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Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History

Hannah Spahn

BUY Cloth · 304 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813931685 · $49.50 · Dec 2011
BUY Ebook · 304 pp. · ISBN 9780813932040 · $49.50 · Dec 2011

Beginning with the famous opening to the Declaration of Independence ("When in the course of human events..."), almost all of Thomas Jefferson’s writings include creative, stylistically and philosophically complex references to time and history. Although best known for his "forward-looking" statements envisioning future progress, Jefferson was in fact deeply concerned with the problem of coming to terms with the impending loss or fragmentation of the past. As Hannah Spahn shows in Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History, his efforts to promote an exceptionalist interpretation of the United States as the first nation to escape from the "crimes and calamities" of European history were complicated both by his doubts about the outcome of the American experiment and by his skepticism about the methods and morals of eighteenth-century philosophical history.

Spahn approaches the conundrum of Jefferson’s Janus-faced, equally forward- and backward-oriented thought by discussing it less as a matter of personal contradiction and paradox than as the expression of a late Newtonian Enlightenment, in a period between ancient and modern modes of explaining change in time. She follows Jefferson in his creation of an influential narrative of American and global history over the course of half a century, opening avenues into a temporal and historical imagination that was different from ours, and offering new assessments of the solutions Jefferson and his generation found (or failed to find) to central moral and political problems like slavery.


With the present plethora of books on Jefferson, it is amazing that anyone could say anything new and interesting about the man, but Hannah Spahn has done it.

Gordon S. Wood, Brown University

Hannah Spahn’s extraordinary study brings Thomas Jefferson into fresh and illuminating new perspective. The statesman and philosopher, public figure and private man experienced the flow of time and history in radically different ways, as ‘an absolute time of natural laws and a relative time of human actions and perceptions.’ These distinctive temporalities provide the frame for one of the most insightful and compelling portraits of the master of Monticello in recent memory. Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History marks the triumphant debut of a brilliant young historian.

Peter S. Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor, University of Virginia

About the Author(s): 

Hannah Spahn is Assistant Professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute for American Studies at the Free University of Berlin. She is the author of Thomas Jefferson und die Sklaverei: Verrat an der Aufklärung? (Thomas Jefferson and Slavery: Betrayal of the Enlightenment?).

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