the class is the many perspectives on Jefferson's life," Goslin said. "I view him in a much more critical sense now."

Onuf contends that, along with occasional contradiction, Jefferson's work also introduces important questions related to his age and the larger American experience.

"In some ways, why I find the period so interesting, and why I find Jefferson so interesting, is that there are so many things that you can do with his life and with his thought," Onuf said. "It's not just an exercise in academic history, but in a deeper sense about civic acts of good citizenship."

Peter Onuf will be the Harmsworth Professor of American History at the University of Oxford next year.

—By Catherine Conkle