WCSU professor publishes book on Jefferson
DANBURY - In a new book on Thomas Jefferson, Western Connecticut State University professor Kevin Gutzman emphasizes the profound impact the Founding Father had on many aspects of American government and society.
Gutzman’s “Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America,” is not a standard biography; each chapter focuses on a different aspect of Jefferson’s work and thoughts on subjects including slavery, federalism, public education, assimilation of Native American and freedom of conscience.
Gutzman, who lives in Bethel and has taught history at WCSU for 16 years, became interested in history as a junior in high school by reading textbooks on his father’s bookshelf.
He wanted to be a historian, but his father talked him out of it. Instead he went to University of Texas to get a law and public affairs degree.
But while interning in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1987, when the country was celebrating the bicentennial of the Constitution, Gutzman read dozens of books on the subject.
“I decided this is actually more interesting than being a lawyer,” he said. “I was a lawyer for a while and I found it totally uninteresting. I would actually literally go in in the morning and count the minutes until lunch when I could go read a history book in a restaurant.”
Gutzman went on to get his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Virginia, the school Jefferson founded.
Since then, Gutzman has become a New York Times bestselling author, publishing two books on constitutional history, one on Virginia during the Revolutionary period and a biography of James Madison.
But Gutzman said writing about the third president was different from writing about Madison. While Madison had one main interest — constitutional government — Jefferson had a myriad of passions, from politics to architecture, to languages to science.
“It’s kind of a cliche that he was a multifaceted genius, but he was,” Gutzman said. “He would become interested in something and then he would become the world’s best at it.”
Although some might call Jefferson and the other slave-owning Founding Fathers hypocrites for saying “All men are created equal,” Gutzman pointed out that wanted to end slavery in Virginia. Jefferson believed black people deserved to be free, Gutzman said, but feared that abolition would be followed by a race war. His solution was to send free blacks to other countries.
“He actually tried to come up with an answer to this problem,” Gutzman said. “It’s of course totally foreign-sounding now, because we’re used to the idea of a multiracial society. There was no such thing as a multiracial society then.”
But Gutzman said he is no Jefferson apologist. Jefferson had said he would give a “provision” to his slaves after a good crop, but he was unable to keep his promise after falling into debt — partly because of his taste for art, leather-bound books and other luxuries.
“He was a spendthrift and irresponsible,” Gutzman said.
Gutzman is working on another book exploring the presidencies of Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe as a unit. Many historians have written about the eras from 1801 to 1815 era or from 1815 to 1825, he said, but few have look at the three two-term presidencies together.
“My understanding is, they’re really one big project,” he said. “It’s not surprising because any two of them would be the closest two political allies ever to be president. And the three of them were joined at the hip.”
Gutzman will hold a reading and signing of the Jefferson book at Barnes and Noble at 6 p.m. Feb. 23.