Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors: Thomas Jefferson and the role of English history in the building of the American nation

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Abstract

This thesis contends that Anglo-Saxon studies made a powerful contribution to Thomas Jefferson's development of public concepts of American identity and nationalism in ways that have been elided by scholars preoccupied with Jefferson's classicism. Jefferson's comprehensive survey of Anglo-Saxon grammar, language, law and emigration provided him with a precedent for revolution and helped him develop a model of American nationhood. Jefferson's detailed study of the Anglo-Saxon era set him apart from writers on both sides of the Atlantic in the period 1750-1860, and this thesis will argue that to generalize his interest as 'whig history' or a subscription to a theory of Teutonic superiority is unjustified. Chapter One considers Jefferson's educational background, his exposure to Anglo-Saxon history and the degree to which he might have been encouraged to pursue it. Previous studies of Jefferson's Anglo-Saxonism have presumed that there was a 'Gothic font' from which American Founding Fathers could drink; the detailed study of Anglo-Saxon historiography in this chapter will show otherwise. Chapter Two is concerned with a detailed examination of the collections of books relating to Anglo-Saxon history and language that Jefferson collected throughout his lifetime. If Jefferson was concerned with whig dialogues, or interested in the Saxons as a product of a passion for Tacitus we should find evidence of it here. In fact, the study of Jefferson's library in Chapter Two demonstrates that Jefferson was genuinely an expert Anglo-Saxon scholar and regarded that knowledge base as a political tool. Chapters Three and Four constitute detailed examinations of the nationalist use to which Jefferson put his understanding of early English history. Chapter Three considers the problem of shared heritage with Britain confronting the American statesman in the 1760s and 1770s and his employment of pre-Norman history in resolving this conflict. Chapter Four enlarges upon the study of American national identity, with specific reference to the linguistic debates following on the Revolution. This chapter revolves around a reconsideration of Jefferson's Anglo-Saxon Essay and his attempts to introduce this language into the education of future American statesmen. Jefferson's examination of Anglo-Saxon history, when considered in this light, seems oddly discordant with the simplistic notion of Jefferson as a founder of Teutonic superiority. Chapter Five is interested in Jefferson's impact on historical rhetoric in the nineteenth century. Thomas Jefferson used English history as an aid to separating an American nation from the British Empire and he believed that Americans could look to their Anglo-Saxon ancestors for a precedent that would justify their independence from Britain. He saw in Anglo-Saxon studies a means for appropriating those parts of English history that could underpin a national identity defined by freedom, initiative, and perhaps a racial predilection for democracy, while simultaneously rejecting Britain's authority in his present.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
StateUnpublished - 2007


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