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ALTHOUGH THOMAS JEFFERSON is a perennially interesting figure and a popular subject with both historians and the general public, over the last twenty-five years there has been an increasing tendency to devalue the third president's significance as a proverbial democratic icon. The allegedly lustful slaveholder has taken center stage while the author of the Declaration of Independence, advocate of majority rule, and supporter of gradual emancipation of African-American slaves fades into the background. In 1974 Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History brought Jefferson more attention than he had received in many years--but as the passionate purported father of five children by his young slave Sally Hemings, his dead wife's half-sister, rather than as the champion of liberty and democracy he had been revered as in the past. More recently, in a work somewhat inappropriately titled Jeffersonian Legacies (1993), a troupe of scholars depicts Jefferson variously as a heartless slaveholder, a sly deadbeat whose political stance was often determined by his unwillingness to pay back personal debts, and a dictatorial Chief Executive more concerned with arrogantly wielding power than helping his constituents.
In keeping with this trend toward downplaying Jefferson's reputation as the foremost American democratic philosopher, Andrew Burstein and Catherine Mowbray, the authors of an article in the journal, Early American Literature, titled, "Jefferson and Sterne," stress the affinity between Jefferson and the early Anglo-Irish novelist, Lawrence Sterne, especially the latter's classic, Tristram Shandy, in literary style and evocation of sentiment. They even detect similarities between some of the anecdotes found in Jefferson's letters in the 1780s, written while he was American minister to France, and events depicted in Sterne's novels. In particular, they believe that Jefferson may have borrowed material from Sterne's novel, A Sentimental Journey, which he acquired shortly after its publication in 1768, for use in his famous "Head and Heart" letter to Maria Cosway in 1786. The incident in the novel involves Yorick's encounter with a mendicant monk whom he at first refuses to give alms; later, after a beautiful woman inspires him, he befriends the clergyman and gives him money.
Burstein and Mowbray regard Jefferson's reminiscing in the letter to Maria Cosway about two experiences in the United States (Philadelphia and eastern Virginia), occasions that offered him an opportunity to perform charitable acts, as evidence that he copied directly from the scenes between Yorick and the pathetic monk. A closer examination of Jefferson's remarks indicates that Sterne may not have been the only, nor even the primary influence on this portion of his "Head and Heart" letter.
Other scholars, like Garry Wills and Harold Hellenbrand, have noticed Sterne's influence on Jefferson's ideals of morality and humanistic sentiment. But Burstein and Mowbray make grander claims for Sterne's impact on Jefferson's wistful obsession with mortality and find Sterne's literary style and the substance of his characters present in Jefferson's own letters, especially in the late 1780s when, as American minister to France, he was involved in a romance with Maria Cosway. They claim that Jefferson was impressed by Sterne's teaching "the value of friendship," and shared his belief that the "Heart" constituted "the basis of morality" (27). They assert that Jefferson gained his "sensitivity towards life's transience and man's moral obligations" from reading Sterne's novels. Burstein and Mowbray also note the similarity between Jefferson's and Stern's gallant manner of addressing women: "Possibly, Sterne and Jefferson were more in love with life than with the particular women to whom they wove their fantastic sentiments. Yet we cannot dismiss the suggestions of sexuality that appear in both" (28). They confidently assert the affect of Sterne's robust literary style, his mixture of fantasy and "realism," in overriding habitual classical restraints in Jefferson's personal letters, especially during his tour of Europe on the eve of the French Revolution. As they put it, "Sterne's life and literature, his emphasis on thought and feeling, his willingness to confront death with Wit, gave the letter-writing Jefferson in his formative years a contemporary stylistic diversion from the classical prescription" (31). Of equal importance, they argue, imitating Sterne's writing style in his letters gained Jefferson the ability to free his imagination and achieve psychological self-revelation and understanding.
To employ more recent terminology, Burstein and Mowbray essentially conceive Sterne as Jefferson's literary and emotional guru. For Jefferson, they say, Sterne showed that "only the Heart could draw a person out and demonstrate that involvement with others alone compelled man to do good and thus produce genuine happiness for him" (32). It often appears that "the generally self-censoring Jefferson modeled himself closely on--and even borrowed directly--Sterne's tone and subject matter when he wrote from the imagination," giving him "a greater sense of freedom than any other influence on his letter-writing style" (33).
Sterne's lyrical sensibility and intense moral impressions of random events reached their height in his depiction of "the encounters of his characters with beggars," Burstein and Mowbray observe. "Such encounters, then as now, tested the receptivity of one's sense and tried the power of one's sympathetic imagination" (24). But was Jefferson actually describing "beggars" when he wrote Maria Cosway about two unremarkable American adventures--at Virginia and Philadelphia--in the dialogue between "Head and Heart" of 12 October 1786? Let us look more closely at his actual words to ascertain if he was really copying Sterne's …