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The Image of Jefferson in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature, 1826-1871

Kelly M Payne, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This study argues for the significance of Thomas Jefferson’s image to U.S. national literature from 1826 to 1871. Studying Jefferson in the context of literature is an opportunity to explore the powerful role of American revolutionaries in shaping American identity and political culture. This influence was especially relevant to African Americans living in bondage. As a result, I focus on how U.S. antislavery fiction writers, influenced by commemorative and critical writings on Jefferson, enlist his image for the slave’s cause. Representations of Jefferson wavered on the topic of slavery, rarely making for a coherent narrative. Three writers influential to the American novel tradition acknowledged the pressure to engage in hagiographic commemoration even as they met it with political critique. Richard Hildreth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Wells Brown continuously were in dialogue with Jefferson’s image, confronting, contesting and redefining his significance for generations of readers. To discuss their novels, letters, and periodical articles is to delve into literature, public discourse, and cultural history. Recurrent literary references to Jefferson’s economic scandals, allusions to his (co)authorship of the Declaration of Independence, and the fictional scripting of Jefferson descendants, cast Jefferson as the founding figure of cultural transition. In some texts, Jefferson’s economic failures and labor principles were grafted onto the lives of characters, connecting Jefferson metaphorically and metonymically to planters blamed for the South’s worsening slave economy. Elsewhere, questions about Jefferson’s progeny—his literary creations as well as his biological offspring in the Jefferson-Randolph and in the Hemings families—became emblematic of genealogical, geographic, and political conflicts in U.S. antislavery literature. My methodology involves close reading, literary history, and reception studies, as I examine Jefferson’s image within the sociopolitical, cultural, ideological, and aesthetic contexts of the nineteenth century. Each chapter offers a case-study of the interrelationship between Jeffersonian themes and political culture. I chart distinct representations of Jefferson: the debt-ridden planter, the coauthor of Independence, and father and grandfather. In exploring literary representations of Jefferson’s descendants, I give attention to nineteenth-century periodicals, political writings, novels and biography. Overall, this study reveals the literary and political potency of Jefferson and his descendants.

Subject Area

Literature|American literature

Recommended Citation

Payne, Kelly M, "The Image of Jefferson in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature, 1826-1871" (2018). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10789979.