This is an unusual and challenging study of the 'inner world' of the Virginia gentry during Jefferson's lifetime. It argues that, in the years after the Revolution, the gentry turned away from public life into the privacy of their homes and families. A new, sentimental religion agreed that the world was filled with woe and advised detachment from it in preparation for a better one to come. Notions of success, likewise, offered little cheer, as men and women reluctantly accepted the individualistic proposition that their destinies were in their own hands. Neither religion nor success assured earthly happiness; instead, Virginians sought their salvation in love. There, in the family and in feeling, men and women broke through the eighteenth-century's emotional restraint to pursue, but not always to find, the happiness they believed awaited them.
What did the pursuit of happiness mean to the Jeffersons and other pre- and postRevolutionary Virginia gentry? On that original note, Prof. Lewis (History, Rutgers) subtly traces the transformation of such concepts as religion, death, love, and success - weaving material from various diaries and letters into the story of Thomas Jefferson's family line. The pre-Revolutionary generation of Jefferson's grandfather created the family fortunes, she writes, and enjoyed the relative independence their large estates afforded. A "peaceable scheme" was their goal: "Life and relationships were made. . . contractual, explicit, and external. . . . Having wrested a society out of the wilderness, Virginians had no desire to explore the recesses of the human heart." That, they left to their descendants - the generation of Jefferson's grandsons. For them, religion no longer provided a social web; instead, it became an individual matter - "more," says Lewis, "as it embraced less." Death similarly became sentimentalized; heaven was pictured as a family reunion. Success came hard: the ancestors had bequeathed their settlements, but they could not pass on their values - post-Revolution, commerce was degrading; worse, it was Northern. "If Virginians, in eschewing business and gain, sought to avoid the Scylla of luxury. . . they foundered upon the Charybdis of indolence." Their ineffectual safety not was love. While 18th-century parents and spouses hoped for relationships that were "affectionate yet formal," their 19th-century counterparts lived in a maelstrom of feelings. "The home was an emotional orchestra where feeling cued feeling until the whole house reverberated, sometimes with clashing sounds." Instead of a balance of public and private lives, happiness was to be found in the private realm alone. So Thomas Jefferson Randolph wrote his wife, while trying to save Monticello from creditors: "For godsake keep up your spirits. . . without you all events will be like a blank to me." Concludes Lewis wistfully: "There is more than a little irony in the fact that the first generation of Americans to commit themselves to the pursuit of happiness would find so much sadness instead." Yes indeed. Elegant historiography, affecting generational portraits. (Kirkus Reviews)