Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment – Background Notes
Reviewed By: Avraham Azrieli
Avraham Azrieli writes novels and screenplays. His website is:

From the author of “Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment – Paris 1785” (Commonwealth Books of Virginia, 2014) comes this wonderful companion volume of eighteen closely related assays: “Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment – Background Notes” by James C. Thompson (Commonwealth Books of Virginia, 2015).

As the author explains in his Opening Comment, in “Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment – Paris 1785” he sought to show “how the self- described savage from the mountains of America became immersed in the world’s most cultivated and elegant society.” On that journey, Jefferson is in Paris bearing close witness as the Assembly of Notables completes the process leading to the end of France’s bankrupt monarchy and the onset of a French constitutional government.

In this book, modestly entitled as “Background Notes,” Thompson beautifully enriches the first book with extensive commentaries, details and supplemental information.

The first seventeen assays expose the reader to various aspects of the Paris that Jefferson experienced from August 1784 to October 1789. Not a man to remain a passive observer, Jefferson immersed himself in the debates over social and economics ideas, the rights of man, and the needed political change. He experienced first hand the historic events as French society collapsed and the people stormed the Bastille. In the process, Jefferson himself was changed forever.

Most fascinating, in the eighteenth and final assay, the author traces the evolution of Jeffersonian historiography through the succeeding two centuries. This last assay contains a meticulous survey and a comprehensive analysis of much of the literature dealing with Jefferson’s philosophy. The author clearly traces the evolution of scholarship in that realm and demonstrates the emergence of a “new Jefferson” – most intriguing!

Many volumes have been written and published about the man who, more than anyone else, fueled the new American republic with his extraordinary intellectual creativity. James C. Thompson, in the two volumes culminating with this “Background Notes,” adds a fascinating, fresh perspective on the development and transformation of Jefferson’s political philosophy and ideological maturity.

Indeed, as the excellent last assay demonstrates, only through studying his Paris experience can we truly understand the man who returned to become the second president of the United States and, in many ways, transformed the nation in fundamental, lasting ways. This is an invaluable book to any student of President Thomas Jefferson, adding a wealth of new details and a deeper understanding of this most brilliant subject. Furthermore, the author’s expansive scholarly scope, coupled with careful substantiation, makes this book richly authentic and highly credible. Excellent!