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American Virtues

Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People

Jean M. Yarbrough

New in Paperback: September 2009
xxiv, 256 pages
American Political Thought
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1678-7, $19.95

Book Cover ImageSince the early days of the republic, Americans have recognized Thomas Jefferson's distinctive role in helping to shape the American national character. As Founder and statesman, Jefferson thought broadly about the virtues Americans would need to cultivate in order to preserve and perfect their experiment in republican self-government. Now in an age preoccupied with rights and divided over questons of character in public and private life, Jefferson can help us to think more clearly about our most urgent concerns.

American Virtues is the first comprehensive analysis of Jefferson's moral and political philosophy in over twenty years and the first ever to focus exclusively on the full range of moral, civic, and intellectual virtues that together form the American character. It asks what kind of character Americans as a people must cultivate to ensure their freedom and happiness and how we as a free society can nurture moral and intellectual excellence in our citizens and statesmen.

Beginning with the Declaration of Independence, Jean Yarbrough explores how Jefferson's conception of rights helps to form the American character. In subsequent chapters, she examines the moral sense virtues of justice and benevolence; the "agrarian" virtues of industry, moderation, patience, self-reliance, and independence; patriotism and modern republicanism; slavery and agrarian vice; the effect of commerce on character; the virtues connected with private property; the civic virtues of vigilance and spirited participation; the meaning of virtue and happiness for women; the virtues of republican statesmen; the place of the Epicurean virtues of wisdom and friendship in liberal republicanism; and piety and the secularized virtues of charity, toleration, and hope.

In broadening the examination of virtue to include not only civic or republican virtue but the whole range of moral and intellectual excellences that perfect the individual character, American Virtues moves beyond the liberal-republican debates and makes a fresh contribution to the Jeffersonian literature.

“An elegantly written, cogently argued interpretation that should generate many valuable discussions not only about Jefferson’s thought but, more important, about the kinds of virtues and values required of a people who mean to govern themselves.”—Journal of American History

“The best exposition we have of Jefferson’s thought.”—American Political Science Review

"At a time when all of us have opinions about Thomas Jefferson's character, Jean Yarbrough is the first to understand that his ideas about our character are far more interesting. Yarbrough deftly probes the interweaving of concern with both private and public virtue that marked Jefferson's thinking, giving praise where it is due and criticism where it is deserved. The result is a morally engaged and thoughtful inquiry into the fundamental character of democratic citizenship from a leading student of early American political theory."--Jack Rakove, author of Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution

"Jean Yarbrough has produced a searching revaluation of America's philosopher-statesman, Jefferson-a man too philosophic to be a statesman, too political to excel as philosopher. Yarbrough shows him absorbed in the work of uniting rights and virtue, enabling a free people to govern itself and to live together competently in self-reliance. True to the man and his time, yet profoundly useful today, her distinguished book presents this American hero as he was so that we can learn from him."--Harvey Mansfield, author of Machiavelli's Virtue and Taming the Prince

JEAN M. YARBROUGH is professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College and has published numerous articles on American political thought.

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