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HISTORY 61N: The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson

Painting of Thomas Jefferson signing the Declaration of Independence. "The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776" by artist John Trumbull. Yale University Art Gallery, Trumbull Collection. Public Domain Mark 1.0

Meet the Instructor | General Education Requirement

Course Description

Thomas Jefferson assumed many roles during his life—Founding Father, revolutionary, author of the Declaration of Independence, natural scientist, inventor, political theorist, slaveholder, founder of a major political party, and President of the United States. In this seminar we will explore these worlds, both to understand the multifaceted character of the man—his ideas, the political projects he engineered, the slaves he bought and sold as property—but also to understand the broader historical contexts which he inhabited and that he did so much to shape: the American Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the early nation-building years of the United States. While we will focus on Jefferson, we also necessarily focus on the people he touched and those who touched him as well as the times that shaped him.

We will read some of Jefferson's most famous writings and speeches, such as the Declaration of Independence, his Notes on the State of Virginia, and his first inaugural address, as well as some of his correspondence with other leading founding-era figures, such as John and Abigail Adams, James Madison, and George Washington. We will learn about Sally Hemmings, the slave with whom Jefferson had a long-standing sexual relationship, as well as the children that she bore him. Having debates and doing role-playing will also be important elements of your seminar experience. Upon completing this course, you will be familiar with Jefferson's major writings, his ideological convictions, his development as a political and moral thinker, his sometimes fraught relationships with other Revolutionary leaders, and his disconcerting vocation as a plantation owner reliant on African-American slave labor. By gaining familiarity with the many dimensions of his life, you will also gain an introduction to the major events and themes of the era of the American Revolution.

General Education Requirement

Meet the Instructor

Jonathan Gienapp

Jonathan Gienapp

"I am an assistant professor in the history department. I received my B.A. from Harvard University and my Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. Principally a scholar of Revolutionary and early republican America, I am particularly interested in the period's political culture, constitutionalism, and intellectual history. My current research explores how and why founding-era Americans' understanding of their Constitution transformed in the earliest years of the document's existence while exploring how those changes created a distinct kind of constitutional culture, the consequences of which can still be felt today. Given that I study the political and intellectual history of Revolutionary America, I have long been interested in Thomas Jefferson as both a thinker and a politician. But I also think that few historical figures better embody the complexity of America—both its triumphant ideals and its disastrous sins—and thus few figures offer a more revealing study, of not just the specific historical period in which he inhabited but American character more generally. Accordingly, I am excited to teach an introductory seminar that takes up as its primary theme Jefferson and the many worlds in which he operated."

Learn more about Jonathan Gienapp